Margaret Kelly: Homes Victoria had other options than to evict people from their ‘lifetime home’

August 18, 2023
The alternative: Barak Beacon refurbished as recommended. Inset: Margaret Kelly. Photo: Jordan AK

Margaret Kelly has been resisting the demolition of her home in the Barak Beacon housing estate in Port Melbourne, but she has now been evicted. She told a Green Left and Socialist Alliance-sponsored forum on July 27 that Homes Victoria did have other options, including refurbishing the estate and leaving public housing tenants to live in their “lifetime home”. Below is an abridged version of her presentation.

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A group of Homes Victoria employees with security guards arrived at the Barak Beacon estate on December 13, 2021 and said: “You will be relocated because we’re redeveloping.”

We had never had word of this before: I was in what I believed was my lifetime home. There was not the slightest reason to believe that this would happen, apart from the fact that the area we live in has, over the last 20 years, become fashionable.

I thought that because the estate was the first public housing in Victoria and it was so peaceful and safe compared with many, that demolition would not happen. We were the 11th estate this has happened to.

I had never had anything to do with housing activism: it’s lucky other people were keeping their eye on the situation.

The media tends to focus on individual tenants, not the overall picture.

It is not clear to most that they are pulling down public housing, most of it in good condition and some being heritage-protected, and replacing it with high-density private housing. There is an inclusion of social housing, which is run by private housing associations, but that is not public housing.

Community housing started as a fill-in for the lack of public housing. Community housing people raised funds, built or bought houses, put people in them and managed them. It was a terrific thing.

But many community housing organisations have jumped the fence. In our area, the St Kilda housing activists who build housing became the Port Phillip Housing Association and now they are Housing First, which sounds exactly like the real estate agents they are. They manage properties all over Melbourne.

'Community' housing

The fact is that the benefits of community housing do not upscale: it is no longer community housing when you have become housing managers outside your community.

The worst stories come from tenants in community housing who have bucked the system in some way and the community housing organisations then set out to destroy them.

Community housing is not regulated the way public housing is: it depends on which association you are with and you don’t get a choice because it’s managed by Homes Victoria. The benefit of competition between the different associations has gone.

At first a lot of Barak Beacon tenants said, “No, I’m not going to move, this is my home”. But the relocation team are the only people you can talk to, even if you write to the Minister of Housing, your local MP and Homes Victoria.

This is their strategy to make people feel that the only way you can be helped is by the relocation team.

Early on they bribed some people with some remarkably good housing offers. Within a few months, they had broken down any organised resistance.

At that point I thought what can I do? I could just stay where I am.

Fortunately, I started meeting housing activists who lived locally and had lots of experience. They connected us with all sorts of people, including various members of the Greens.

It’s been a shocking journey because I really thought I was safe. I really thought Australia would not let public housing go: most people want to know that the safety net is there.

It didn’t occur to me that they would find this really sneaky way of talking up “social” and “affordable” housing, and then go into estates, remove all the tenants and demolish the estate.

One concerning issue is that despite approaches to the unions over years, we have been solidly ignored. Then we got a rather aggressive letter [from a union] warning us not to talk down community housing as being corporatised. But, it is!

Half the letter appeared to be direct quotes from the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. We really thought the unions would be against the demolition of public housing. I talked to the workers demolishing the other end of the estate; they believe they are making room for more public housing.

The Barak Beacon Estate was built after the local council was lobbied for more housing for workers in the area.

Eviction impacts

The impact [of the eviction notices] on people on the estate was extraordinary. Within a few weeks just around the 14 units where I live, one woman in her 50s had a stroke, my next-door neighbour’s kidneys failed. a youngster that had just got a job somehow managed to lose it and a couple of people who had been very withdrawn, then become more outgoing, retreated into their houses again.

People in public housing do tend to carry a lot of risks, but these things don’t usually all happen within three or four weeks of each other.

Libby Porter [who leads research on the politics of urban land, property rights and dispossession] put me on to lots of research, which should be known to Homes Victoria.

Older people, who seem to be fit and coping, have suddenly become confused and uncertain; some have wound up in nursing homes.

My next-door neighbour of 25 years passed away several weeks ago after a year of learning to live with dialysis. She just ran out of fight. More than one person has died: more than one person is in a nursing home for life now.

A lot of people have had their lives disrupted. People who thought it would all be fine to move out, have now told me they really hate where they are and miss the estate

It did not need to happen. We were lucky enough to involve the not-for-profit Retain Repair Reinvest: Barak Beacon Estate architects: they did the feasibility study the government didn’t do and drew up plans to renovate the estate, while keeping everyone in place.

It could have been done: we could have kept the community together.

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