Residents protest Millers Point public housing sell-off

The Tenants' Union of New South Wales, the state's peak organisation for tenants, has condemned the proposed sell-off of 293 public housing properties at Millers Point and The Rocks, announced by the Barry O'Farrell government on March 19.

The area is the historic heartland of the city of Sydney, and was previously saved from the developers' bulldozers by residents' action and Green Bans imposed by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s.

Dr Chris Martin, senior policy officer for the Tenants Union said: "This sell-off amounts to the destruction of a community. It will cause hardship and grief to the people of Millers Point, and make all of us poorer.

"We are concerned for the wellbeing of Millers Point tenants, especially those who are elderly and those who have lived all their lives at Millers Point," he said.

"Millers Point is irreplaceable, both as inner-city social housing and as part of our state heritage," Martin said. "The heritage value of Millers Point is not just in its buildings, but in its historic use as public housing, and in the long family and community ties of many of the people living there.

Public housing residents in Millers Point have launched a campaign against the NSW government's sell-off plans, the March 20 Guardian reported. Three separate community organisations have combined to form the Millers Point Community Defence Group, which is holding its first public meeting on March 22.

An organiser of the campaign, John McInerney, said the sell-off would result in "the destruction of an existing community."

"The government says their core business is not housing. But surely their core business must be communities. If they're not about building and sustaining communities, then what are they about?"

Writing in the Guardian, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore described the decision to move out residents, some of whom have lived in the area for decades, as "tantamount to social cleansing."

"The Millers Point community survived the plague, the Depression and war. It is shameful that it is government that will destroy this proud and strong neighbourhood," she wrote.

Moore also slammed the sale as "Barangaroo-driven," — referring to the massive Barangaroo housing and casino development under way nearby. "All public housing tenants in inner-city properties are now put on notice that if the value of your home goes up, the government is going to put you out of your home," she said.

Angry residents are refusing to leave their homes after the announcement of the sell-off. They gathered in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge on March 19 to protest the threatened evictions.

"We are not moving one iota," said Colin Tooher, whose family have lived at the same Millers Point address for six generations. "Think about it, [NSW Premier] Barry [O'Farrell], and think about it bloody hard."

Patricia Haub, 77, insisted she isn't moving either. "They can take me out in a box," she said. "Why should I move?"

Barney Gardner, who was born and raised in the area, told the March 20 Sydney Morning Herald: "It's the only place I've ever known; this is where I grew up, this is my life."

He said he and his neighbours would fight to stay, locking arms and legs if necessary to defy whoever is sent to evict them. "It will be a fight because we will have many, many supporters; we don't want violence, but we are prepared to go to jail."

Community Services Minister Pru Goward on March 19 tried to justify the sell-off because of the cost of maintenance of the Millers Point homes, and the "high potential sales values." Some public housing in the area was sold off under the previous Labor government five years ago at an average price of $1.3 million each.

The O'Farrell government expects to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, which the government says it will re-invest into the "social-housing system."

There are significant problems with social housing, compared with public housing. Social housing is operated by NGOs, but at higher rents and lower security of tenure to public housing -- which is owned and operated outright by the Housing Department.

In any case, the sale of Millers Point public housing is completely unjustified. The state's 57,000-long waiting list for public housing cannot be used as an excuse to sell off existing, historic public housing assets.

It is all a question of social priorities. The government should re-direct massive, wasteful funding for environmentally unsustainable road infrastructure like WestConnex, and invest the money into positive, socially progressive projects like more public housing and expansion of public transport.