Sydneysiders rally against the erosion of public housing

February 18, 2023
A public housing tenant addresses the rally on February 11. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The decade-long crisis in housing and homelessness in New South Wales has spiked over the last 12 months to a point where, some say, it has not been this dire since the Great Depression.

Mainstream commentators blame it on the pandemic and the rising cost-of-living, spurred by the war in Ukraine. But, digging a little further makes it apparent the housing crisis is primarily driven by successive state governments’ neoliberalism.

This was the message being shared by housing activists gathered at the February 11 Housing Justice Now rally at Sydney Town Hall. While such protests are common in affected areas, it is rare for hundreds to march through the CBD for housing justice.

The Action for Public Housing protest focussed on eliminating homelessness, defending and extending public housing stock and a two-year rent freeze for all, in conjunction with the abolition of no-fault evictions.

Rally goers heard from those living on the frontline of the crisis: for seven years Waterloo public housing tenants have faced the threat of their homes being bulldozed; residents in Glebe are being threatened with eviction due to state-sponsored redevelopment and a woman of 70 is living in her car after a large rent rise.

Statistical nightmare

“Homelessness has risen by 10% in the last two years. Last year, 50,000 people applied to homelessness services for help and around half were turned away,” said Rachel Evans, who is contesting the seat of Heffron for Socialist Alliance in the March 25 election.

“Rents have gone up in Sydney by 23%,” Evans continued. “Renters are being slogged with three digit rent increases. We’ve heard of a $300 increase for a three-bedroom home in the inner west.”

According to Evans, it’s not just renters being slugged: there are around 300,000 mortgage holders at risk of defaulting, after nine recent interest rate rises. While thousands go homeless, around 1 million homes sit vacant every night across the country, often due to the impact of AirBnBs.

The national social housing waiting list is around 150,000 applications. But, as Evans added, if housing stress is accounted for, there is a need for around 600,000 new homes. Yet the federal Labor government has only committed to 20,000 new social housing units.

“Albanese may have grown up in public housing, but his loyalties have clearly shifted,” Evans said. “And the only solution from NSW Labor is to merge three existing government housing agencies and tinker with stamp duty. This isn’t going to cut it." 

Public housing privatised

NSW housing activists say a key reason for the lack of affordable housing is that the public housing model has slowly been privatised in favour of “social housing”.

As housing academic Alistair Sisson explained, social housing incorporates public housing, which is owned and managed by the government, as well as community housing, which is run by non-profit organisations, either owned by them or the government.

When government speaks of “social housing” it is really referring to community housing. For the last two decades, starting with Minto, governments have been handing over public housing sites to developers.

Sisson said this involves developers knocking down public housing and constructing new residential blocks, made up of 70% private apartments, with just 30% slated for community housing. Often the public land is gifted to developers.

Often the reason given for the destruction of public housing is its poor condition.

However, rather than maintaining existing stock and building more social housing, the “redevelopment” model simply maintains the same level of nonmarket housing, as old stock is destroyed and replaced.

Renationalise maintenance

“If I’m re-elected,” NSW Greens Newtown MP Jenny Leong told the housing rally, “and if we see more Greens in … we will be bringing legislation to NSW parliament to ensure that no major public housing, or public land site, can be sold off without the full approval of parliament”.

Further, Leong, the NSW Greens housing spokesperson, said there would be “no secret backdoor deals [and] no more negotiations where the public doesn’t see what’s going on”.

The NSW Coalition has plans to redevelop public housing estates in Waterloo, Glebe, South Eveleigh, Riverwood and Coffs Harbour. If this happens, 5000 tenants will be evicted, even if they are promised homes in the new apartment buildings years down the track.

Leong said the privatised maintenance sector which deals with public housing needs to be renationalised. Prioritising profit over care for these communities is what’s leading to poor public housing conditions which then becomes the excuse for demolition, she said.

“Abolish private maintenance and ensure there’s accountability, so no one lives without hot water, with rat infestations, with mould or with broken windows or doors,” Leong said.

No fixed address

Former Kurdish Iranian detainee and author Behrouz Boochani told Q&A on February 6 that he is shocked to see homeless people in Australia, while the Labor government signs a $420 million three-year contract with Management and Training Corporation to run the Nauru refugee prison.

Boochani’s point is that while homelessness and housing security has been exacerbated by global issues, governments can play a big role in ensuring that a rising number of people are not forced to sleep rough.

Evans said governments can provide many hundreds of thousands of good quality public housing homes, but they choose not to. She pointed to Vienna, where 60% of the Austrian capital’s population live in subsidised housing and nearly half of the housing market is made up of city-owned flats or cooperative apartments. 

“We know that the housing crisis is bigger than we have seen in a very long time,” Leong said. “We know that we are facing the power of corporations, of vested interests, that are actually on a mission to keep that going.”

“We change it by making sure we build progressive movements, with the unions and other allies, standing here today.”

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]

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