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How the Poor Are Paying For Sydney’s Property Boom

"Do we want a fair city, do we want an equal city, or do we just want a city where people hang around talking about their million dollar apartments?"

Reg Mombassa, of Mambo fame, pledges his support to Miller's Point residents with this mural. Photos by author.

It's easy to see why they got the boot. Wedged between the soon-to-be multi-billion dollar Macau-style Barrangaroo Casino and the Opera House, the Miller's Point public housing estate never stood a chance. Earlier this year its residents—young, old, sick and disabled—were evicted and dispersed around the city and state. Ron Jennings, an 85-year-old asthmatic and 47-year veteran of Miller's Point, was one of them.


"The saddest thing for me is there's been so many housing ministers through this who've promised this and that but when it all boils down to it everyone's gotta go and it's because of a sheer greed for money isn't it?" he told VICE.

Ron took his eviction hard. His health declined rapidly the day of his removal, leading to him being hospitalised the following day. "If you're relocated somewhere and you don't know anyone in that housing or that community, that's the hardest thing on you personally," he added.

Officially, the money made from selling off the iconic waterfront public housing estate will be used to build more, cheaper, public housing on the city's fringe. But critics claim the move is little more than an exercise in "social cleansing" and an attempt to remove the city's poor from a slice of premier real estate.

Sydney's public housing is being replaced by multi-billion dollar investments.

Speaking to VICE, Sydney University's Professor of Urban Planning Peter Phibbs commented, "Sydney-siders have always prided themselves on being reasonably egalitarian and sticking up for the battler, but I think essentially we've stabbed the battler right in the wallet over the last ten years."

"We've taken our eye off looking out for people on low to moderate incomes and we're basically just pandering to an elite, and I think that's a risk," he says.

With the mining boom fading, Australia's super-speed economy is now leaning on an exploding property market for support. As the Australian reported last week, a boom in apartment buildings around the nation has been responsible for a fifth of Australia's economic growth over the past two years. The number of new apartment projects being approved by local councils has almost doubled since 2012-13 to 105,000 thanks to a foreign investment-backed boom. The push has largely been fuelled by a six billion dollar contribution via China to the Australian property market. And nowhere has seen the impact of this more than Sydney, where house prices are now 13 times the average annual wage.


Meanwhile, around the country the economy shows signs of weakening, with unemployment continuing to rise, wage increases barely able to keep pace with inflation, and Australia's net disposable income per head—the best measure of living standards—dropping by 1.2 percent. The losers in this scenario are pretty much everyone, says Phibbs.

A list of the elderly residents that once occupied the waterfront properties.

"In lots of ways it is a much more unequal city than it used to be and we have to think about that," he says. "Do we want a fair city, do we want an equal city, or do we just want a city where people hang around talking about their million dollar apartments?"

Beyond Miller's Point, the city skyline fills with cranes. A total of 165 can be found within a kilometre of the CBD. Just up the road from the Sirius Building, home to the last handful of Miller's Point residents, a man in a suit stands outside a pub conducting a last minute deal on his hands-free mobile. It's Friday afternoon and he's telling his client to "sell for (a profit of) six million" on an investment of 40 million. From Bondi in the city's east, to Manly in the north, and Zetland, Waterloo, and Roseberry in the south, Sydney is literally on the up, with expensive high-density apartments replacing affordable housing. All of it driven by a sophisticated investment game that benefits the ultra-rich and few else.

"We've seen the complete pivot of housing from being a place where you live, as a form of shelter, to essentially housing as a wealth generator," says Professor Phibbs, "A lot of people are buying three or four houses, the price is going up, they think they're economic geniuses, but they're not. We've taken our eye off the ball with housing being such an important good for holding our society together," he says.


The city's poor have faired badly in this economic shift. Median rent in the inner city has more than doubled in the last ten years—from AUD$195 to AUD$560 a week.

Related: Regeneration Game

Meanwhile, a total of 9000 public houses have been sold off around NSW to fund replacements and maintenance, with still more on the chopping block. Communities have fractured, dispersing the fragile and underprivileged all over the city and state, and frayed the city's diverse social and economic fabric.

"People have got to look a bit beyond their own personal gain. Sure you've made $500,000 on your house but is that really a good thing?" asks Professor Phibbs. "If we've managed to make what was an affordable suburb to where houses are worth a million dollars, we're just headed in the wrong direction," he says, citing the unlikely explosion of real estate in places as far afield as Mt Druitt.

The latest inner-city housing project to come under threat is the The Block—a parcel of land in the heart of Redfern, purchased by Australia's indigenous population off the Whitlam government in 1972. It remains the last foothold for indigenous people in the city, and a hold out against the trend of pricing out longterm residents. Although controversial plans by the much-maligned Aboriginal Housing Company, in conjunction with controversial Sydney-based developer DeiCorp, recently sought to turn the space into a commercial precinct, complete with international student accommodation, ahead of building housing for the local indigenous population.

Their plans were met by fierce resistance from the local indigenous community and a handful of activists, who maintained a 15-month protest in the form of the Redfern Tent Embassy on the site—a makeshift camp that existed on the vacant lot until the Supreme Court ordered their eviction recently. The protestors' suspicions were raised after a PR company hired by developer, DeiCorp, was busted advertising apartments in the area to Chinese investors on the basis that, "The Aboriginals have already moved out, now Redfern is the last virgin suburb close to the city, it will have great potential for the capital growth in the near future."

Speaking to VICE last year, local indigenous elder Jenny Munro, a Redfern resident of 41 years and a University of NSW Arts and Law graduate reflected on the situation saying, "It's a sad situation when greed is higher priority than compassion". Continuing, "I think it's time for Sydney to take a stand against those values. I think it's a long time overdue. We've managed to live together for a very long time in this city. I don't think that should stop. I think it should be allowed to evolve at its own pace rather than being forced into corners or directions it doesn't want to go".

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