Locked out of Sydney

Sydney's Lack of Public Housing Will Make the City Dull and Mean

Sydney's culture of equal opportunity is being destroyed by one of the world's most aggressive gentrification programs.

by Jed Smith
20 December 2016, 1:15pm

Sydney's historic Sirius Building, a public housing block that's set to be demolished by the state government next year. Image via Flickr user coffee shop soulja

Last winter, a middle aged woman fell on the pavement in front of me, her skull making a sickening clop as it struck concrete. She had been making her way up the street from the Waterloo public housing towers when it happened, and we sat together against a tree as she told me her story.

This woman, it turned out, had survived two strokes. She was alone and sick and clinging to life. She was a battler and I felt an admiration for her. Yet to meet someone like her in inner-city Sydney will soon be a thing of the past.

Quite simply, the state government wants the battlers gone. Its multi-billion-dollar Central To Eveleigh project is one of the world's most aggressive gentrification programs, planning to eliminate the vast inner-city public housing projects of Waterloo, and evict some 4000 public housing tenants—many of whom are Indigenous. They'll be replaced by a glut of high-rise apartments that will give inner-city Sydney a housing density equivalent to the busiest suburbs of Hong Kong and New York.

Those turfed out from the public housing towers will join the already evicted residents of the Glebe and Miller's Point public housing projects, along with 206,000 more Australians awaiting public housing—a number that has grown steadily for decades.

No one really knows where these residents will end up. A press release from the Housing Minister last year loosely listed several suburbs where replacement public housing might be built. Most of them—Condell Park, Padstow, Chester Hill, Yagoona, Kingswood, Beverly Hills, Casula, Gymea, and Miranda—all are in the outer rings of sprawling Sydney, and already subject to some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the state.

There's supposedly method to the madness. The official line from the state government is that the money made from the selling off of public housing on the private market to property developers—housing that sits in the heart of the city on what is now prime, gentrified land—will generate the millions of dollars needed to build cheaper public housing elsewhere. But Hal Pawson, a professor of Urban Policy and Strategy, at the University Of New South Wales, tells VICE that there is an obvious catch.

"If this produces a significant net increase in public housing, then three cheers for that. But if these new homes are mainly being built in remote suburbs, that's far from ideal for people who especially need to be close to jobs and services to get their lives back on track," Pawson explains.

Pawson, along with a number of other leading University Professors in the field, have been left extremely skeptical of the government's plans. Especially considering they are being denied the right to know exactly what they actually are.

"It would be very, very interesting to be able to analyse the quite significant building program the state government says it is undertaking on the back of the Miller's Point capital receipts," says Pawson, referring to the ongoing sell-off of the Sydney harbourside public housing community at Miller's Point. "But we actually don't know enough about what is being built and where," he says.

It's worth noting, too, the cosy and highly illegal relationship that both sides of NSW politics have had with the property development sector. A recent enquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found nine current and former members of the Liberal Party had accepted unlawful donations from the property development sector, as well as former Labor minister Joe Tripodi.

It's all pretty sad, to say the least. Growing up in inner-city Sydney, as I did, you came to know public housing as an important part of our social and cultural fabric. A block of units here, a street there, a house or two here, an entire housing estate there—that was Sydney, and it worked. We were a diverse and functioning community. Every group of friends had rich kids alongside kids from less advantaged backgrounds. For the rich, the guilt and gratitude of their privilege was rammed down their throats. For the poor, the well-connected friends were a lifeline into the workforce and a more comfortable place in society.

It was a system adopted from the UK, where many of the most affluent suburbs in the biggest cities are still home to public housing. It's a system we're now rejecting.

"Low income folks have been pushed out. They don't move, they get pushed or they get replaced. The inner-city has become gentrified and that is a big issue for Sydney and Melbourne," Professor Bill Randolph, director of City Futures at UNSW, tells VICE.

Under the current scheme, Randolph says the government is dividing the cities into "ghettos" of rich and poor, which history has shown is bound to have disastrous consequences.

"When you start putting yourself into ghettos, either rich, poor or middle class, you start to lose touch with each other... I think that's where we're going; a much more compartmentalised city which will have negative outcomes," he says.

Miller's Point. Image via Flickr

Unfortunately, for many people, it's public housing or nothing—especially with the rental market now having been pushed out of reach by an investor elite from both here and abroad. Meanwhile, buying a house has become increasingly impossible for many in the lower and middle rungs of Australia.

"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," explains Peter Phibbs, the Chair of Urban and Regional Planning and policy at Sydney University.

"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. Do we want a fair city, do we want an equal city, or do we just want a city where people talk about how much money they made off their million dollar apartment?" he says.

For those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, the physical and mental toll is immense. Ron Jennings is an 85-year-old asthmatic and, prior to being evicted, was a 47-year veteran of the harbourside Miller's Point public housing community. I spoke to him shortly after he and many more were relocated from their homes so they could be sold on the open market by the Liberal Baird State government.

Ron took the eviction hard. "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'd told me. His new housing was only a few suburbs away, but that's an age for an 85 year old with bad lungs.

"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?"

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Mike Baird
public housing
Miller's Point