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A Fight to Preserve Sydney's Public Housing

Nearly 300 government-owned residences have been slated for sale as part of a wider dismantlement of the city’s public housing network.

Efforts to save the Sirius building, a Brutalist public housing tower, has become the center of a much larger fight over the future of the city. (Hpeterswald/Wikimedia Commons)

Overlooking the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, there’s a lesser-known Sydney icon facing extinction. The lights are slowly being turned out in Sirius, a Brutalist building that has provided 79 public housing units since it was completed in 1980.  

Refused heritage status by the state government, despite unanimous Heritage Council recommendation, the building has become the center of a much larger fight over the future of the city. Sirius, and 293 other government owned residences, have been slated for sale as part of the wider dismantlement of the bulk of the city’s public housing network.

Economic arguments are at the heart of these sales. The Minister for Social Housing, Brad Hazzard argued in August that “The $2 million [AUS] sale of one very old property, usually more than 100 years old… could lead to the rehousing of six families or individuals.” In Sirius’ case the potential windfall has been estimated at 100 million dollars.

The math makes it obvious, proponents of the scheme contend. After all, 1,500 new social housing dwellings can be built with the injection of money from the sale of Millers Point residences. The dwellings are sorely needed with the current wait list standing at 60,000. Wendy Hayhurst, the CEO of the NSW Federation of Housing says, “there is no issue at all in saying it’s more cost effective to sell these properties and build others.”

However not all would agree with Hayhurst, nor the binary set up by Hazzard. Professor Alan Morris has raised the question of whether or not the money needed for new properties should have to come from the sale of existing social housing. The growing expense of Sydney property may have come at a cost to most residents, but it’s a financial windfall for the government. In 2015-2016, the New South Wales government reported a budget surplus of $3.4 billion, a number expected to grow in the coming year. This surplus is largely due to revenue raised from stamp duty, revenue that is also expected to continue to rise.

Barney Geldman, a Millers Point resident of 67 years, tells me the decision cannot only be decided on economic arguments. “They’re talking about money, I’m talking about people,” he says. In particular Geldman, who also works as an organizer for ‘Save our Homes’, is worried about the health of many elderly residents in his area who are being displaced.

Professor Bill Randolph, the director of the City Futures Research Centre also thinks the decision should not just be considered through an economic prism. “There is always the problem that the selling off of public housing is effectively a social cleansing, if it’s not replaced,” he argues.

Comments of various ministers suggest that social cleansing might not be far off the mark. In 2012 the Finance Minister Greg Pearce described the Millers Point portfolio as incompatible with the luxe Barangaroo development, where 'Sydney's most exclusive residences' are currently being built. Pearce argued that “Inevitably, when considering the future of Millers Point, the government needs to consider it in the context of all of the surrounding areas.” The perceived value of the area was again raised by NSW Minister for Community Services, Pru Goward, in 2014, whom referred to the area as “magnificent.”

The area may well be magnificent, but it’s also historically working class. “People say ‘what a great view!’ but for 50 years all I could see was wharves and factories,” laughs Geldman. The residences were initially built so wharf workers could be near their places of employment, with all the properties managed by Maritime Services Trust. “This is the only living heritage [neighborhood] in Sydney,” adds Geldman, reflecting on the many residents who are multi-generational locals.

The historical and cultural value of the Rocks area has been recognized by The Office of Environment and Heritage, among others, who wrote in 1999 that “Its unity, authenticity of fabric and community, and complexity of significant activities and events make it probably the rarest and most significant historic urban place in Australia.”  

Attempts to push working class people out of these areas are almost as historic. The Sirius building stands as a monument to community power, a result of strikes by unionized workforces that attempted to stop ‘The Rocks’ from being overdeveloped. Known as green bans, these strikes were a form of environmental activism that saw workers rally together to thwart projects deemed environmentally or socially destructive. It is this heritage that has seen the state construction union (CFEU) rally around the building once again, imposing a green ban that disallows union workers from being involved in its demolition. The ban is only temporary however, intended to give supporters of the building breathing space to mount a defense. “There have been other battles and struggles,” says Geldman, “but this one is the worst.”

Geldman has been served with a relocation notice but refuses to move, saying the government will have to forcibly evict him. He has also refused relocation offers within Millers Point, saying he won’t take a new home until all remaining residents have been found suitable, local accommodations. Though the residents’ petitioning has won them 28 new Millers Point residences, only 13 of these homes are now actually occupied. Many are unsuitable for the needs of the mostly elderly residents.

The vast majority of residents have already been moved however, some under what Geldman describes as ‘intense pressure,’ ‘harassment,’ and ‘inducement’ to other districts. The dereliction of many of their existing residences has also been used to leverage people from their homes, thanks to a lack of maintenance by the government, Geldman contends.

Twenty-eight residences is also a paltry total compared to the original 293, not including those moved from Sirius. Fears remain strong that very few who are moved from inner-city housing will be rehoused in the same areas. After all, as Professor Randolph notes, “if we don’t hold onto affordable housing… there won’t be much left.”

“People are being forced further out of Sydney,” adds Geldman.

Sirius was refused heritage status by the state government, despite unanimous Heritage Council recommendation. (Hpeterswald/Wikimedia Commons)

He’s not only referring to his neighborhood’s experience. Geldman has also recently visited the Waterloo neighborhood to help residents forming a committee to fight their displacement. Waterloo and Redfern are currently home to 4,300 social housing dwellings, which new plans aim to reduce to 2,800. Those new homes will also only be available after what may well be a decade or more of development. In the meantime, residents will be moved to temporary new homes.

Aside from the financial windfall, the government argues that these communities are dysfunctional and need change. It’s a point many residents agree on, but there’s concern that their new communities will be no different. A press release from the Housing Minister listing districts for new public housing developments mentions almost exclusively ones in the inner and outer southwest, areas known for their high youth unemployment.

The fight in Millers Point may be over in a few months, with both sides showing a willingness to compromise. But the fight continues across the city: “I’ll be keeping my eye on Waterloo,” says Geldman. “If they stuffed us up, what’ll they do with ten times the people?”

About the Author

  • Naomi Russo is a writer based in Sydney. She covers people and places for various Australian and International publications.