Last time I was in Sydney I took a walk along the harbourside, through Barangaroo and up into Millers Point. Thereby hangs a tale.
Over the last couple of years I've been intermittently researching the redevelopment of public housing estates in NSW, looking at the strategies adopted by the state government and the evidence which supports or contradicts these strategies. Millers Point is one of the less glorious tales I've been following.
The area was one of the first in Australia to be occupied by the British, with the First Fleet setting up a flag there in 1788. It was named for the windmills that stood on its exposed clifftops in the early to mid 1800s, grinding flour for the residents of Sydney Town. Throughout the 1800s it was one of the more down-at-heel locations in Sydney, with the shabby docks backed by a complex of modest homes, boarding houses, doss houses and pubs inhabited by sailors, wharfies and various other workers - although there were also some palatial homes up on the hilltops where the smell wasn't so bad.
The 1890s depression and an outbreak of bubonic plague at the turn of the century gave the NSW government the impetus to clean out the area and engage in a wholesale redevelopment. Initially the Sydney Harbour Trust focused on rebuilding the docks themselves, but in the years before and after the first world war it also rebuilt the housing, developing hundreds of modest terrace houses which it rented to dock workers and their families in what was, effectively, some of Australia's earliest public housing.
Until well into the second half of the twentieth century the wealthier residents of Sydney saw Millers Point and the other parts of the inner city as undesirable, even dangerous locations inhabited by poor people. Then the growth of the city, the departure of most of the polluting industries and the increasing popularity of inner city living started to draw greedy eyes to these working class areas. An attempt to turn the whole of Millers Point and The Rocks over to apartment towers in the 1970s was thwarted by the activism of highly unionised working class residents and the Builders Labourers Federation's green bans.
The result was that Millers Point remained in the hands of what had by then become the Maritime Services Authority, and the area was eventually heritage listed. Instead of high rise towers the NSW Housing Commission built the controversial Sirius Building, a brutalist set of small cube-like apartments to be used as public housing. However, by the late 1980s the wharves around Millers Point and Darling Harbour had fallen into disuse. The Maritime Services Authority, having no further use for its housing, turned it and its tenants over to the Department of Housing.
This transfer was not a bad outcome for the residents at the time. Certainly, management by the public housing authority was more restrictive and at times even punitive than the rather lax rules sketchily enforced by the MSA. On the other hand, their tenancies were preserved and the affordability of their rents guaranteed in a way that would never have happened if the housing had simply been sold to the highest bidder. The essential outline of the suburb as an affordable, livable community for people on low incomes was preserved. Its long-time residents still had a home.
However, the transfer was followed by a long period of underfunding of public housing which began in the mid 1990s and continues to this day. One result of this was that the NSW Housing Department and its various successor bodies (housing is currently owned by the Land and Housing Corporation) struggled to keep up with maintenance. This was particularly bad news for Millers Point residents in their century-old houses, more so as the heritage listing requires special (read expensive) materials in styles no longer readily attainable.
As the years passed the issue became increasingly critical as the housing fell further into disrepair and some of it was sold. The issue came to a head in 2013 when the government proposed selling all the housing, citing the high value of the land on which it stood, the huge cost of heritage-compliant repairs, the size of the public housing waiting list and the substantially greater amounts of replacement housing that the sale would finance in the outer suburbs.
The residents fought fiercely, staging a "Save Millers Point" campaign, festooning the community with banners and posters and launching petitions to save various long term residents from eviction. A friendly economist helped them develop an alternative proposal which would see some of the houses sold to fund renovations on others, resulting in the kind of mixed income community the NSW Government is set on creating in other former public housing estates like Minto, Bonnyrigg and Airds-Bradbury.
It was all to no avail. In March 2014 the then NSW Minister for Family and Community Services, Pru Goward, announced that all the public housing in Millers Point would be sold. Even the Heritage Council couldn't save it - just this month the NSW Environment Minister has rejected its unanimous recommendation in favour of heritage listing on the Sirius Apartments and their residents are in the process of being evicted in preparation for sale and redevelopment. The remaining residents are still fighting, but the battle is lost and their numbers are dwindling as residents are progressively relocated to other areas.
What can we learn from this story? Sadly, the lesson is a depressingly familiar one. Don't trust the government. If the housing had been turned over directly to its residents in the 1980s, they and their heirs would now be benefiting from the hugely increased land values. If it had been turned over to a tenant managed cooperative the tenants would be able to implement their preferred plan and leverage the value of the land to fund maintenance. Instead, they are now being forced from their homes and given nothing in return but a tenuous foothold in a new community.
Of course the financial dilemmas the government faces in places like Millers Point are real, although somewhat exaggerated, but they are not the full story. The huge cost of upgrading the properties now is the result of decades of neglect. The expense of heritage repairs is dictated by government legislation which, as we see in the decision on Sirius, can be changed or overridden. Indeed, the NSW government could be seen as engaging in one of the most widely used methods of circumventing heritage rules - allowing properties to deteriorate to the point where renovation is no longer feasible, at which point disposal or demolition becomes the only option.
Governments are not neutral players in the world of property development. Their decisions about appropriate land use and the scale of development are hugely influential in deciding land values and bestowing or withholding riches. The low income residents of Millers Point and other housing commission suburbs may be politically aware and well organised, but they are no match for the property development industry. Developers have far easier access to ministers than poor people. They make handsome donations to political parties and this means their calls get returned. Nor do they have to rely on friendly economists doing pro bono work in their spare time to make their financial case - they hire the best and brightest and pay them handsomely.
The heritage listing of Millers Point was intended to recognise not only the age of the houses but the status of the suburb as an enduring working class community. The transfer of the housing to the State housing department in the 1980s should have preserved this heritage and the homes of hundreds of low income households and ensured they, and others like them in years to come, had secure homes in the inner city.
Yet in 2014 the heritage listing was used as justification to move them out, and the ownership of the housing by the state government ensured that they had no avenue for appeal. They were there at the pleasure of the government and could be moved on at will. They left with nothing. The buyers of the property may possibly keep the suburb looking the same but it will not be the same.
You may argue that they will be as well housed, and perhaps better, in their new homes and that in addition the funds will provide similar homes for others. Yet the residents have made it quite clear that while they will still be housed, they will not be at home. In any case, what is being offered these new and continuing tenants? In the parlance of 21st century Australian housing bureaucrats and ministers, social housing is "a pathway, not a destination". In other words, they are not to think of this housing (which they have somehow won in the lottery that is the hugely oversubscribed public housing waiting list) as their home but as temporary shelter, somewhere they are passing through on their way to their true home which perhaps they will not see this side of heaven.
Meanwhile, right across the road from Millers Point is Sydney's newest rich persons' enclave, Barangaroo. Thanks to this decision its relentlessly upmarket housing, opulent casino, pretty harbourside walkways and sanitised, carefully policed public spaces will be kept largely free of unsightly poor people. Unlike the nearby Ultimo Pyrmont redevelopment of the 1990s, the Barangaroo developers are not required to make any contribution to the development of affordable housing. The government has made it clear that the proceeds of the Millers Point sales will be spent in less prestigious locations.
There is, indeed, one law for the rich and another for the poor. "Social mix" is now established policy for public housing redevelopments. Public housing tenants are to make up no more than 30% of the communities which were once exclusively developed for them. They will thereby get the benefit of mixing with home owners and private tenants and learning their more productive and responsible ways.
Such mixing, however, is deemed unnecessary for the super-rich, who are to be permitted to keep their ghettos. It's a shame, because they will miss out on the opportunities for social modelling that would be presented by living alongside poorer neighbours. They will be deprived of the chance to learn thrift, frugality, mutual aid and community spirit from low income social housing tenants. Instead we will simply perpetuate their culture of entitlement. Their horizons will be limited and this will reinforce their social irresponsibility in living off tax breaks and government handouts instead of placing them on a pathway to responsible independence.
Talk about creating dysfunctional communities!