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Black heart, still beating: Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy claims important housing victory

Tom Joyner and Justin Pen report.

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UPDATE, in principle agreement signed:

The Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) has this morning agreed “in principle” to a deal brokered with the federal government guaranteeing $5 million funding for the construction of 62 rent-controlled lodgings at The Block in Redfern.

In a letter obtained by Honi sent to the deputy secretary of Indigenous Affairs, Richard Eccles, AHC chairwoman Alisi Tutuila said the company was hoping to “enable productive contractual discussions”, though no formal contract has yet been signed.

“We are interested in the underpinning financial modelling which shows that a grant of $5 million would be enough to ensure that the affordable housing component of the Pemulwuy Project is viable and attractive to lenders,” the letter reads.

The AHC now has until early 2016 to raise the remaining funds from commercial lenders to build the 62 lodgings of dedicated Aboriginal housing before or simultaneous to any commercial development, as negotiated under the deal.

Undertaking by Aboriginal Housing Company
The letter.

The Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy has claimed a pivotal, eleventh-hour victory in its lengthy battle against the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC), announcing late last night it had brokered a deal that will see $5 million in federal funds flow to the development of affordable Aboriginal housing at The Block.

“We’ve had some serious open-heart surgery there at The Block, but I think we can say after this that the black heart of the city is still beating”, Wiradjuri elder and Embassy founder Jenny Munro told Honi.

The agreement, reached amid a heated court battle, would require the AHC to build 62 rent-controlled dwellings for Aboriginal families.

“It was always our battle from day one that affordable housing be built first for our people,” she said.

“It is a breakthrough, it is a benefit that our people will actually live to see.”

The federal government has said its $5 million grant is contingent on the AHC’s commitment to build social housing for Aboriginal residents prior to, or concurrent with, its planned commercial redevelopment of The Block.

However the AHC has yet to agree to these conditions and so far refused to allow an Embassy-elected representative to join the Board to provide community oversight and accountability.

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Photo Credit: Tom Joyner.

The news comes on the same day the Supreme Court of NSW handed down an eviction order against the Embassy, forcing the group to clear The Block within seven days, following fifteen months of ongoing occupation.

Munro said on Monday, moments after the court had initially decided against the Embassy’s land possession claim, “[This case is] another one of the fronts of the many battles we’ve had to front for over 227 years.”

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion helped broker the $10 million deal, organising a $5 million bank loan for the AHC on top of the federal grant.

Scullion said that a forcible eviction of Embassy protestors would be “unconscionable”, in an interview with Buzzfeed News.

“My funds are only the table if they (housing and private business] are to be built simultaneously,” he said.

Scullion’s position is at odds with his comments last year that federal funding would only be available for operational costs, but not construction.

Munro’s solicitors welcomed the government’s intervention, but remarked that assistance could have come much earlier.

“I think it’s a great tragedy that it’s come to this crisis, that we’re getting this money, the community is getting this money only on the steps of the court,” they said.

“And if it hadn’t been a crisis with potential eviction orders, I don’t think we would have seen the political commitment to get the $5 million on the table.”

Until last night the AHC’s redevelopment plan for The Block, dubbed the ‘Pemulwuy Project’, had raised $70 million to fund an array of commercial projects, including student housing, a childcare facility, gymnasium, and community gallery – but failed to raise a dollar for affordable Aboriginal housing.

The uncertainty over when and if such housing would ever be built inspired the Embassy’s establishment in May last year.

Protests against the closure of remote communities in Western Australia, throughout the year, helped draw significant local attention and community support to the plight of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

In June Aboriginal activists, Embassy supporters and a coalition of students from USyd, UTS and UNSW occupied the offices of Deicorp, AHC’s corporate partner responsible for the development of commercial projects.

Munro attributed the Embassy’s success to the broad community support it had gathered over the last fifteen months.

“We wouldn’t have maintained our standard at the embassy for as long as we have without support from the wider community,” she said.

“They’re the ones that really give me hope for the future. I don’t look for hope in parliament houses or the courts. But the people on the ground who have delivered this and find out the truth are the ones who do give me hope for the future of this country.”

Sydney University SRC President Kyol Blakeney, the first Aboriginal president of the organisation in twenty years, echoed Munro’s sentiments.

“The fact that the AHC has an obligation to build [affordable housing] before any commercial development, I think, is testament to the what work at a grassroots level can do in terms of negotiations, talking to governments, to political representatives,” he said.

“It definitely shows that true power lies in the people at the local level to achieve what they want.”

Jenny Leong, Local Member for Newtown, linked the victory to a broader political battles in the Sydney area.

“The strength that has been shown in the struggle will provide strength and solidarity for struggles that will continue for public housing, for affordable housing, and for maintaining our community within the inner city of Sydney,” she said.

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