Social warfare over social welfare

Regrettably, Australia has forgotten how to reach back for the poor.

NSW Government's digital rendering of the housing and development proposal for 600-660 Elizabeth Street, Redfern.

In the summer of 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating addressed a murmuring crowd in Redfern Park. On a small stage, surrounded by the extensive public housing complexes of the Whitlam era, he delivered the famous ‘Redfern Address.’ Here, Keating eloquently condemned the idea “that to reach back for the poor and dispossessed is to risk being dragged down”, a concept far too relevant to families in Australia’s public housing system. 

30 years later, the demolition of affordable homes in Redfern and the neighbouring suburb of Waterloo is significantly underway, with no complex too populous to outweigh the potential price tag of a luxury condo atop it. With so many communities in the crosshairs of gentrification, it is necessary to explore the demolition of public housing, and what the future holds for these two suburbs.

Across the road from Redfern Park, where Keating delivered his speech, 600 Elizabeth Street sits as a vacant lot. The fenced-off property, which has been empty since 2013, used to be home to hundreds of people in public housing. Now, it is proposed to become private apartments for Sydney’s wealthy. 

The development proposal attempts to comfort readers by evoking the regularly used 70:30 rule, indicating that 30% of new residences must be ‘community housing.’ Without prior reading, most will miss that community housing is not managed by the state government, unlike its public counterpart. Instead, management is bestowed upon not-for-profit organisations, worryingly dissolving government mechanisms of accountability for overseeing the properties.

A shift to community housing allows the state government to stealthily shift fiscal responsibility to ordinary people with a propensity to donate, evoking the classic neoliberal tenant of passing the moral obligation to the citizens. Because the federal government, not the state government, covers rent assistance programs for community housing, the latter slashes spending and relinquishes all responsibility for housing the state’s most vulnerable. 

When not behind closed doors, politicians parrot that mixing different income brackets across these new complexes will somehow reduce crime. This unfounded claim of classist superiority revolves around the belief that the disadvantaged will learn from the ‘good influence’ of the wealthy. Unsurprisingly, there is strong evidence to the contrary. Regardless, the 30-percenters are segregated from the luxury apartments anyway.

The most malicious reason for removing public housing is the most obvious: politicians help the private sector access valuable real estate for gentrification to earn developers huge margins, which then completes this cycle as political donations. Besides these immediate financial gains, currying favour with developers is incredibly advantageous for securing lucrative jobs after their political careers come to a close.

Public housing residents are forced into the limbo of government relocation programs once the floors beneath their feet are sold. Sometimes they may be given the option of alternative housing nearby, but with the affordable housing crisis only growing worse, many are pushed far away from their communities and support networks. 

After redevelopment, you would expect that the 30% of the homes dedicated to community housing would accommodate all the previous residents, but, in the words of the Department of Communities and Justice, who gets a spot is determined “on a case-by-case basis”. Unfortunately, this means many are permanently evicted from not just their homes, but their neighbourhood as well.  

Nine years after demolitions, 600 Elizabeth Street’s redevelopment is yet to commence, meaning that the sick and elderly residents may have been ‘temporarily relocated’ in a more permanent fashion.

This is the fate of just one small, 1.1-hectare lot near Redfern Park. A proposal for the redevelopment of almost all of Waterloo’s public housing is underway. Spanning a 12.32-hectare lot and 749 homes, it constitutes 65% of the entire suburb. The proposal is vague about the fate of the existing high-rise complexes and their residents, some of whom have already received unclear eviction notices. Honi emailed the resident helpline but received no response.

30 years after Keating declared Australia the “land of fair go the and the better chance”, his words have not only rung hollow, but gone sour. Past Australian governments once cared for the disadvantaged, building vast complexes of public housing, including the at-risk Waterloo estate. 

Now, our politicians evict vulnerable people, gentrify the land, shift responsibility, and get rich. With 30,000 households – not people, households – on the waiting list for Sydney’s public housing alone, we need more homes, not demolitions. Redfern and Waterloo are profound examples of how our politicians are tackling the housing crisis: with animosity and greed.