It’s no secret that Waterloo’s public housing is in desperate need of improvement. The Soviet-esque concrete towers and medium-density complexes are insufficient to meet modern living standards, needing refurbishment and renovation to ensure they maintain their suitability. But with an enduring community of over 1,700 people living in Waterloo South, many have lived there happily for generations and would never consider leaving their homes. However, private investors are to redevelop the public land in a proposal that is marred with concern over its disregard for Waterloo’s public housing residents.
During March and April of this year, the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) exhibited the proposal for public feedback, receiving thousands of submissions from individuals and organisations. Recently, these submissions were made publicly available, including studies commissioned by the DPE, alongside post-exhibition amendments to the proposal.
As of early August, 2312 households are on the waiting list for social and public housing in the inner-west and inner-city with allocation times exceeding 10 years. Even after the review of submissions, only 98 social housing dwellings will be added to the estate’s 749 current number of units.
Many of the submissions expressed outrage over the failure to address this housing crisis, with the proposal barely fulfilling the standard 30 per cent social housing commitment. With a proposed 3012 private residences versus 847 social housing units, this only equates to 28.2 per cent of the estate; an issue that was not addressed in the DPE’s amendments.
Another major issue repeated in the submissions was the lack of a Social Impact Assessment. Dr Allison Ziller, a lecturer in Human Geography at Macquarie University, wrote that the proposal is “unsupported by a valid and reliable assessment of social impacts.” Additionally, she explains that the purpose of the Social Sustainability Report released last year was to “identify measures to promote positive social outcomes”, which did not include identifying adverse community impacts.
Ziller characterised the proposal as “remarkably out of date”, highlighting eight potential inequality issues that remain unaddressed. These include developers using social housing to occupy undesirable areas or being used as noise and pollution buffers on the estate.
Keylan Consulting, an independent assessment body, was commissioned by the DPE to produce a study summarising the totality of feedback submissions. Similar to the government’s amendments, they also failed to address the need for a Social Impact Assessment. This is despite the fact that Appendix A, ‘Copy of Form Submission’, prominently features an individual’s frustration over the lack of an in-depth study despite six years of persistent community demands.
REDWatch, a community organisation that investigates the government’s various redevelopment plans for Redfern, Waterloo, Everleigh, and Darlington, commented in an email to their supporters that the Keylan study “breaks all submissions comments down to general key issues…which it then mostly dismisses as adequately addressed in the proposal.”
Focusing on the economics of the redevelopment, Cameron K. Murray and Peter Phibbs of the University of Sydney published a paper in late 2021 outlining how the NSW Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) sells public assets to fund new ones. Under this model, which the authors describe as “self-limiting”, expansion of new and existing public housing stock becomes near impossible.
Alternatively, they propose that the LAHC partially or entirely self-fund the project instead of selling the land to the private sector with the requirement that a portion of the units be social and affordable housing. If the LAHC prioritises the long-term financial gains over the short-term cost, the paper demonstrates how dwellings on the estate, even social housing, would generate revenue through rental payments and capital gains.
The paper posits that by retaining the land, the LAHC will be able to improve both the quality and quantity of public housing dwellings, providing financial and welfare outcomes for the public that are greater in the long-term. With a property portfolio valued at over $54 billion—five times that of Australia’s largest private developer—the LAHC could comfortably self-fund the project. While this study was mentioned throughout public submissions, it was left unaddressed in the amendments and the Keylan paper.
However, some successes relating to social housing were achieved as a result of the exhibition. Most notably, 10 per cent of all social and affordable housing on the estate will be reserved for Indigenous people, as demanded by the Redfern Waterloo Aboriginal Affordable Housing Campaign. This victory is especially significant given the suburb’s rich Indigenous history of struggle during the twentieth century and the gentrification that has since divorced many First Nations people from the area.
Other successes were primarily based around the clarification of information. For example, if the proposal acquires a Design Excellence Bonus, a government scheme that rewards developers for going above and beyond architecturally, the developers will be permitted to increase gross floor space by 10 per cent. The amendments clarified that this bonus must include an increase in social housing space.
While these small victories are to be celebrated there is still a long way to go in the fight for social and affordable housing on the site. Fortunately, there are more opportunities for review according to REDWatch. A spokesperson told Honi that “these recommendations now get reviewed by another part of DPE and the Minister…so things may still change.”
Unfortunately, many of the concerns regarding current public housing residents have not been addressed. With the project entering the final stages of planning, how this redevelopment will impact Waterloo’s community is still worryingly unclear.