In the wake of gentrification: The relocation of public housing tenants

Strong communities are being torn apart by the state government’s careless approach towards “renewing” public housing.

Art by Bipasha Chakraborty

Carolyn moved into public housing at 82 Wentworth Park Road, Glebe, in the early nineties with nothing but a mattress, a black-and-white TV, and some clothes. There were certainly some issues — poor sunlight and a lack of ventilation meant that mould bloomed quickly in the newly constructed building. Nevertheless, over the last thirty years, Carolyn and their neighbours made this place their home.  

“We help each other out,” said Carolyn, a Wiradjuri person, “one has plants, the other one does another person’s shopping, or does the other person’s washing … or looks after the cat.”

The resident cat Koko, a chocolate Burmese, has been passed among residents as people became sick, passed away, or were otherwise unable to take care of her. Carolyn recently took up care of Koko after her owner became unwell. 

The community also established gardens in their shared backyard despite poor sunlight and airflow conditions. Carolyn recalls growing chillies and sharing them with their neighbours — “We’d all talk to each other and grow things and share things.” 

That was until the Land and Housing Corporation destroyed their garden. 

After announcing that 82 Wentworth Park Road would be demolished and its residents relocated, Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) tested the soil as part of early surveying of the property. They found lead — something that did not surprise Carolyn considering they knew the place used to be a battery dump. 

“I had … plastic separating between the ground soil and the raised garden bed,” Caroyln said, “[but] I made a mistake,” as the LAHC identified two contaminated areas. “[The LAHC] didn’t want to negotiate,” so the gardens withered and died under quarantine, ending their community gardening efforts. 

“We’re missing all that sort of connection.” 

The impending erasure of 82 Wentworth Park Road is not uncommon — the state government has been continually proposing the amalgamation of public and private sectors to renew and expand Sydney’s public housing, particularly over the past decade. This has led to the destruction, separation, and relocation of communities as their homes are torn down, providing insignificant, if not non-existent, gains to public housing stock.  

The state government’s claim of “expanding” Sydney’s social housing is laughable. Across all Inner City and Inner West redevelopments listed on the LAHC website, about 915 public housing units will be demolished to rebuild a total of 1,267 — an increase of 352. Considering over 2,500 households are on the public housing waitlist for this area — and over 50,000 households in NSW overall — you’d think more initiative would be taken to house a population increasingly unable to afford shelter. 

This is especially concerning when you consider the length of time these projects take to actually provide any housing. Elizabeth Street in Redfern, which is meant to deliver 100 social housing units in 2028, will have taken 15 years since its public housing tenants were ejected and relocated to be completed. 

Edwina, a Māori woman, lives in public housing on Franklyn Street. “I don’t think [the government] really cares about us,” she said, “there are a lot of wonderful people who live on this estate.” Edwina told Honi that she and her neighbours “just want to be left alone,” mentioning that they’ve all been through enough in their lives. This will be the second time that she’s being relocated due to an incoming redevelopment, and the third time she has been evicted from public housing overall. 

She argues, citing case studies in St. Kilda, that refurbishing public housing instead of demolition is the best choice. The government often argues that public housing estates are decaying and not fit for habitation, but there is little reasonable explanation for tearing down the homes at 82 Wentworth Park Road and Franklyn Street, which were only built about 35 years back. 

Talking to Honi, the Tenants’ Union discussed this issue, saying that “a lot of [public housing] is old and not fit for purpose. It needs upgrades, it needs renewal. What should that look like? … Residents are very much best placed to identify what needs to change, what could work for [their] community, [and] what could be done better.”

However, public housing tenants are often barely, if at all, consulted during the development process. The Tenants’ Union mentioned how sometimes residents won’t find out their homes are slated for demolition until the day media releases go out. 

“There’s been no community consultation whatsoever,” Carolyn commented, “I read somewhere that they fancy they did that, but they did not.” 

Edwina said that “[the LAHC] haven’t said anything because if they had said something, I would’ve found out.” She said that her estate was told of redevelopment through a letter delivered around Christmas 2020, saying that “it looked like junkmail.” 

This pattern of failing to communicate with tenants is leaving many anxious and confused about where they are going to live. The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) — which operates various aspects of public housing alongside the LAHC — states on their website that “most tenants will be offered two offers of alternative housing.” 

If a tenant rejects the first offer, a second option may be provided. The second option will be accompanied with a Notice of Intention to issue a Notice of Termination, so if the second offer is rejected, you must move out regardless of whether you’ve found somewhere to live. 

“Pretty much … you’re offered one,” Carolyn said, “they will say to you and have said to several people, ‘Well, if you don’t like this one, your second offer is going to be really bad.’” 

The Department of Communities and Justice often emphasises their “case-by-case” assessment of tenant needs in determining where to relocate someone. However, Carolyn said the extent of this was requesting a medical letter “and that determines where you can live and what type of property … it’s more a discussion on the practicalities.” 

“There’s nothing about our emotional needs … and never has anyone offered anything like that.”

In Franklyn Street, Edwina said that the dislocation of the community was causing an “epidemic of mental health issues” on their estate, as she mourns her impending separation from friends and neighbours. 

“There’s another couple of neighbours that have quite profound mental health issues, and they’re just not doing well. Really, really not,” added Carolyn.

The DCJ was contacted several times by Honi, however they provided superficial responses and avoided answering questions about housing stock gains, tenants’ wellbeing, and if they considered implementing tenant feedback about relocations. Over two thirds of the response to our questions appear to have been copied from the DCJ website despite the information being almost entirely irrelevant. 

A common concern from public housing tenants, especially in the Inner City, is that they are often moved into ‘community housing’ operated by Community Housing Providers (CHPs) — being non-profits such as Bridge Housing — rather than public housing. Community housing arrangements are often contained within new private developments which were once public housing, with developers typically reserving 30 per cent of dwellings for CHPs. 

The shift to community housing is justified by the state government because community housing tenants are eligible for Commonwealth Rent Assistance, while public housing residents are not. Typically, CHPs pocket all of the rent assistance plus 30 per cent of a household’s income in order to use those funds to (ideally) create more housing and better living spaces for their tenants, shifting costs away from the state government.

The Tenants’ Union told Honi, “we don’t want [the] government stepping back … taking their hands off and saying that it’s not something [they’re] responsible for.” 

They commented that CHPs can result in better outcomes for tenants as their organisations are often smaller, flexible, and more responsive to resident needs compared to the “clunky … government bureaucracy” that manages public housing. However, “that’s not necessarily across the board,” they said, “sometimes they’re better but sometimes they’re actually worse.” With almost no choice in where you’re relocated to, that’s a gamble many don’t want to take. 

“In some ways,” they commented, “it misses the key problem, which is the lack of a commitment to significant investment into social housing.” They said that even with rent assistance incomes, CHPs could never deliver the amount of housing required for New South Wales’ ever growing waitlist.   

This strange neoliberal enterprise between the state government and private industry is being criticised as the privatisation of public housing, as they shift costs and responsibility away from the state government and onto the private sector, meaning that profit-driven development companies are playing a significant role in the provision of social housing. This is extremely dangerous and counterproductive because these companies will always fight for more market-sold homes on their estates and have little incentive to provide positive outcomes for incoming public housing tenants. 

The state government’s unwillingness to invest in public housing and failure to push back against market profiteers is leading us down a dead end road — why must planning proposals loudly boast about providing social housing “at no cost to the government”?  

Those forced into this opaque system are deeply impacted by its carelessness towards the people it houses. Edwina says she is fed up with the cycle of relocation and redevelopment, saying that the ordeal is “absolute torture.” She’d “seriously consider” moving back to Aotearoa (New Zealand) if Franklyn Street is demolished.

“I grew up in private housing,” Carolyn said, “and there was no community … I didn’t know my neighbours.” They commented that the “shortfall[s] in the system” have created tightly knit and strong communities who support each other, and who desperately don’t want to leave. 

Edwina and Carolyn are both part of Hands Off Glebe and are actively campaigning to save their homes on Franklyn Street and at 82 Wentworth Park Road. Their communities have not yet been relocated or given firm eviction dates, meaning there is still time to protest and fight against the pointless destruction of Glebe’s remaining public housing. 

As they place tenants under the looming threat of bulldozers and private developers, the DCJ consistently fails to communicate, consult, or recognise the trauma caused by relocations, tearing strong communities apart for absolutely no benefit.