Plans to build student accommodation on The Block in Redfern, a site once known for its vibrant Aboriginal community, have come under fire.
As part of the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC)’s Pemulway Project, the vacant 20,000 square metre plot will see $70 million being poured into a commercial redevelopment plan which includes a student-housing complex with 150 beds, a childcare facility, a community gallery and a gymnasium. 62 low-cost housing dwellings will also be reserved for means-tested local Indigenous residents.
Many local Aboriginal activists and former residents have opposed the AHC’s plans due to its failure in addressing the housing needs of the Aboriginal community.
“The money for the commercial development is guaranteed; money for the student accommodation via Sydney University is guaranteed; no money, no answer for where the money for Aboriginal Housing will come from,” said Wiradjuri Elder Jenny Munro.
In protest, an Aboriginal Tent Embassy was set up on the 26th of May by five grandmothers of the Redfern community, including Munro. About 12 tents are now up on the site, with metre-high letters that read ‘sovereignty’ springing from the ground.
“We got some ash from the Canberra Embassy fire and lit the fire and set up one tent, and it has grown from that since then,” said Munro.
The Embassy hosted a rally on June 14th with over 300 in attendance, garnering the support of many including NSW Governor Dame Marie Bashir and Aboriginal elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks.
First purchased by the AHC in 1972, The Block provided housing for the local Aboriginal community until the late 90s. Munro believes that it was the “first piece of land that we were able to get back in our struggle for recognition for Aboriginal rights to our own land, on our own country”.
Under CEO Michael Mundine, the AHC has previously been unsuccessful in securing government grants and now looks to commercial redevelopment (including its partnership with the University of Sydney) to subsidise costs.
Munro described Sydney University’s involvement as “particularly filthy”.
“We’ve written to the Chancellor and requested that other students up there make inquiries … we don’t know the terms and conditions of the contract, we’d certainly like to.”
The Koori Centre is currently unaware of any letter sent to the Chancellor and has declined to comment on the matter until it has more information at hand.
“The Chancellor and the university really need to be condemned for imposing their housing needs on our community,” said Munro.
However, Sydney University has clarified that it is not involved in AHC’s plans to build student accommodation.
“The Block is owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company and the future of the area is a matter for the AHC,” said a University spokesperson.
“The University of Sydney was consulted by the AHC in relation to gaining advice on the management and operation of student accommodation facilities as background to the progress of the AHC’s NSW Government approved Pemulwuy Plan for the redevelopment of the Block. The design and development of the student accommodation is a matter for the AHC,” clarified the spokesperson.
“I haven’t heard anything official however right now students are trying to separate themselves from management … we don’t want the land there unless it’s for Aboriginal people,” said Kyol Blakeney, Indigenous Officer at the Students’ Representative Council (SRC).
“As an Indigenous student, I find it to be somewhat of a betrayal by the AHC to start allocating those houses to anybody other than Aboriginal people, considering the battle that we’ve fought not only for land rights and sovereignty but also for just that block,” Blakeney commented.
The SRC and the Indigenous Students’ Collective have organised a Blockade for students on July 7th to stop developers from coming onto the site.
“We’re trying to get as many people there are to link arms and blockade The Block to support the Tent Embassy,” said Blakeney.
“We’ll maintain the embassy, and hopefully we’ll have enough people to come and support us to stand in front of the bulldozers on the day,” Munro commented.
Correction: The article previously stated that the AHC’s development of the student accommodation was in partnership with Sydney University. A University Spokesperson has since clarified that this information is false. Beyond initial consultation, Sydney University is not involved in the development. Honi Soit would like to apologise and withdraw any suggestion to the contrary.