As the NSW government moves towards redeveloping a pivotal public housing area of Sydney, many residents believe its motives are purely to profit from the planned ‘social mix’. By Drew Rooke.

Redeveloping social housing in Sydney’s Waterloo

Public housing towers in Sydney’s Waterloo.
Public housing towers in Sydney’s Waterloo.

Catherine Skipper’s home is on the seventh floor of the Matavai tower in the Waterloo public housing estate in inner Sydney. It’s a tidy, well-kept and well-lit one-bedroom unit, which the 80-year-old retired school teacher shares with her two dogs – Finnegan, a toy poodle, and Bobby, a Maltese–shih-tzu cross. Through her kitchen window comes the birdsong of the choir of rainbow lorikeets that roost in the stand of Moreton Bay figs below.

The unit’s walls are covered in colourful artworks – some done by Skipper, others by friends. Two large bookshelves either side of a television are filled with the heavyweights of history and literature – Homer, Thucydides, Socrates, Hardy, Joyce and Greene. Skipper couldn’t do without her books, she tells me as she sits at her wooden writing desk with Finnegan in her lap. “They’re a kind of protection – my shelter from the storm.” Her favourite is The Odyssey.

Seven years ago, Skipper – who has an honours degree in English and history, a master’s in cinema studies, and is able to read and write Latin – was forced to apply for public housing following a family breakdown that meant she lost her previous house. She landed in Waterloo. Formally opened in 1977, the estate, covering about 18 hectares, consists of two 30-storey towers – one of which is Matavai – four 16-storey towers plus several three-storey “walk-up” buildings.

“Nervous” is how Skipper says she felt when she was first offered a unit at the estate. “People had said, ‘Waterloo – that’s a place full of drugs, violence and criminals.’ But when I came here, I realised that the image of it as this awful ghetto was so totally untrue.” What she found was a thriving community with a diverse ethnic mix, art groups, writing and drama workshops, cooking classes, weekly markets and resident-run gardens. She acknowledges there is some crime and violence but adds that “there is a lot of that in society generally”.

The estate, Skipper says, is “one of the most friendly places I’ve ever lived in.”

Big change, however, is looming for Skipper’s beloved Waterloo.

In December 2015, the state Liberal government announced the suburb had been selected as the 31st train station along the new metro line connecting Sydney’s north-west and south-west. This would, the government added, provide a catalyst for a major and supposedly much-needed renewal and redevelopment of the public housing estate – an idea first considered by Labor under then premier Bob Carr in 2004.

In a now infamous letter delivered to the estate’s estimated 5000 residents, the then minister for social housing, Brad Hazzard, said he was “excited” about the plan and promised that, while some temporary relocations will be required, all existing tenants will be offered housing at the new estate once it is built.

Exact details of the redevelopment remain scarce but some basic facts are known. One is that it will occur in stages over the next 15 to 20 years, with the first stage – demolishing the block of shops near the estate where the metro station will be located – set to begin in October.

Another certainty is that there will be a fivefold increase in the number of dwellings to 10,000. As is the current trend in public housing redevelopment projects across New South Wales and Australia, the tenure-type of these dwellings will be mixed. Some will be for social housing – an umbrella term that refers to public, Aboriginal and community housing – and some will be for private housing. The exact split for Waterloo hasn’t yet been confirmed but the government’s “Future Directions for Social Housing in NSW” policy document released in January 2016 says large-scale redevelopments will “target a 70:30 ratio of private to social housing”.

The redevelopment has support among some tenants but has also triggered community uproar.

Seventy-two-year-old Richard Weeks is the founder and chairman of the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group, the leading body campaigning against the redevelopment. A former school teacher and army officer who did four tours of active duty overseas, Weeks first moved to the Waterloo estate nine years ago to care for his mother. When she died after three years, Weeks, having given all his financial assets to his pregnant daughter after her husband died unexpectedly, became a tenant himself.

The proposed density of the redevelopment – and the inevitable destruction of the existing community and green space – concerns Weeks greatly. “It’s just going to be wall to wall high-rises,” he says.

He believes this will exacerbate the mental health issues of many existing tenants but points out one upside with the trademark humour of an Australian battler. “Most people now catch a lift down to the ground floor, walk to the next building, catch a lift up to their friend’s unit to get a cup of sugar. You won’t have to do that if the government’s plan goes ahead. You can just stick your hand out the window and pass it over to each other.”

Weeks is also worried that the “social mix” housing model will intensify the gentrification of the area and make it harder for low-income residents to survive. Between 2008 and 2016, the median price for a unit in Waterloo almost doubled to $828,500.

Weeks believes the rhetoric of “social mix” is actually a guise for the government’s real motive: to profit from the selloff of public land and opt out of its civic duty to care for society’s most vulnerable members. He advocates instead either for a refurbishment of the existing buildings or for the redevelopment to be all social housing.

Indeed, there is no evidence – either from in Australia or internationally – to support government claims that the “social mix” model remedies problems caused by concentrated disadvantage and encourages a more diverse, dynamic and integrated community.

In a soon-to-be-published paper Melbourne University academics Dr Kate Shaw and Abdullahi Jama write that a similar redevelopment of a public housing estate in Carlton, Victoria, hasn’t encouraged integration of people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and has actually disadvantaged the public housing tenants it was imposed on. Speaking generally of the “social mix” model, they say it is “driven more by an imperative to capitalise on the sale of public land than it is to assist public tenants.”

There is also grave concern about the redevelopment’s effect on the rich Indigenous history and culture of Waterloo and the neighbouring suburb of Redfern. Both have long been important centres of Aboriginal activism but are now experiencing major demographic shifts due to gentrification.

Aunty Jenny Munro, a Wiradjuri women and prominent Indigenous rights activist, has lived in Redfern for more than three decades. When she first arrived, there were 40,000 Aboriginal Australians in the Redfern–Waterloo area. Now, she tells me, there are fewer than 300.

According to her, the redevelopment of the Waterloo public housing estate will be “the final nail in the coffin” for the Aboriginal community in inner Sydney. “They’ll have memorials to us but they won’t have Aboriginal people,” she says. “White people feel safest that way.”

Like Richard Weeks, she advocates building more social housing instead of socially mixed housing, with a specific focus on the needs of the area’s Indigenous community.

On top of all of this there is concern about the loss of the estate’s existing architecture. Catherine Skipper, who is allied with Weeks and Munro in opposing the redevelopment, believes the towers are both a landmark for long-term residents and an important part of the city’s legacy. “They’re examples of a past style – what we might call Sydney brutalism – which is now being eradicated because someone in government – a philistine – doesn’t like it.”

Skipper says the style is beautiful – just “in a not-cute way” – and that the whole estate was “deliberately designed for social living”.

“You’d know that if you lived here,” she says, “but maybe it’s hard to see for people who come in from the outside and only see these concrete pillars.”

Skipper interprets the redevelopment as “demolition and dispossession”. She doesn’t buy the government’s assurance that the existing community will have any influence in the form of the final plan. “That’s just another pretence,” she says. “It’s not real. It’s a way of looking like they’re consulting but they’re not consulting at all.”

Despite this, Skipper – like many others in the community – has the fortitude and resolve of the Greek and Roman warriors written about in the classics on her bookshelves and is determined to continue the battle against the government. “It’s not my nature to accept things,” she says, patting Finnegan. “I’ll keep fighting until the end.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2017 as "Battle for Waterloo".

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Drew Rooke is a freelance journalist and the author of One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies.

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