Housing initiatives purporting to create a ‘social mix’ are a convenient way for governments to avoid building new social housing or to neglect existing stock while shifting public land into private ownership. By Claire Connelly.

‘Eviction by dereliction’: the decay of public housing

Barney Gardner, one of the last public housing tenants still living in Sydney’s Millers Point.
Barney Gardner, one of the last public housing tenants still living in Sydney’s Millers Point.
Credit: Nic Porter

Barney Gardner is one of the last public housing tenants still living in Sydney’s Millers Point. The 72-year-old former painter and docker has lived in public housing his entire life. He has experienced firsthand the complete disregard of state and federal governments for the wellbeing of the “invisible” Australians in housing such as his.

“We can mix with wealthy people,” he says. “I have no desire for greener grass. But can they live with us? It’s disgusting the way that public housing tenants are treated.”

Gardner has watched as his community disappeared, first slowly, then rapidly. They were shunted from one dilapidated property to another, with seemingly no right to basic maintenance, let alone a modest standard of living as their heritage-listed homes were sold to private buyers.

And Gardner is one of the lucky ones, having inherited his parents’ worker’s cottage under the “succession” provision once ensured by the Maritime Services Board. Although Gardner helped to fight and win several cases allowing some of his neighbours to retain their families’ leases, the “succession” provision was eventually dispensed with.

The postwar efforts to directly build new Commonwealth-funded, state-run public housing largely fell by the wayside by the late 1980s. To build new dwellings today, the New South Wales Land and Housing Corporation must now self-fund, meaning they need to sell properties in order to build new ones, a scheme otherwise known as asset recycling, which Dr Michael Zanardo, an architect and urban designer specialising in affordable and social housing, describes as a joke.

“When you see new social housing on a site, the growth is marginal,” he says. “But what we don’t see is how many other properties have been sold that are not replaced. That happens all the time. It’s ludicrous that we can’t build more social housing in Sydney – or anywhere else – in 2022. We should be building by volume; but for political or ideological reasons, we’re not.”

The Victorian government has committed $5.3 billion to social housing construction over the next five years, in a program known as the Big Housing Build, the most significant state government spending on housing in Victoria since the 1960s. But almost the entirety of that program will go into building new community housing, managed and possibly owned by non-profit organisations, not public housing, which is owned and managed by the state government.

This is in addition to a public housing redevelopment program, which assists in the gentrification of the inner city under the guise of increasing social mix. The initiative involves private developers demolishing and rebuilding rundown public housing and building new private housing on public land given or sold to them at a very low rate, the sale of which funds the renewal. The building of private housing on a public estate is justified by the idea of “social mix”.

Dr Kate Shaw, an urban geographer at the University of Melbourne, says the entire rationale of social mix is a “fig leaf” to disguise the privatisation of public land, while public housing has been deliberately neglected through systemic policy decisions over the past 30 years.

Shaw says social mix has little to do with it. “The program is primarily a way of funding public housing renewal with minimal government expenditure.”

On some estates, the new public housing is transferred to community housing providers, meaning they are no longer publicly owned or managed and that landlords can charge considerably more rent.

In Victoria, public housing rents are typically capped at 25 per cent of a tenant’s household income, whereas community housing rents can be 30 per cent or more of tenant income. In NSW, public housing rents make up 25-30 per cent of household income, and community housing rents include combined tenant and partner income, 15 per cent of income of any other tenants over 18, plus 15 per cent of the Family Tax Benefit being claimed.

The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute estimates that 1.5 million to two million low-income Australians are at risk of homelessness, all of whom reside in rental housing, comprising 8.5 to 11.7 per cent of the population over the age of 15. About 60 per cent of low-income households – about two million people – are in housing stress, meaning they’re spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, mostly in private rentals, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Tellingly, the number of people receiving Commonwealth Rent Assistance has increased by 126 per cent since 2016. Almost a third of those households were considered to be in rental stress even after receiving the payment.

Libby Porter, professor of urban planning with the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, says governments have strategically divested from public housing to justify the need to evict tenants and privatise the site on safety grounds.

Barney Gardner calls this process “eviction by dereliction”. He has been fighting against it most of his life. Not just for himself and his partner, Glenda, but for the community of public housing residents that resided in Millers Point before NSW Land and Housing forced almost everyone out.

He watched over 28 years as his own dwelling fell into disrepair. Mould covered the wall in the bedroom. The floorboards lifted. Beyond what he could achieve with a vacuum cleaner, the carpets were never cleaned or replaced. The property never received a lick of paint. The neighbours joked that their interior wall had a “lovely water feature” whenever it rained. Gardner says these problems were never attended to.

Although he has since moved into a smaller apartment, it also needs work. The light on the range hood trips the circuit-breaker whenever it’s switched on. The bathroom sink won’t hold water, no matter how many different plugs he’s tried. The outside light has cracked. But Gardner says he’s given up trying to get these things fixed.

“I’m not prepared to deal with the hassle,” he says.

So, he just lives with it. He’s taped up the backyard light himself. And he doesn’t use the range hood light anymore. Gardner is describing what it’s like living inside the system.

“They broke their own rules for decades,” he says. “That is, until they wanted us out.”

Suddenly workers showed up to fix leaking roofs ignored by Land and Housing for years. The steps up to the apartments were painted – superficial work to boost the sale price. But the larger structural or safety concerns continued to be neglected.

“A good friend once said to me: ‘These properties, they’re only ours until the wealthy want ’em,’ ” Gardner says. “That’s exactly what happened here. Nobody knew what Millers Point was until the eviction protests started.”

Both Shaw and Porter have produced research demonstrating that inner-city estate redevelopments in Australia are driven more by the imperative to capitalise on the sale of public land than to assist public tenants.

Porter says the prevailing discourse around the social mix agenda conveniently ignores the “deeply patronising premise” that through proximity you can simply “role model your way out of poverty”.

“While that’s a pretty repugnant argument … if we only package it in those terms, we miss seeing that, actually, the Labor Party holds almost precisely the same view, they just never say it like that,” she says.

“That it is the basis of the urban renewal agenda and the Big Housing Build, that really needs to be outed.”

A paper Shaw co-wrote with former master’s student Abdullahi Jama, titled “Why do we need social mix?”, demonstrates that the purported benefits of the social mix redevelopment model seldom materialise for public housing tenants, and in fact can harm existing residents. It also often further concentrates disadvantage via “the literal encroachment of the middle-class surrounding areas onto estates”.

These developments are for higher-density, segregated public dwellings, meaning public housing tenants end up with less land than they had before. “It just shows how silly this rationale is,” Shaw says.

Gardner says what many might class as progress has come at a deep social cost. “Sometimes I feel sad that I stayed,” he says. “There are still a few people here, but it’s nowhere near the community it once was. It’s very sterile.”

He used to go down to his local pub and have a beer with his mates, but now he doesn’t recognise anyone.

“I don’t go down there so much anymore,” he says. “It used to be like that show Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Now I walk down the street, and nobody knows your name. It’s a shame.”

Porter, Shaw and Zanardo agree that the proportion of housing stock made up by social housing is far below what it should be, and that to make a serious dent in housing distress we should return to a public housing model of procurement.

Healthy social democracies such as in northern Europe and Scandinavia have close to 50 per cent social and subsidised housing – across all housing – providing stability, security and rents that are set in proportion to tenant incomes, not what the market demands.

These experts are calling for a national housing strategy and a rapid rollout program of public housing stock expansion in the order of 730,000 new public housing dwellings over a 20-year period across Australia, in line with the recommendations of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report on housing as social infrastructure.

“Community housing has its place, but it can’t do everything,” says Jago Dodson, professor of urban policy at RMIT. “In part, because the government has the ability to take on debt very cheaply, because of its sovereign borrower status, compared with almost any other entity that doesn’t have a sovereign guarantee underpinning it. It will mean shifting all those subsidies we pump into the home ownership sector and the tax we forgo and redirect it to social housing construction.”

Zanardo says public housing should be built in perpetuity as infrastructure and shelter. “Housing shouldn’t be a commodity,” he says.

Crucially important is designing buildings for amenity, not just appearance, he says. “That means good light and air, good privacy, good acoustics. It’s going to be dry, provide shelter, that’s a healthy environment for people to live in. That’s key. When you’re not building new housing, you don’t have control over those factors. But when you do, you can pick the location, how well it’s built, and the level of amenity you provide to residents.”

There are several mechanisms by which the rollout of new public housing can be funded. A development levy could ensure social housing stock doesn’t fall below a certain level relative to private housing and could “claw back” some of the asset value inflation of private housing. Similarly, inclusionary zoning could capture the benefits of an uplift in redevelopment by requiring a portion of increased density to be devoted to social housing.

Recently, after significant pushback from the development sector, Victoria’s Andrews government ditched its proposal for a 1.75 per cent development levy to go into a yearly $800 million fund for social housing construction.

An alternative is a progressive land tax mechanism where areas with higher rates of value inflation pay a higher rate of tax than those in less affluent areas.

Dodson says direct public housing construction is cheaper than other procurement mechanisms. If we were to treat social housing as infrastructure, he says, it would take another 730,000 dwellings to meet demand as measured by the waiting lists for public housing, requiring an investment of about $5 billion a year over 20 years.

“That’s about $100 billion worth of investment, which is actually doable because we give back about $13 billion per year to landlords in negative gearing,” Dodson says. “If we transferred negative gearing into social housing construction, we could easily achieve this in 10 years.”

The total value of the nation’s 10.8 million homes grew by $2.2 trillion to a record $9.9 trillion last year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “Residential Property Prices Indexes” report. Thanks to record low interest rates and capital gains discounts, many home owners have refinanced or “raided” their dwellings, taking on larger mortgages at very low rates, resulting in an enormous transfer of wealth to households that already own their own homes.

The 30 per cent of households in Australia that are now renters have almost completely missed out on the asset inflation home owners have experienced.

“We should be asking serious questions about how our monetary policy settings exacerbate wealth inequality through housing,” Dodson says.

“To hear people say, ‘We can’t allow the poor to live in affluent areas’, that’s offensive at a certain level but there are other offensive things within our housing system – like massive shifts in wealth towards the already advantaged – that we all should be asking questions about.”

Professor Porter is calling for a cap on rents in private markets, “to ensure rental prices can’t keep escalating forever”, and stronger renters’ rights across the board.

But to even begin addressing the public housing crisis requires the kind of decisive leadership they all agree has been missing during the past three decades.

Barney Gardner says a universal public housing program, open to people of all incomes, is the best possible option, where rents are capped at 25 per cent of household income, creating a progressive sliding scale relative to one’s earning potential. “That way everyone is welcome.”

Gardner says state governments need to appoint a standalone minister for Housing, “without all the other obligations” of mixed portfolios.

“First we sat under the Department for Families and Communities, then it was Finance, now it’s part of Communities and Justice,” he says. “Public housing used to work really well. It was successful because of good government. Tenants haven’t changed, government has. They don’t want to be involved anymore.”

Gardner says you can’t fix the problems in public housing by cannibalising existing stock. Rather, we need new housing and a government that cares about the crisis.

“I’ve always said to people, ‘If you want to learn about public housing tenants, my door is always open,’ ” he says. “I’ll put on a cuppa and I’ll show you what it’s like. But no one has ever taken me up on the offer.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "The privatisation of public housing".

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