When the NSW government announced its proposal to sell-off public housing in Millers Point and The Rocks area it sparked a public outrage from residents, tenants advocacy groups and the local council. The announcement was made on March 19 and according to the media release issued by MP Pru Goward, Minister for Family and Community Services, 293 properties will be sold, due to the high cost of maintenance, significant investment required to improve properties to an acceptable standard, and high potential sale values. For the residents, many of whom have lived there for generations, it meant potential relocation. As to where they would be moved to remains unknown.

For decades public housing residents faced various housing policy changes, estate sell-offs and redevelopments forcing them, voluntarily or otherwise, to relocate. In 2002, the NSW government launched The Minto Renewable project, which involved redevelopment of approximately 1,000 properties in the Minto public housing area in Sydney’s southwest. As a result, over 800 households were rehoused with the majority moving into the neighbouring Campbelltown area.

Two years later The Bonnyrigg Living Communities Project was announced. The 13-year program, which was also set in Sydney’s southwest, involved constructions of almost 2500 new homes, around 700 of which will be owned and managed by the community housing provider. Unlike Minto, however, most Bonnyrigg public housing residents were given a choice to either stay or leave the estate. Those who stayed were given temporary accommodation in the area during the redevelopment. About 160 people decided to leave the estate altogether.

Mixed feelings

“Many of the tenants didn’t want to go and a lot of them wanted to return but they couldn’t. So in that respect it was highly disruptive,” said Dr Dallas Rogers, a Postdoctoral Fellow of Geography and Urban Studies at University of Western Sydney.

In 2013 Dr Rogers supervised a project called Residents’ Voice: Community, Place, Advantage and Disadvantage. Participants of the project, which consisted of public housing tenants in Minto, shared their forced relocation experiences. “The feedback is quite mixed. Some people are happy they’ve got a new home,” said Dr Rogers. “For others they don’t like the new community as much as they like the old one”. A Minto resident who participated in the project talked about her experience living in the area in her testimonial video. “I’m afraid to leave home after dark and I look over my shoulder during the day to go shopping,” she said. One day a neighbour threatened her because she refused to call his mom for him. “You wait. I’ll kill you,” her neighbour said to her.

A study conducted by Minto Resident Action Group found that after the redevelopment was announced the residents were particularly concerned about future loss of their homes, friends or area to which they have become attached. A community member said in the study published by the action group, “I don’t want to lose my community. I had good friends. It (the relocation) had a really big impact on the kids, to lose everyone they have known”. The sentiment did not surprise Dr Rogers. “When you split a sense of community and social network you can really divide the community and it creates new problems” he said.

In Bonnyrigg similar mixed feelings were felt after parts the redevelopment and relocation had taken place. “Some of them didn’t’ like what they had before because a lot of houses were poorly maintained,” said Dr Edgar Liu, Research Associate of City Futures Research Centre, People and Place at University of New South Wales. “But at the same time they are not very happy at all because they tend to get moved into a smaller property”.

They also more felt anxious and uncertain about their future according to Dr Liu. “They’ve lived there for a very long time,” Dr Liu said. “They don’t really understand how the change is going to play out. They haven’t had experience change before”.

According to Dr Liu’s research titled Wander Years: Estate Renewal, Temporary Relocation and Place(less)ness in NSW the redevelopment and relocation that occurred in Bonnyrigg had caused disruptions to the ‘sense of place’ among residents. ‘We were a community, but it’s been broken up now,” said a Bonnyrigg resident in the research paper. “The people that made up Bonnyrigg had moved out. There is no cohesion in the neighbourhood anymore,” said another.

Dr Liu said that public housing redevelopment programs should include the tenants in some form of decision-making process. “So that they feel they have a sense of ownership to they new place. That will probably help the transition a bit better,” he said.

Social mix

The concept of social mix is an attempt by the state government to create a balanced community through a blend of public housing and private housing residents. This has been applied in Minto, Bonnyrigg and other pubic housing programs. “So basically they want about 70% private housing and 30% public housing,” said Dr Rogers. But in Minto, “under that model if you are going to introduce 70% private housing without building new houses, up to 70% public tenants have to move out of the estate,” Dr Rogers said.

The basis of this social mix argument is that “By bringing the rich and middle class people in and split the poor people up, the poor people will learn to be like their rich and middle class neighbours,” said Dr Rogers. “ But the reality is there’s a lot of stigma that’s attached to public housing. And when you put private home owners in close proximity to public housing, that stigma is still there,” he said. “So previously, the people who were stigmatising you were outside of your estate, but now they are right next door. So there’s been some unforeseen problem with this idea”.

Interestingly this concept does not seem to apply to the state’s plan for the Millers Point and The Rocks public tenants. “It goes against the whole idea of the social mix argument that the state government has been running for a while,” said Dr Rogers. For the last 30 years private homeowners, public housing tenants, maritime personnel have been living next to each other. “So I think it kind of exposes that these projects, aren’t really about the social objective that they claim,” said Dr Rogers. “They are not really about improving the lives of tenants. They demonstrate economics. They are about mobilising high value real estates”.

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