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Why moving out public housing tenants is a tragedy for Millers Point and for Sydney

The historical, social and moral reasons for retaining the Sirius Building for public housing are compelling, but the state government is focused on the money from its sale. Jenny Noyes/Newzulu/AAP

Why moving out public housing tenants is a tragedy for Millers Point and for Sydney

In March 2014, New South Wales government minister Pru Goward announced that all of the 293 public housing dwellings in Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Rocks, as well as the 79 apartments in the Sirius Building built for public housing in the 1970s, were to be sold. Their tenants would be moved. At first, residents felt they could fight the removal, but over time most have capitulated.

The stress and the not knowing what would happen were too difficult to bear. An ex-Millers Point resident (he had been in the same house for 36 years) explained:

We fought it at first you know. We thought this is terrible. They can’t do this to us. Well actually we don’t own the houses. They’ve got you by the balls, so to speak, and we just faced the fact that we’re going to have to move …

In July 2016, the Department of Family and Community Services reported that only 42 tenants were left to move.

How does the government justify the move?

The Baird government has justified its decision on two main grounds.

The first is that the money from the sale would be used to build 1,500 new social housing dwellings and thereby reduce the NSW public housing waiting list of 59,000 households.

A related argument is that maintaining the Millers Point homes – many are more than 100 years old – cost four times more than for the average public housing dwelling and was thus untenable.

These justifications may have some legitimacy if the move is assessed solely through an economic prism. However, this is a limited and questionable approach.

Reasons to respect residents and heritage

The historical, social and moral reasons for retaining at least part of Millers Point and the whole of the Sirius Building for public housing are compelling.

First, Millers Point has a rich and unique history. The Heritage Council recognised this in 1999 when it declared the area a Heritage site. The Office of Environment and Heritage concluded:

Millers Point Conservation Area is an intact residential and maritime precinct of outstanding state and national significance …

The 1999 assessment of significance went on to state:

Its unity, authenticity of fabric and community, and complexity of significant activities and events make it probably the rarest and most significant historic urban place in Australia.

The removal has already severely undermined this uniqueness. It is likely that the physical fabric of the area will be constantly eroded as the new owners endeavour to evade any heritage demands.

A second reason for retaining at least some public housing in Millers Point and reserving the Sirius Building for public housing tenants is that the removal will mean that another neighbourhood in Sydney will become an enclave for wealthy households. This will further cement the spatial division of the city based on social class.

At the end of July 2016, the NSW government refused to grant heritage status to the Sirius Building despite the Heritage Council recommending this. The decision was justified on the basis that a heritage listing would reduce its value by A$70 million.

A third objection relates to the human cost of the move. The government’s insistence that all of the residents have to move out of their homes, whatever their history, age and disability, has been viewed as particularly harsh.

Who considers the human toll?

In March 2016, I interviewed a 91-year-old ex-Sirius Building resident who had been moved. He did know anybody in his new location and was totally isolated.

Mary, who has lived in the area for around 55 years, is refusing to move. She described the devastating psychological impact of the government’s intentions:

I don’t think I’ve been the same person, emotionally you know. I’ve been a bit of a nervous wreck. I’ve been angry and can’t sleep … So you just think, “What’s life all about?”

Despite their initial resolve to fight for their homes, most of the residents have succumbed to the pressure to move out. Peter Boyle/AAP

In November 2015, the government agreed to renovate existing stock and create 28 apartments (24 were one-bedroom, one is two-bedroom and three are three-bedroom) to accommodate Millers Point residents who were refusing to move. However, most of the residents had moved by the time of this announcement.

Most of those who remained felt the units were too small and not suitable for older, more frail residents. By August 2016, only 13 of the units had been occupied.

What the remaining residents are demanding is that they, and especially the elderly among them, be allowed to stay in Millers Point in their present homes or alternatives ones that they have identified as suitable. Their lives are totally enmeshed with the area.

State enjoys windfall, tenants lose out

At the beginning of August 2016, 94 Millers Point properties had been sold for $264 million, with a median sale price of $2.48 million per dwelling. If the trend continues, it is estimated that the sale will realise $884 million, nearly $400 million more than the government’s projection of $500 million.

Residents posed the obvious questions: why can’t some of this largesse be used to repair the public housing dwellings, which they argue have been severely neglected? And why is the building of more public housing solely dependent on the sale of public housing in Millers Point and the Sirius Building?

Surely, the building of social housing should be financed by general revenue. This question becomes more pressing in light of the NSW government having a budget surplus of $3.4 billion in 2015-16, which is forecast to grow to $3.7 billion in 2016-17.

The surplus is mainly due to the property boom in Sydney since mid-2013. Revenue from stamp duty totalling $8.9 billion in 2016-17 is predicted to rise to $9.8 billion in 2019-20.

A just city is premised on democratic decision-making, the maintenance of diversity and social mix, and the dissipating of inequality. The removal of Millers Point residents and the decision to sell off and demolish the Sirius Building has been an intensely undemocratic process. Residents’ requests for a genuine dialogue and compromise have been largely ignored.

The move will intensify the already severe spatial divide between rich and poor in Sydney. The social mix that is a feature of Millers Point will be obliterated along with its rich history – an irreversible tragedy.