19 Aug 2013

Can Millers Point Fight Gentrification?

By Evan Jones

Buildings are an asset but people are a cost. That's how the O'Farrell Government sees social housing - especially in valuable parts of Sydney, like Millers Point, writes Evan Jones

In October 2012 the O’Farrell Government announced that it intended to sell off the entire public housing stock at Millers Point in inner Sydney.

Millers Point is of enormous historical significance. It was the hub from which Sydney Cove traded with the Old World and housed the coastal shipping link to other colonial settlements. It was the early home to merchant princes and the long term home to the labour that moved the goods.

Millers Point is bordered on its east by the commercialised touristy neighbour, The Rocks, under which latter name it is regularly subsumed.

Carved out from historic Millers Point on its west is Barangaroo. Formerly East Darling Harbour, or "the Hungry Mile" to its wharfies, it was destined for redevelopment with the decision to move all commercial shipping to Botany Bay. Contrary to public and expert opinion, the O’Farrell Government is planning a white collar enclave (plus high roller casino) for Barangaroo.

The NSW Finance Minister, Greg Pearce, claimed:

"Inevitably, when considering the future of Millers Point, the government needs to consider it in the context of all of the surrounding areas, including the Barangaroo redevelopment area." 

It appears that public housing tenants give off a bad odour. The poor are always with us, but preferably far removed.

The humble residents of Millers Point have perennially been playthings in the hands of a succession of authorities. In 1900 the State Government resumed the area, ostensibly because of the outbreak of plague. But historians Shirley Fitzgerald and Christopher Keating highlight that the reasons lay elsewhere.

The first reason was to nationalise the wharves and modernise them, and the Sydney Harbour Trust (SHT) was created towards this end. The second was to facilitate reclamation for the ultimate construction of a harbour bridge (with significant dislocation in the 1920s).

Much housing was demolished as the Point was reshaped, centred on the present-day Hickson Road. But the wharves needed labour, and readily available. Thus the SHT came to build more residences after 1908, and shops and even hotels to service the residents. The SHT (after 1936, the Maritime Services Board) became the landlord, if reluctant, to local residents.

The SHT/MSB’s partial neglect had mixed implications. Internal repairs and alterations were done by tenants at their discretion, and many tenancies became hereditary – contributing to a local sense of "ownership" and social cohesion.

More housing disappeared (and the point itself of Millers Point) during the 1960s as the MSB accommodated container shipping, and the Harbour Control Tower was built in 1974.

The 1960s also saw developers sniffing out virgin territory for high rise. Such development was already creeping up from the southern end. The Askin government created the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority in 1968 but developer optimism ran into the unexpected brick wall that was the Green Bans movement. The hostile invasion was repelled.

A Public Service Board audit in the early 1980s forced the MSB to divest non-port related land. Residents became Housing Commission (now Housing NSW) tenants by default. There is a change of status, subtle but important, from state-owned housing to public housing.

Housing NSW never adjusted to its peculiar inheritance of Millers Point with its historic and irregular real estate and the historic and non-subservient community that resided therein. It proceeded to systematically neglect required maintenance, often strategically so. It closed shops and closed the post office to disadvantage tenants.

As Finance Minister Pearce claimed in October:

"Much of the Land and Housing Corporation's portfolio at Millers Point is poorly suited for social housing, being heritage-listed older houses which cannot be modified to meet modern requirements, particularly access requirements, and are expensive to maintain."

If Housing NSW had committed itself to responsible maintenance from the beginning of its tenure as landlord, costs might have been better under control.

Interviews conducted by Penelope Bowyer-Pont in 2011 for a Macquarie University thesis disclose that maintenance is not the landlord’s only foible. Residents highlight that officers have been consistently inaccessible. This in spite of the Mission Statement, "We are committed to transparency in all of our business endeavours".

The Green Bans and Wran Labor’s 1977 Heritage Act saved most of the buildings, but not the people, who remained fair game. Ditto for the Heritage listing of all properties in 2007.

In 1985 Unsworth Labor handed over the Walsh Bay precinct to private developers. In 1988-89 the Greiner Coalition Government attempted to sell off some housing plus a couple of hotels, including the iconic Hero of Waterloo. That attempt, symptomatic of the Greiner era, was then too brazen to succeed.

In 2006, Iemma Labor proposed the 99-year lease of 16 properties, the revenue purportedly to contribute to the public housing budget. The properties went in 2008, with the then Housing Minister noting that the government needed "the most bang for our buck". This was supposed to be a one-off. But another 20 properties were added in 2010-11. And now the lot.

Housing NSW’s PR screed for the de facto sell-off in 2007 claimed "prestigious, heritage-listed properties … located in a stunning part of the city". Robert McCuaig, of Colliers International, consultant to the Government, claimed that the housing involved “lazy assets”, an “extremely inefficient waste of capital and resources”.

Lazy assets indeed. As Bowyer-Pont reported from a new resident of Millers Point opining to an old, the former having sunk their hard-earned into an expensive renovation: “Why do you think you have the right to stay here?”

For the authorities, and particularly the predatory real estate agents, the tenants exist at best; they don’t inhabit. Here is a latter day terra nullius. As for the idea of community, that intangible glue that gives a landscape vibrancy, humanity – inconceivable for public housing. Lacking acculturation, public housing tenants thus can live anywhere, and they will live anywhere because it is at our discretion.

Housing NSW is now a division within the Department of Family and Community Services, and the Land and Housing Corporation (created in 2001) was moved into the Department of Finance and Services when the O’Farrell Government took office in April 2011. The people (a cost) and the real estate (a valuable asset) have been administered separately, and without a Minister for Housing.

Here is the bureaucratic cultural divide: Family & Community Services, a bottomless pit of human casualties and unsolvable problems, is an endless drain on the Treasury. The Government wants to shift public housing in its entirety (and child care) onto the federal budget.

The City Council, under Mayor Clover Moore, has long been involved with the residents and has supported retention of the area for social housing. But the State Government, disdainful of Moore’s Council, refuses cooperation even on a simple integrated cycleway, let alone on Millers Point.

Early in 2013, the O’Farrell Government engaged a consultancy to do a Social Impact Assessment Survey of the impact of the planned sell-off and dispersal of the residents. Rather than being passive bystanders, a group representative of residents, CoRE, was established to provide input – people with experience, involvement, memory, a legacy, and (inextricably!) a collective consciousness.

Options that CoRE has offered to the LHC include conversion to a Cooperative structure or restructured under a Community Tenancy Association. Currently vacant houses would be sold to finance renovations and development of the alternative structure. The consultation process continues.

Two unexpected developments occurred in early August. An Auditor-General’s report, Making the Best Use of Public Housing, exposes the budgetary crisis. Nevertheless, the report claims that LHC’s de facto response of selling off properties (budgeted at $165 million for 2012-13) and rationing capital/maintenance expenditure "is not financially sustainable long-term".

More, following the sacking of the troubled Greg Pearce from the Finance Ministry, LHC has been (desirably) relocated to FACS. The FACS website plays a straight bat:

“This change will allow for better coordination of policy settings across tenant and asset management to improve services and lives for vulnerable people in NSW.”

Millers Point embodies both the general financing dilemma of social housing and a legend in state/social housing provision. Can wholesale gentrification of Millers Point be resisted? 

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