‘These are people’s homes’: the art project making public housing in Sydney's Waterloo glow

With the largest inner-city housing estate set for demolition and privatisation, residents have banded together – to stunning effect

Every night for the past few weeks, the twin towers at the Waterloo public housing estate have slowly begun to light up.

At 30 storeys, the Matavai and Turanga buildings loom over the rest of the estate, and at 5.30pm each evening new windows have started blinking on like fairy lights to join the others. One might be blue, another magenta, another yellow; some fade through the colour wheel, and others strobe or flash.

Across the Sydney skyline on a clear night, the effect is gorgeous – but the public art project behind it, We Live Here, has a loftier goal. Residents have been offered a five-metre strip of LED lights to be installed in their windows, if they want to take part; with a remote control, they can change its colour according to their mood or taste. The aim is to communicate to the outside world that real people are living there – and remind the New South Wales government of their duty to protect them.

In the words of Catherine Skipper, who has lived at Matavai since 2010: “These are people’s homes. They’re not just ‘real estate.’”

Matavai and Turanga public housing towers are lit up as part of the We Live Here highrise community light project
Lit up: the Matavai and Turanga public housing towers in Waterloo, Sydney. Photograph: #WeLiveHere2017

The towers were purpose-built in the 1970s for over-65s, some of whom have now lived there for decades. But as gentrification sweeps through Sydney, a $550m government-driven revitalisation project has different plans for the 19-hectare estate and its 4,000 residents: to destroy the existing buildings and make way for new ones that will be three times as densely populated and 70% privately owned.

Richard Weeks, president of the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group, has described the program as “one of the most aggressive social cleansing programs by any government in the southern hemisphere”. But the state government says it is a necessary way to deliver “more homes alongside better public transport, new parks and community facilities”. It has promised “most tenants will be relocated within Waterloo” and the amount of social housing within the new development will remain the same.

The estate’s residents were told of the plans just before Christmas in 2015, by way of a letter from then-minister for social housing Brad Hazzard. It began with the phrase “I am excited to let you know” – a stinging opening for the paragraphs to come, which detailed a new train station and redevelopment that would see each resident evicted.

The letter assured them they could “remain in Waterloo after the redevelopment”, but since then, as the government continues its 18-month-long planning process, there has been little more information about when the residents will be shipped out, where they will be moved to and at what point they will be allowed back.

The project is expected to take up to 20 years. Residents who don’t live that long – and there will be many – will spend the rest of their lives in uncertainty. Catherine Skipper thinks she could be one of them.

Catherine Skipper, resident at Waterloo public housing estate
‘These are people’s homes. They’re not just real estate’: Catherine Skipper at home with Finnegan. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Skipper has lived in a double flat on the seventh floor of Matavai for six years. She fell in love with Waterloo immediately, she says – yes, even the ibises – and her friend Fiona has been in the building since the 80s. The pair meet some mornings in the community area outside the elevator, to share a crossword in the sun.

“Most of the people I know here feel they’re being dispossessed of their home,” Skipper says. “And it makes them feel very tense, because they have no real, actual prospect outlined for them. It’s vague. You don’t really know what is going to happen, or when it’s going to happen ... That’s all really people will say: ‘But when? When is this going to happen?’

“When we raise these questions, often the answers we get are, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll pay for someone else to pack you up and ship you out’, as if that’s actually going to assuage our grief; as if that was all we were worried about.”

Skipper’s flat is warm, bright and full of books and art. A retired school teacher, she is also an artist, and has been stencil-bombing the streets around her home with a drawing of the buildings and a tagline: “Save the twin towers”.

Her two small dogs, Bobby and Finnegan, yap around us as we chat. (“When Bobby doesn’t like what’s happening, he’ll stare you straight in the eye and wee on the floor,” I’m warned.) Bobby won’t let me on his couch, so she invites me on to Finnegan’s, making space by moving the book she’s reading, Peter Marcuse’s In Defence of Housing.

Waterloo public housing residents light up their windows.
‘Every single light installation is a conversation.’ Photograph: Steph Harmon/The Guardian

“I fail to be impressed by the terminology used by the government. I know what government speak is,” she says. “‘Redevelopment’ means demolition, destruction ... You don’t ‘relocate’ people, they’re not pieces of paper you take from one box and put into another.”

Skipper’s was the first flat to have the LED lights installed by volunteers. They’ve been glowing softly from her bedroom window since December 2016. The We Live Here art project began even earlier with community consultations, but only recently began rolling out in earnest, ahead of a 9 September launch.

The day I visit, Clare Lewis – who lives in private housing nearby, and who has spearheaded We Live Here and is making a film about it – is installing a second set of lights in Skipper’s living room, around a window that overlooks the park outside.

Lewis first had the idea of lighting up the buildings before the redevelopment was announced, as a type of public art installation. But once she learned of the fate of the building, the project became about activism – “a statement of habitation, and of presence”, she explains.

Lewis moved to Waterloo 11 years ago from the UK, and remembers reading the announcement. “You know when you just feel the bottom drop out of your stomach ... the gravity and the extent of it was just so phenomenal,” she says.

“As private tenants, it’s not really our place to fight for public housing, so [it was important] to get a sense of community ownership around the project.” She reached out to the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group, and began going to the weekly meetings they held, and consulting with the residents more widely.

“It started kind of snowballing in exactly the way that we hoped, so that it wasn’t just this imposed project; that the people were taking pride in and ownership of it ... [Soon] it became a whole community project.”

Lewis was bankrolling We Live Here herself until Sydney’s Art & About organisation offered some funds. She made a makeshift office on the ground floor of Turanga and organised volunteers around the campaign (there are now 20 or 30, some of whom live in the estate). They mapped out each window, each resident they wanted to target; they dropped off multilingual fliers at each apartment, knocked on doors to follow up, and took notes of which residents said yes and which said no. Then they got busy setting the lights up in each flat that wanted them.

“We were well aware from the beginning that every single light installation is a conversation and the start of a miniature relationship,” Lewis says. “We have tried not to presume that they’re just going to let us in and let us whack in lights.”

As of Tuesday, 234 of the 480 windows were lit up. Lewis and the team are hoping for more before Saturday’s official launch. “It’s been this quite lovely organic process: every day there’s another three or four nights, so every night it’s a little bit brighter,” she says.

But the lights that switch on together at 5.30pm each night switch off at 11pm – and this moment holds just as much meaning for Skipper.

“From the lights and liveliness and vitality of it, then just comes the blackness,” she says. “After all, these buildings will be destroyed. And that matters to me.”

#WeLiveHere2017 opens from 5-8pm on Saturday 9 September, at Matavai and Turanga Towers on Waterloo Green, Waterloo, as part of Art & About Sydney. Follow the project on Instagram


Steph Harmon

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Housing incentives fail to ease Sydney's affordability crisis
Government incentives in Australia’s priciest market led to construction of less than 1% of total affordable homes

Christopher Knaus

09, Apr, 2018 @3:12 PM

Article image
How Sydney's overheated housing market keeps young people on the streets
Runaway house prices are the talk of city dinner parties, but they also make it harder for young people to move out of homeless services into private accommodation

Paul Karp and Michael Safi

12, Feb, 2016 @9:21 PM

Article image
'I feel on the verge of extinction': the battle for Sydney's Waterloo
A 1970s public housing estate in Sydney’s inner city is to be redeveloped, causing its residents great stress. Here, they share with us their personal stories, their concerns and their hopes for the future

Jonny Weeks

11, Jul, 2017 @11:40 PM

Article image
‘Partial privatisation’: Waterloo South public housing tenants say NSW Labor misled residents
Having promised to end sell-offs before the election, Chris Minns’ government forced to defend development plans

Jordyn Beazley

02, Jun, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
Waterloo South public housing residents will be rehoused nearby after sale, NSW government pledges
Exclusive: Tenants feel let down by Labor, but Chris Minns insists sale does not meet ‘definition of privatisation’

Jordyn Beazley and Tamsin Rose

16, May, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
'We're fighting for the same spaces': Are lockout laws killing Sydney's queer culture?
It’s no secret Sydney’s nightlife has suffered under NSW laws, but artists like William Yang say the effect on LGBT spaces has been particularly profound

Steve Dow

09, May, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
State to subsidise rent in two share houses to tackle youth homelessness
Advocates welcome trial scheme but call for long-term solutions including compulsory affordable housing in new developments

Paul Karp

25, Mar, 2016 @3:40 AM

Article image
'Come and talk': Sydney's homeless respond to 'uncomfortable' NSW premier
Rough sleepers reveal domestic violence, lack of permanent housing and being close to services among the reasons they camp in Martin Place’s ‘tent city’

Naaman Zhou

02, Aug, 2017 @6:11 AM

Article image
Banning drug offenders from accessing public housing sets ‘troubling precedent’
Chief of reintegration service for former prisoners claims NSW’s new policy is ‘discriminatory’

Christopher Knaus

07, Mar, 2018 @2:18 AM

Article image
Clover Moore says homeless camp in Sydney's Martin Place will be moved
Those living in tents will be relocated to safe places as early as Tuesday and a new permanent facility built, city’s lord mayor says

Christopher Knaus

07, Aug, 2017 @8:57 AM