Sydney's last stand: the residents holding out against gentrification

A government-driven revitalisation project is turning public housing – including the waterfront Sirius building with its 90-year-old hold-out resident – into private developments. It is seen by some as ‘aggressive social cleansing’

It is one of the last few weeks in the slow emptying of Sydney’s Sirius building, and Myra Demetriou is keen to talk about spoons. Sitting in her waterfront apartment, the 90-year-old ex-church deaconess has relocation on her mind, and in a cabinet above her couch, enamelled souvenir spoons keep track of every city she’s ever visited.

Demetriou lives alone by the harbour in the suburb of Millers Point. Her building, an architecturally adored icon of Sydney public housing, has found itself on land too valuable for its own good. In 2014, the New South Wales government told the suburb’s 400 residents their government housing would be sold to private developers.

Demetriou has clung on and is one of the building’s last two residents. But every week she is forced to test alternative accommodation, despite having, by her own admission, knees that don’t work, no sight in one eye and less than 5% in the other.

“Someone told me that in other states, in social housing, once you’re over 65 they can’t move you out,” she says. “Not here.”

In the nearby suburbs of Waterloo and Redfern, 4,000 social housing residents are facing a similar prospect. The Central to Eveleigh project is a $550m (£330m) revitalisation plan to turn rail yards into high-rises and public housing into part-private development. Its centrepiece is a new train station on land currently used by the government housing of the Waterloo estate.

Land values in Sydney have been growing at a faster rate than anywhere in Australia – the median house price has doubled since 2009, from $550,000 to $1.1m, and a report in January ranked Sydney the second least affordable housing market in the world.

This has sparked a government strategy affecting Millers Point and Waterloo: trade valuable inner-city social housing – never quite as dense as it could be, occasionally in disrepair – for newer, cheaper, more numerous housing elsewhere, easing the state’s 60,000 person-strong waiting list.

According to the state government, the sale of Millers Point alone will raise $500m and fund 1,500 new social housing dwellings in the city’s outer western suburbs. But to many, surging rents and the public eradication of the city’s few high-profile housing estates give the impression that inner Sydney is no longer a place where poorer people can live.

The Sirius building overlooking The Rocks in Sydney, Australia.
The Sirius building overlooking The Rocks in Sydney, is being sold off to private developers. Photograph: Katherine Lu/Save Our Sirius

Richard Weeks, a retired teacher and president of the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group, describes it as “one of the most aggressive social cleansing programmes by any government in the southern hemisphere”.

“What’s happening at Millers Point is government-driven gentrification,” adds Shaun Carter, the NSW President of the Australian Institute of Architects.

For Demetriou, it’s evidence of how the government has mismanaged these places for years. “Every big city in the world has got at least 20% social housing. And we’re a rich country. Why are we different?”

“There’s a big stock of social housing in the city, but it’s declining,” says Philip Thalis, a city councillor and former public architect with 30 years’ experience. “The City of Sydney has a target of 7.5% affordable housing, and that target is currently being exceeded. But as there is intense redevelopment with virtually no new public housing being built, that percentage is dropping just through the arithmetics of it.”

In government parlance, “social housing” is an umbrella term that covers both public housing (fully government-owned) and “affordable” or community housing, run by third-party NGOs, charities or corporations, sometimes with government subsidies.

“In England it’s quite common to have an affordable housing target of 30%, but here at the new Green Square development it’s only 3%, which is a tragically low figure,” says Thalis.

Currently, Central to Eveleigh features only 88 affordable dwellings, built by community housing provider City West Housing in 2015. There are no plans for any more. “It’s crazy. We thought, and everyone thought, there was going to be a lot more,” says Janelle Goulding, City West’s CEO.

New South Wales has the largest social housing system in Australia, with 150,000 dwellings and 290,000 individuals. One in three tenants are children or young adults, and the state’s Indigenous population is notably overrepresented.

In Redfern, Indigenous elder Jenny Munro has seen the steady loss of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander residents from a suburb known for its working-class, Indigenous history. She sees Central to Eveleigh and other government development as the next frontier.

“If we can’t stop it, we will be moved,” she says. “We will be expunged from here. You won’t see any black people around.”

Protest outside Sirius building
Hundreds of people rallied at the Sirius building last year, demanding the NSW government heritage list the 30 year old building. Photograph: Tom Rabe/AAP

Life in Sirius

For Shaun Carter, the brutalist, critically feted Sirius is the blueprint for how to mix public and private housing in the inner city. “Sirius does all the urban design things right. It’s purpose-built housing for people that need housing. It puts people from the community back into the community.”

From its completion in 1980, the Sirius building – visible from the Sydney Harbour Bridge – aimed to reflect the kind of social mix you’d expect of a well-integrated city, with homes for singles, older people and large low-income working families. Designed by Danish architect Tao Gofers, the building has an impressive quality of what architects call “human scale”.

“You can walk in without feeling intimidated by it,” Claire McCaughan, former director of the Sydney Architecture Festival, told the Australian Financial Review. It’s a kind of modular living, reminiscent of Japanese capsules or stacked concrete boxes. Natural light, large windows and sea reflection give off a sort of aquarium feel, as if fishbowls were made pleasant for humans.

For Demetriou, clinically blind and immobile, it is the most accessible building she has ever lived in. There isn’t a single raised step between the street and her front door. She knows where everything is and can find her postbox by touch.

Demetriou has lived in Millers Point since 1972, and in the Sirius building since 2008. “At the time [in the 1970s], this was working wharves,” she says. “It’s always been a very close community. I immediately became friends with my neighbours, and you were never short of someone to talk to or ring up.

“But now, because so many people have moved away, they’re frightened they’re going to close the school down. There’s hardly any kids in the area. It’s very sad.”

According to the NSW government, the Millers Point sales will fund public housing in a range of outer suburbs – the closest, Peakhurst, is 20km from the Sydney central business district; the furthest, Warilla and Mount Warrigal, lie 130km away, past the coastal city of Wollongong.

Pru Goward, the new minister for Family and Community Services, may consider it a simple matter of arithmetic for the public interest. She told the Guardian in 2014 that she could not “look the 57,000 people on the waiting list in the eye when we preside over such an unfair distribution of subsidies”.

But Carter disagrees: “You’re taking people who are already vulnerable and putting them out in the margins. When you put them out west in these areas which are poorly serviced by public transport, and 50km away from jobs in the CBD, you’re entrenching vulnerability.

“They could have allowed people to age in place and gradually move those properties on, but the government is aggressive. It’s seeking to create an enclave of the haves by removing the have-nots.”

Myra Demetriou
Myra Demetriou has been asked to move to an inner-city suburb. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Waterloo estate is home to 4,000 residents and six spindly, Soviet-style towers named for Maori words (Matavai, Turanga) and colonial botanists (Banks, Daniel Solander). Unlike Millers Point and its genteel social mix, the Waterloo estate has a rougher reputation; residents are open about past issues with drugs and crime.

The nearby McKell estate, further into the neighbouring suburb of Redfern, made headlines in August 2014 when Harriet Wran, the daughter of a former state premier, was arrested for her role in the murder of a local drug dealer, Daniel McNulty.

But the market doesn’t mind. In December, a renovated terraced house opposite the towers – airy, bright, three bedrooms – sold for $1.2m. Over two years its value had increased by $300,000.

From mid-2018, Waterloo estate will be replaced by a new development: three times as dense and 70% privately owned. The low-income housing that remains will be further sliced into public housing and non-government affordable housing.

City councillors are calling the new plan “the densest residential development in urban Australia”. It is twice the density of London’s Battersea Power Station estate, and is matched only by parts of urban Hong Kong – although the state government contests the precise projections.

Nevertheless, Sydney’s directly elected lord mayor, Clover Moore, described it as “wholesale carnage” that would “condemn people living in the area to substandard living conditions”.

Gentrified Sydney

Karen Brown , 54, worked as a cleaner for 15 years and has lived on the Waterloo estate since 1991. “The demographics of the private housing have changed,” she says. “It used to be a pretty undesirable area – sharehouses with students and young people who didn’t have lots of money. Now they’re getting bought and renovated by professionals on high incomes, and they’re just out of the price range.”

“I think people aren’t moving out of public housing like they used to because they can’t afford to go anywhere else,” says Paul, a 59-year-old resident of the estate’s Matavai tower who spoke on the condition of a pseudonym.

The Sirius building overlooking The Rocks in Sydney, Australia.
The Sirius building overlooking The Rocks in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Barton Taylor/Save Our Sirius

Sydney-wide, the median rent for a three bedroom dwelling is currently $1,000 a week, up from $780 in 2010, while exit rates from social housing dropped from 8.8% to 6.9% between 2007 and 2013.

Aelwyn Richards, 64, has lived on the estate for 25 years. “With gentrification, it’s usually an almost natural process. But what they want to do here is almost instantly move all these richer people in and reduce the number of povvos,” she says.

The government is adamant the increased density of this new development will allow the estate’s residents to return once work is complete. “There will be no loss of social housing, including in the Central to Eveleigh corridor,” a spokesperson said.

But residents fear a change in the community. “Right now there are services being provided to lower socioeconomic groups,” says Karen. “If all these people move in here, it’ll change the whole socioeconomic mix and the average income, so then, do those services go because we no longer qualify?

“Do they no longer want a drug counselling service running out of your courthouse? Or do you want a gym in there? If they dilute poverty it doesn’t make it go away, it just hides it.”

Jenny Munro has lived in Redfern since 1972 and her daughter lives on the Waterloo estate. She has fought gentrification in the area with a grim, physical determination – in 2014, she and other Indigenous protesters formed a tent embassy on land slated for redevelopment, demanding a guarantee of low-income housing.

“Redfern was always a beacon for a lot of our people,” she says. “In the 70s this was recognised Australia-wide as the heartbeat of the black political movement. This was a vibrant community, with in excess of 40,000 Aboriginal people living here.”

A 2011 census put the Indigenous inhabitants at only 300 – in the very suburb where the first Aboriginal legal service and Aboriginal medical service were founded.

‘Neither sustainable nor fair’

By the government’s own admission, Sydney’s social housing system is failing. A 2014 report described is as “neither sustainable nor fair”.

The NSW government’s solution is a plan known as Future Directions. Over the next 10 years, it intends to hand over a third of public housing to independent community housing providers like those planned for Waterloo.

Janelle Goulding of City West Housing backs the plan, though residents fear it is a slow kind of privatisation. “This government has made it very clear they do not want to be involved in housing. Something drastic needs to happen,” she says. “Community housing has been around for 30 years, and if that’s what privatisation is, then that’s fine.”

But tenants like Paul want to live in public-owned housing: “This is not just for us, this is for the next three or four generations. It’s a safety net for anybody who could need public housing in the future.

“But we have to be a little bit careful,” he adds, “because if we come across as arrogant or not grateful, it’s like what Dickens said: we’ve not only got to be poor, we’ve got to appear and be deserving.”

A week before Christmas, state housing told Demetriou it had a flat for her in Pyrmont, an inner-city suburb roughly 2km away. She was then asked to prove to the department that the steps in the Pyrmont would be too difficult for her.

“There was one step and they didn’t believe I couldn’t climb it, so they made me go up and down until I could hardly use my legs,” she recalls. “I mean, if there’s not a ramp when I cross the road, I can’t even climb up a footpath.”

Demetriou says she doesn’t feel like she’d be able to negotiate a suburb like Pyrmont – she’s still recovering from a fall in 2014 while shopping, when she broke her arm in four places. The department generally only offers tenants two formal choices for moving on, and Myra has already rejected one.

“I’ve got one chance left and then they’ll throw me out on the street,” she says. “They’re trying to offer me something in Alexandria, but it’s only a three-year lease. They’re hoping I’ll drop dead by then.”

She laughs: “It’s not really long-term housing, you see. It’s better to stay somewhere you know.”

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