‘It reminds me of Rio during the Olympics’: accusations fly as Canberra’s vulnerable moved to make way for developers
ACT government says it is spending $600m to renew homes and increase stock but opposition says hope lies in ‘gun-shy investors’
Last modified Tues 31 December 2019
Hundreds of public housing dwellings in the inner suburbs of a major Australian city have been sold to make way for slick new apartments, which the government defends by building new dwellings for the needy at the city’s margins.
No, it’s not the New South Wales Liberal-National government’s sale of public housing at Sydney’s Millers Point, this is happening in Canberra under the Labor-Greens government led by Andrew Barr.
New figures released under freedom of information show there are now 397 fewer public housing dwellings in Braddon than in 2014, with further big reductions along the Northbourne light rail corridor in Turner (123), the inner south in Griffith (150) and Red Hill (146).
*Although increases were recorded in Coombs (152), Moncrieff (143) and Gungahlin (100), the Australian Capital Territory had about 200 fewer public housing units in June 2019 than in 2014. Budget papers confirm that a target for public housing stock of 11,809 was missed, with just 11,700 at the end of 2018-19.
The hollowing out of inner-city public housing has been driven by a government program to replace 1,288 older properties with new homes, which concluded this year.
The ACT Liberals’ housing spokesman, Mark Parton, says the government has “systematically taken a broom along the inner north light rail corridor … sweeping public housing tenants as far from latte-land as they possibly could”.
“I think it’s despicable – it reminds me of Rio [de Janeiro] in the lead-up to the Olympic games forcibly moving homeless people,” Parton says.
“It’s bizarre to think that the people who would have benefited most from the light rail – many of whom don’t own a car – now won’t see the benefit and instead the government is flogging off high-priced apartments to people who drive BMWs and Audis.”
The housing minister, Yvette Berry, says end-of-year stock numbers have fluctuated but “remained relatively stable” since 2000 “without any significant investment from the federal government”.
We have clients who report feeling trapped in public housing that is infrequently serviced by buses and who cannot afford a car Sophie Trevitt
Berry says the government is still committed to a “salt-and-pepper” approach to public housing and the concentration of up to 200 public housing dwellings at old sites did not deliver good social outcomes for tenants and the broader community.
The renewal program built dwellings in relatively new suburbs “with previously little to no public housing” and also delivered 200 replacement properties back into the inner north.
“The government believes that public housing should be available in all parts of Canberra to give tenants a greater choice in where to live,” she says.
But Parton says the government “worked out how they could get as much money as they could out of this” and as a result not enough housing was rebuilt in the suburbs where it was demolished.
Vulnerable isolated from services
The ACT government raised $150m from the sale of land in the inner north alone, with new private housing expected to deliver an ongoing boost through rates and the ACT’s land tax on rental properties.
Stretches of prime real estate either side of Northbourne Avenue are now grassed over awaiting redevelopment; in Turner and Dickson new apartments are being built alongside abandoned public housing structures.
“The biggest reason for my concern is so many of the services set up to look after the homeless or those on the edge of homelessness – tapped into by people in public housing, like the Vinnies night patrol, the early morning centre [at Canberra City Uniting Church] on Northbourne Avenue or Reclink on Ainslie Avenue – were set up there because of the high number of public housing residents,” Parton says.
“Although there are still quite a high number of people there, many who desperately need a helping hand can’t access them any more because they’re out in the suburbs.”
*Nicole Wiggins, the director of the early morning centre, says although some regulars who moved to Gungahlin are no longer able to attend for breakfast, concern about a decrease in numbers accessing the service “didn’t pan out” and demand is as great as ever.
Mark Ransome, the program manager at community group Reclink, says medical, legal and mental health services are harder to access in newer suburbs.
According to Sophie Trevitt, a solicitor at Canberra Community Law, which represents current and prospective public housing tenants, the results are mixed.
“Our clients are some of the most vulnerable members of the Canberra community – by and large, they are just desperate for somewhere to live,” she says.
“Some were happy to be moved from ageing, dilapidated properties in the inner suburbs to newer properties further out – particularly if they were part of larger families being moved into properties with more bedrooms and space outside.”
In particular, Trevitt praises the ACT government’s commitment to ensure all new housing is accessible to people with disabilities.
“However, public transport is not as accessible in the outer suburbs. We have clients who report feeling trapped in public housing that is infrequently serviced by buses and who cannot afford a car,” she says.
Berry says that throughout the renewable program, “Housing ACT worked with all the relocated tenants a year before they were scheduled to move” including consulting them about where they preferred to live.
Tenants “received full wrap around supports including removalists and movers’ services”.
“The majority of replacement properties delivered through the public housing renewal program have been located along public transport service routes.”
Hope lies with ‘gun-shy investors’
The recent changes have made only limited impact on waitlists – according to the government’s own statistics it takes 151 days for a tenant to access priority housing, 625 days for high needs housing and 1,079 days – just shy of three years – for standard housing.
Trevitt says the waitlist affects people like a client of hers on the high-needs list who fled domestic violence in 2018, currently sharing a double bed with her son in a sharehouse of unrelated adults, with no space to store belongings.
Berry says over the next four years the ACT government will spend $600m to renew a further 1,000 homes and to grow the stock by 200 – $100m of which is new money and $500m comes from selling old housing stock.
Berry describes this as “the largest investment in public housing per capita in the country”. Although the last phase of renewal did not increase the number of dwellings, building fewer apartments and more detached houses resulted in 400 more bedrooms in public housing.
Parton expresses scepticism that Labor will deliver an increase in public housing if re-elected in 2020, but does not promise a Liberal government will outperform Labor on that measure.
Instead, Parton argues that community housing “should be playing a much bigger role” because it can provide housing at a “much lower cost than [public housing provider] ACT Housing”.
The Liberals will campaign heavily on a promise to freeze rates, paid by all homeowners, and land tax, paid by investors.
“You can’t separate the public housing crisis from the private rental market – to improve housing affordability you’ve got to get gun-shy investors back to market,” Parton argues, claiming the Liberals policies will give “genuine relief” to renters.
Berry wants the federal government to contribute more, calling on it to forgive $100m of historical housing debt, as it promised to do for the Tasmanian government in a deal with independent senator Jacqui Lambie.
Trevitt says the ACT – like the rest of the country – needs “more and diverse public housing for the many, many people are waiting for somewhere safe, stable and decent to live”.