Robert Mowbray has prepared the following material to explode some of the myths about social housing and Millers Point…
In March 2014 the NSW Government announced plans to sell its housing stock in Millers Point and re-locate all of its tenants. Let’s explode some of the myths that bedevil the debate.
Firstly, there are many myths around social housing itself.
Q. What is social housing?
A. Social housing is housing that is regulated by the government and let to eligible persons at affordable rents. The main forms are:
Public housing that is managed by the government itself. In New South Wales, it is managed by Housing NSW, part of the Department of Family and Community Services, and there are about 110,000 public housing dwellings.
Community housing that is managed by not-for-profit community-based organisations. In New South Wales, there are about 35, 000 community housing dwellings.
Q. What rents do social housing tenants pay?
A. Most social housing tenant pay about 25 per cent of their household income in rent. A few on higher incomes pay the market rent for their dwelling.
Q. What happens to the rent collected by the NSW Government?
A. Rents from tenants are by far the largest source of income for the NSW Land and Housing Corporation. This is the government agency that owns most of the State’s social housing. In total, social housing tenants paid more than $760 million in rent in 2012-13. This is five times the amount of government grants to the Corporation. 2
Q. Are tax dollars paid to social housing tenants in the form of subsidies?
A. No. No taxpayer funds are given to tenants or credited to their rent accounts.
The subsidy that the State Government talks about is a book entry only. It is the difference between the market rent that is assigned to each social housing property and income-related rents that the tenant actually pays. So if the NSW Land and Housing Corporation increases its market rents, the apparent subsidies increase. But these subsidies are a figure of accounting only.
Q. Private tenants have to put up with being made to move a lot. Why shouldn’t social housing tenants?
A. It’s awful how often some private tenants are made to move by landlords. But selling off social housing isn’t going to help that: it just means more people are made insecure in their homes.
Millers Point and The Rocks
Secondly, there is much misinformation and prejudice that cloud discussion. Let’s examine the facts.
Q. How many social housing properties in Millers Point and The Rocks does the State Government propose to sell off?
A. All 293 social housing properties in Millers Point and the Rocks are proposed to be sold before March 2016. This includes 79 apartments in the Sirius building.
Q. How many tenants will be affected?
A. About 600 persons, in 409 tenancies, have been affected.
Q. Who lives in social housing in Millers Point?
A. About half of social housing tenants in Millers Point are aged 60 years and older. Some have lived in the area for many years – a few have lived there all their lives, as did generations of their families before them – while others are more recent arrivals. Together they are remarkably strong and supportive community.
Q. How did Millers Point tenants get their tenancies?
A. Some got them the usual way: they applied to Housing NSW for social housing, were eligible, and were offered a tenancy in the area. Other long-term tenants got their tenancies from the old Maritime Services Board, which owned the properties until the early 1980s. They became tenants of Housing NSW when it took over ownership of the properties.
Q. Have tenancies in Millers Point been inherited?
A. No. In some cases, where a tenant dies or goes into a nursing home, Housing NSW may offer a tenancy to a remaining household member, if they’re eligible. This applies in social housing across New South Wales.
Q. Did the State Government consult with all the tenants before deciding to sell off all social housing?
A. No. Prior to the announcement of the sell-off, the State Government conducted a ‘social impact assessment’, which only considered the impact of selling off properties in Millers Point, not The Rocks. The report of the social impact assessment recommended that the State Government consider allowing long-term tenants to remain in place. The State Government rejected this recommendation.
Q. Is the heritage significance of Millers Point and The Rocks under threat?
A. Yes. The 214 social housing properties in Millers Point and Gloucester Street, The Rocks are State heritage listed. The Government proposes to sell all 214 properties in less than two years (by March 2016). By contrast, the previous program of sales in Millers Point sold just 29 properties in six years. The Government’s current sales program risks flooding the market for these unusual properties, and puts the heritage significance of Millers Point and The Rocks under threat from buyers not skilled or interested in heritage conservation. If a developer acquires a substantial holding of these properties, there might be proposals for demolition or merely facade retention, similar to the way one wharf at Walsh Bay was demolished in its redevelopment, and similar even to government-owned heritage houses in Gloucester Street which have been gutted internally and converted to office spaces.
Q. Why does the State Government own heritage-listed social housing?
A. There are about 3,000 social housing properties in New South Wales that are significant for local or State heritage. Indeed, the 214 properties in Millers Point and Gloucester Street, The Rocks, are the only ones of State heritage significance. These properties were compulsorily acquired by the government at the beginning of last century. Here is more about the major redevelopment of the Millers Point area between 1900 and the 1930s.
It is longstanding State Government policy that government departments should retain heritage assets that show the history of the department and its activities. The use of the properties at Millers Point and The Rocks for social housing has been fundamental to conserving their heritage significance.
Q. Does it cost a lot to maintain the properties at Millers Point and The Rocks?
A. The properties in the Millers Point area are old and heritage-listed, so cost more than most other properties to maintain. The State Government says it has spent $6.8 million on repairs and maintenance there in the past two years. The Tenants’ Union of NSW estimates that about two-thirds of this cost has been covered by the rents paid by tenants.
Q. What about the Sirius building?
A. Sirius is a building of 79 apartments in Cumberland Street, The Rocks, and is quite different from the other social housing properties being sold off. Sirius was purpose-built as social housing for tenants displaced by redevelopment in The Rocks in the late 1970s. It is relatively young (average age for social housing properties in New South Wales is 45 years), in good physical condition, and not heritage-listed (though many people think it should be). The sale of the Sirius building was never part of the ‘social impact assessment’.
Q. Will the proceeds of the Millers Point sales be used to buy additional social housing elsewhere?
A. Not necessarily. The State Government has said the sales proceeds will be ‘reinvested’ – but it has not committed to buying or building more social housing.
When asked in Budget briefings whether the ‘reinvestment’ will result in a net increase in social housing, the State Government stated that it would be ‘line ball’. It is entirely possible that sales proceeds will be spent on subsidies for clients in the private rental market.
Q. Are there any options other than a complete sell-off?
A. Yes. The State Government could keep all the remaining properties in social housing. Alternatively, it could sell some properties that are already vacant to fund renovations for the remainder, which would keep maintenance costs down and make social housing in the area sustainable into the future; or it could sell properties only as they become vacant, thereby allowing tenants to age in place. Indeed, the SGS Economic Planning report provides an alternative way forward for Millers Point. Check out the complete report at: http://www.sgsep.com.au/assets/Millers-Point-Final-Report.pdf