In March 2014 all social housing tenants in Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks were told they would be ‘relocated’ within two years and their homes sold. A team of twenty Relocation Officers was assigned to the community with the sole task of moving people out. Two years on and the area appears mostly derelict and abandoned – houses boarded up, security guards checking doors of vacant properties at all hours of the day and night, and properties covered with hoardings and scaffolding as new owners commence the urgent repairs the government never did, but amongst the apparent dereliction are a few Save Millers Point banners, about eighty remaining social housing tenants, and almost as many new owners who have moved in and by and large have supported retaining some of the social housing tenants, especially those with long connections to the area.
On the day that marked two years surviving the pressure of the Relocation Officers, the community held a march down Kent Street followed by a rally and picnic on the Village Green. It was a day of celebration, and also a moment to take stock and look for what might be the final solution for the Save Millers Point campaign. (See here for photos and stories of the march and rally.)
The government has been surpassing all expectations with the prices they have achieved as Millers Point houses are sold. Some of the grand old heritage houses have been selling for more than four million dollars each. This is an astounding amount of money, and whether or not it goes towards building new public housing elsewhere, it has long been agreed that these heritage houses, which were acquired as a by-product of reshaping the landscape to create efficient shipping, wharves and storage more than one hundred years ago, are beyond the ability of government agencies to maintain. It was the community that called on the government to sell these houses, and to retain the purpose-built workers flats and the Sirius building. (Read here about the community calling on the government to sell the grand heritage houses, here to see and read about the early 20th-century workers flats in the area, and here for the story of Sirius and the 1970s Green Bans that led to its construction.)
The government has not been able to sell the houses and flats from which it has ‘relocated’ people, and a huge number still remain vacant. It seems to have focused on moving the community away rather than selling the properties made vacant. In the meantime, many of the vacant properties could have provided housing to those forced out, or to others requiring emergency or other housing amongst the 60,000 people on the government’s waiting list.
Below is the government’s own map of vacant properties at the beginning of 2016. The government describes properties in the area at the time as 82% vacant. Vacant properties include those coloured yellow and aqua, as well as most of those coloured purple, as almost none of the freehold purchases has yet received approval and completed the extensive repairs most of these houses require.
Since January 2016, a few of the occupied properties shown on this map have been vacated, and the government is on track to market and sell fifty of these properties between January and the end of June. But what is the future of the remaining social housing tenants and their community?
The government has provided twenty-eight flats for some of the eighty-odd public housing tenants who remained. Some were told they were not eligible for these properties, including Eve, Robbie, Margie and her family. Others were allocated places that were inappropriate, including Myra who was allocated a one-bedroom basement flat with a dangerous entry where she would have been likely to fall again. (She has recently returned to her Sirius apartment after eight months of treatment after she fell and broke her arm in four places.)
Myra remains apprehensive inside Sirius where she is the only remaining resident on her floor, and where workmen and security officers are often in the corridors on her floor, but do not tell her who they are or why they are there. But she is also hopeful that the government will not turn her out from of the only home and community she has known for fifty years. Myra is blind, ninety years old in November and independent, but relies on the people around her and relies on knowing her way around the only neighbourhood she has known for more than fifty years.
Barney remains in his High Street home, only a few doors from where he was born, and in the neighbourhood he has lived all of his sixty-five years.
Wendy lives around the corner in Little High Street, in the same flat to which the police brought her and her babies more than thirty years ago.
Together, these and the other eighty or so public housing residents have created a successful and close-knit community. There are solutions to save this community and at the same time to give the government all it wants.
Below are some key points about why the Millers Point community should be saved, and the best way to do this.
THE MILLERS POINT COMMUNITY*
Millers Point is an accidental social history location that deserves to be retained as a rare example of an inner city working community, not just buildings.
Community is important. We are a wealthy city – we invest millions into arts and reenactments, memorials and celebrations of our past and events that have shaped our nation, an element of which is ‘wash’. We have the resources to protect valuable historical and unique community in Australia and real living history that goes back to first settlement and includes indigenous people.
Retaining long term residents is important as holders of social history which teaches us about our past, who we are as a people.
Having an example of the benefits of retaining long term residents is good, it gives us a unique example of how people live collaboratively and create social capital: inclusion, tolerance, and understanding of diversity is easier in functioning communities. Functioning communities are more able to look after themselves, reducing the demand on welfare and aged care. A stable, long term population of residents reduces likelihood of crime.
The community in Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks is unique in Australia, with living history that goes back to first settlement. It should be preserved and celebrated.
Moving older people in the ways the government proposes to unfamiliar areas will serve as a bad example of what happens when communities are undermined. The survival of the individuals will be questionable, as social links are broken. We need examples of responsible community networks to show pother areas what works.
There are enough empty houses becoming derelict. It is awful to live amongst them, it is terrible for the houses themselves as empty houses fall into disrepair faster than those that are occupied, and these properties should be providing accommodation for people in need while the government sells the empty houses it has already.
The haste with which people are being forced out of their homes is unnecessary. The government could allow people to stay where they are, to age in place, especially those in their eighties and nineties. It appears pointless and cruel to force them out and then leave houses vacant for extended periods. So let the government sell the grand old terraces of Millers Point, but keep a few of these properties a little longer while the current residents remain, or until alternative accommodation is available for them.
Many of the remaining residents have offered to move to other accommodation in Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks, and there is a strong case for keeping for public housing some of the early 20th-century workers flats, and keeping some of the Sirius apartments while perhaps selling some part of this complex to provide more funds for the government.
Below is the first page of Clover Moore’s letter to Mark Speakman calling on him to accept the Heritage Council’s recommendation for listing Sirius as an item of State Significance and retaining it for public housing. Click on the letter for a PDF of all pages.
* Thank you to Friends of Millers Point patron Eva Cox whose thoughts and comments are the basis of the section under the Millers Point Community heading.