MURDER ON LOWER FORT
Whichever celestial being anointed Pru Goward as NSW Planning Minister had a divine sense of humour.
You couldn’t have created a bigger debacle at Millers Point in Sydney if you had been planning it since birth.
In mid-September of 2014, in a scene being repeated a number of times across the historic suburb nestled in next to the southern flanks of the Harbour Bridge, it took 12 policemen and several housing officers to remove squatters from one of the houses on Argyle Place. Posters and banners on surrounding houses sent the message: “Save Our Community”, “Save Our Heritage”, “Save Our Homes”, as did blown up posters of newspaper articles: “The state government is offloading 100s of harbourside homes at Millers Point without economic modelling or an up-to-date social housing plan, raising doubts over the integrity of the controversial sale.”
As the squatters briefly stood their ground in Argyle Place, a band of protestors and other interested parties watched silently or heckled the police, who were just doing their jobs and should never have been placed in the situation they were; and the housing officers, many of whom don’t agree with what they are being asked to do.
After a standoff lasting several hours the students drove off in a late-model Rav-4. In truth they weren’t the genuinely homeless. They were just protesting the bully tactics the NSW State Government has used to rid the Rocks of public housing tenants; and to sell-off some of the most spectacular real estate in Australia.
With just a modicum of common sense and common decency the protests, the waving banners, squatters, distress of the residents and hostile media coverage the state government has generated could all have been avoided.
There were already 60 empty houses at Millers Point when the pogrom began. Most of those houses have yet to be sold. Yet the State Government has mounted a determined effort to move the old public housing tenants on, uniting a once divided “community” whilst creating a wave of sympathetic media coverage. Prior to the then Housing Minister Pru Goward’s announcement of the sell-off there were three community groups dedicated to fighting the rumoured sale of the suburb. The sight of the scheduled six-star casino Barangaroo rising from the mud literally at the end of their streets was laying a deep unrest. But none of them could agree on tactics and no one had a good word to say about anyone else. Then Pru Goward came along. The warring groups united against a common enemy; and in fact have run a brilliant social media and street protest campaign. The media has been on-side; and the organisers have given them all the material they needed to write “brutal Liberal government attacks working class community” stories.
In the last few days, amidst all the banners and posters, photocopied, A-4 sized photographs of elderly residents have been placed in strategic locations around Millers Point, each of them accompanied by stories from their lives: “Everyone had their hotel, but no one used to be exclusive because they knew their mates would be at a different pub at a different time”; “I reckon to move from here, after 50 odd years in Millers Point, will just about see the end of me”; “Boxing Day we used to take over Kent Street, we didn’t ask permission, we’d block off one end all the way up to where the Bridge is now, and we used to play cricket games”; “My five children have fond memories of growing up here”; “I am so stressed, feeling a nervous wreck, shame on the government”.
Yet another of the many ironies in the Debacle of Millers Point is that a significant number of the remaining 300 or so tenants, trapped in derelict or run-down properties, quite a few with rotting carpets and leaking roofs, want to go. They’ve got their hands up, but the department doesn’t have the housing stock to shift them.
The NSW Liberal Party could have adopted a civilised air. At any one time about a quarter of public housing tenants have a request in for relocation, to go and live with their girlfriends or boyfriends, to be closer to children or parents. Much the same result as the 100 houses the government has already emptied could have been achieved simply by asking people politely. A pre-existing desire amongst some to move to better maintained properties and natural attrition in an elderly population would have all combined to give them at least the 100 they now have; if not more. Instead the NSW Planning and Housing Departments have managed to alienate everybody, the tenants, the media, the housing workers themselves, and the police who have to deal with the consequences of their ineptitude.
From overseas research uncovered in a standard literature search in their Social Impact Assessment, the government knew that resettling an elderly population, as at Millers Point, would lead to increased morbidity rates. The NSW Housing Department, presumably under orders from the Minister, shamefully attempted to conceal this information from the general public.
In other words, Pru Goward knew perfectly well that some people would die as a result of the policies she has implemented, first in her role as NSW Housing Minister, then in her role as Planning Minister.
How does that not make her culpable? How is the work of her lieutenants in attempting to conceal the research from the public not a breach of the legislation controlling the behaviour of public servants?
Did Goward have the grace, dignity or plain old-fashioned common decency to come down to Millers Point and tell the people who lived there why their lives were being so mercilessly disrupted? To explain to them why it was important that their homes be sold from under them?
Of course not.
Did the Leader of the Opposition John Robertson, whose party initiated the sell-off, stoop so low as to try and shore up votes amongst the beleaguered elderly; to come down to the Harry Jensen Community Centre in Argyle Place to assure them that the Labor Party would do all it could to help them.
Of course he did.
Beyond providing a case study in appalling media management, in what not to do if you’re a departmental media masseur, there is much to be learnt from the debacle at Millers Point. In a sense it is a microcosm of all that is wrong with public housing in NSW.
There has been a flurry of media stories emphasising the long links that some of the inhabitants have to the area: “my father was a waterfront worker”, “I can remember as a child in the wool season, the big horses with the bales of wool”, “the row of terrace houses that I live in now, it is supposed to be the first row of terrace houses in the country, we moved in here in 1946”.
The large number of tenants with historical links to the area due to the fact that many of the houses were originally rented from the Maritime Services Board, prior to the properties being handed over to the Housing Department more than 20 years ago. But in truth a significant number of the people who inhabited Millers Point had little historic connection, they just happened to have been washed up there on the tides of fortune. The latter-day policy of dumping the mentally ill into Millers Point, rather than finding them appropriate accommodation, exacerbated the difficulties in the area, meaning that for years many of the elderly no longer felt safe outside their own homes.
One banner flying from a terrace balcony reads: “Why should only the Rich Live in the City? Working People Need Homes Here Too.”
Not everyone likes to admit it, but with the exception of the long-term residents who ended up under the mantle of the Housing Department through the transition of properties from the Maritime Services Board more than 20 years ago, there is some truth to the quip “the working class who never worked”. The upwardly grasping middle classes who throng the Rocks at the weekend, admiring, above all else, the real estate, often ask loudly as they eye the less salubrious local housing tenants: “How do they do it?”
The answer is easy enough. People usually end up in public housing because something has gone badly wrong in their lives.
While the mythologising of a local “community” with historical links to the area has struck a chord with many Sydneysiders, there are many who ended up in Millers Point by happenstance. Apart from a few happy drunks at the bus stops, who make easy material for time-poor journalists, the flotsam and jetsam of misfits, the mentally ill and the dysfunctional who also make up a significant percentage of the Millers Point population have been ignored. Yet another slate in the largely unwritten history of Sydney’s underclass is being wiped clean, without any documentation to prove who they were, or why they were.
One of the apartment blocks, known perhaps not so affectionately as Manic Mansions, was inhabited by aging alcoholics, addicts, schitzophrenics, squatters and ex-cons.
It is already half empty. The squatter was made homeless with the assistance of the police. The ground-floor alcoholic, whose windows had long been smashed and his doors broken, who hadn’t had the electricity on or paid rent in years, has been relocated, as has the former inmate. One of the building’s “methadonians”, whose biggest task of the day was to make it to the Clinic to get his dose, has also been shifted on. His old apartment remains empty. Stimulated by the squatting actions by community activists, patrolling security guards now check it regularly. A banner, only half unfurled, hangs from one of the windows: “Save Our…”
Some of the people in this cluster of homes have never so much as swept their floors from the day they moved in. They don’t value the properties because they have no value. They live next to one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, but barely ever so much as look at it. “Housos with million dollar views”. Some of them barely raise their eyes.
But whatever went wrong in their lives back then, back when, the people being hosed out of the Rocks today are leaving with nothing but their own bitterness, disillusion and sense of loss; despite the decades that some of them have lived there.
Public housing was meant to be a step up out of poverty, a way for working class families to get onto their feet and into the private market, to better themselves.
The people now being shuffled on are no better off than when they arrived. Public housing hasn’t worked to lift them up; it’s barely worked to maintain them in a slowly deteriorating state.
The reality is that public housing estates have become little more than taxpayer funded slums, concentrations of people with alcohol, addiction, mental and physical health problems. It is here people can live out fractured, de-motivated lives without the financial motivator of having to work to pay the rent, and where they can slowly settle into their graves after lifetimes of under-achievement. There haven’t been the supporting services; there has been no motivation for self-improvement.
Some of the alternative housing stock in other public housing areas being shown to squatters by the NSW Housing Department made homeless by Goward’s pogrom would not be fit to hang a cat in, much less prove to be places where people could get their lives back on track; and are little more than exemplars of all that is wrong with social housing, so-called. The cliché of groups of stoned miscreants from housing estates hanging outside methadone clinics haggling small time drug deals is all too true for all too many parts of Sydney.
It is in the housing estates that the rhetoric concerning the poor and the vulnerable creates a race to the bottom, towards the holy grail of welfare, the disability pension. It is here that the destructive rhetoric of victimhood has had its worst impacts. The shift in tone by the Abbott government, towards ideas of self-reliance and notions that we are a resilient, hard-working people, is fine as far as it goes; but needs to go further. We all deserve to be the best we can possibly be. There has to be a way where all the negatives of public housing estates, the concentrations of “social disadvantage”, their unsafe nature, the lack of care that the tenants take in their properties, the appalling malaise that characterises so many of them, could be turned around. It is, after all, taxpayers’ money; and the taxpayer is entitled to expect that their money is being spent improving the lives of others, not making them worse.
There is much to be said for combining the best of the social and private markets, that is, for selling public housing to the tenants themselves at a discounted mortgage rate equivalent to their rent. In this way those now so badly bereaved, sitting in the evenings at the Harbour View Hotel in Millers Point drunkenly lamenting their lot in life, waiting with dread for a relocation officer to settle their fates, would be proud owners or part-owners of an asset.
If one thinks of the houses as living creatures, they are better off being sold to people who have the financial resources to care for them, who will appreciate them.
But one of the savage ironies of the sell-off of Millers Point is that the prices they are fetching, for some of the most stunning real estate in the country, is a comparative pittance to what could have been achieved with an orderly, dignified, civilised sell-off.
Number 11 Lower Fort Street, a grand Victorian Terrace known as Ballara, has five bedrooms and three bathrooms. It is a double fronted four story terrace tucked in next to the southern end of the Harbour Bridge, has views across to the Opera House from its front windows, and from the back views across to the yacht dotted Lavender Bay, best known in Sydney history as the home of painter Brett Whitely. There is a jacaranda tree in the large backyard, and the views across to Luna Park are only partially obscured by Pier One. It is a pleasant, easy walk to the Opera House, the Sydney Theatre and Dance Companies, the cafes dotting the finger wharves along Hickson Road and a number of fine dining establishments. In other words, in a real estate obsessed Sydney, it’s just about impossible to get a better location. And it can’t be built out. The $3.9 million it fetched at auction in mid-September of 2014 will come to be seen as a bargain.
Next door at Number 9, Viewforth, the “Save Our Homes” and “No Surrender: Not for Sale” posters still adhere to the front walls of the house, although for how much longer remains to be seen. Further down, closer to the harbour, at Number 3, Davesboro, where the views are even more spectacular if that is possible, the windows are already boarded up, and builder’s skips in the front yard filling up with rubbish.
Just up the private lane at the rear of these spectacular houses, spelt out in adjoining t-shirts hanging on a clothing line, are the words: “THIS IS MY HOME”.
It’s impossible to get a more historic, more superbly located or visually rich part of Sydney than the Rocks. Just around the corner from Number 11 Lower Fort is where the first bubonic plague victim died at the turn of the 19th Century. And a few short steps away, on the former site of the Live and Let Live Hotel, the Stevens Buildings 1900. With its four floors and 32 rooms, it was the first walk-up block of flats in Sydney. Some of the surrounding sandstone block buildings date back to the 1840s. Throughout the 19th Century the area was known for gambling dens and brothels. During the Great Depression the docklands was called The Hungry Mile by harbourside workers searching, often fruitlessly, for a job; while in the 1970s the unions imposed green bans blocking redevelopment of the area. In the future Miller’s Point will become known as one of the wealthiest enclaves in the whole of Australia. But in its rich history, 2014 will go down in history as one of its most shameful episodes; with the Planning Minister, Pru Goward, front and centre.
John Stapleton worked as a staff reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald from 1986-1994 and for The Australianfrom 1994-2009. He has written many hundreds of newspaper stories centred on Sydney. He is currently commissioning editor for A Sense of Place Publishing, which plans to publish historian Melissa Holmes A History of the Rocks next year.