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Hardly a black face on the Block - Sartor's vision for Redfern - 05.03.2005 SMH

On the hottest day last month, the minister responsible for Redfern, Frank Sartor, walked into the offices of the Aboriginal Housing Company and dropped a bombshell: he didn't want any Aboriginal housing on the Block.

He spoke on the evening before the board of his new Redfern-Waterloo Authority met for the first time, just metres away from the site of last year's riots near Redfern railway station.

The reaction among the company's assembled Aboriginal directors was almost as hot as the 38-degree temperature outside. According to the directors, Mr Sartor said he wanted no Aboriginal housing on what has long been the focal point of urban Aboriginal life in Australia - a point his spokeswoman did not deny yesterday.

The company had planned to build 62 new homes on the Block, but Mr Sartor's rejection of this prompted one of its directors, Peter Walker, to say: "I believe ... the Government, for whom Mr Sartor represents, are wanting no, to be blunt, no black faces on the Block. That's the position pushed by some property developers. I, as a director, am totally against that." According to a confidential briefing paper prepared by the housing company, Mr Sartor said if he was forced to accept some Aboriginal housing, he would consider no more than 20 homes, as long as few of them were for affordable housing and the remaining land was used for other purposes.

The paper, obtained by the Herald, said either option would force the company "to abandon its charter" to provide affordable housing. "The AHC has promised to deliver 62 houses on the Block for five years with the State Government's blessing and assistance, there will have to be some serious consideration as to how the AHC can back down from this promise without looking like it is bowing to Government pressure ...

"By not providing an adequate amount of houses on the Block, or something other than houses, the AHC loses the opportunity to create a beacon of hope for the next generation ... Fewer people living on the Block didn't stop the riot from happening. Whereas our research shows that, if we had more good families on the Block, we could have eliminated the problems before they got out of hand ...

"There is a very real possibility that the minister's opinion is being influenced by developers who have publicly stated they would like to see no Aborigines living on the Block before they invest in Redfern ... The Minister strongly indicated that the pressure was on him to cut a deal well before the next election."

Mr Sartor's spokeswoman, Zoe Allebone, said he had made it clear he did not believe the 62-house plan was "a sustainable vision for the Block" but declined to say why.

"The minister also made it clear there's no intention to reduce the level of public housing or Aboriginal housing in Redfern or Waterloo," she said.

The Government's position is that any Aborigines moved out of the Block would be accommodated elsewhere in the two suburbs.

Mr Walker, recalling the meeting with Mr Sartor, said he "came across pretty strong," making it clear he wanted no Aboriginal accommodation on the Block. Another director, Bruce Gale, said: "I wasn't happy when Sartor took over. He's got an agenda. He doesn't want any Aborigines in Redfern. He wants the area developed totally commercial ... The Block is a significant area for Aboriginal people. They're not going to move out of it."

The community would be "livid" if Mr Sartor got his way and "I want Frank at the head of the queue when the riots start".

By Tim Dick, Urban Affairs Reporter
SMH March 5, 2005