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Community decay, bulldozers and real estate agents – the NSW State Plan?

The recent events at Rosemeadow are another link in a long chain of negative outcomes for Housing NSW tenant communities across the state. The history goes back to the era of the Green Bans in inner Sydney of the 1970s when the tenants sought assistance to protect their communities and housing from the assaults being made on them by the government through its agent, then known as the Housing Commission. The induced community and property destruction was then cited as the justification to sell real estate to generate income for the government reports Ross Smith in the South Sydney Herald of February 2009.

The pattern that has emerged over the years is the failure to act in a constructive manner when the initial signs of unrest appear in a formerly cohesive and functional community. The ensuing community destruction and associated turmoil is then cited as the excuse to utilise the “bulldozer option” which leads to the sale of the real estate, the proceeds of which the government of the day pockets. The documentary, Waterloo, provides an extremely well researched example of this from the 1970s era.

The East Fairfield estate was considered a problem estate even prior to the “riots” and media attention in 1996. In 1991, concern about crime on the estate prompted some improvements in security (fences and garage doors were added), although concerns about safety and security on the estate continued. During 1996/97 a total of $821,959 from the Neighbourhood Improvement Programme (NIP) funds was spent on the estate. None of this money was spent on capital works. At the same time, a study was commissioned by the Department to examine longer-term options for the estate. This study did not recommend a NIP type solution but, rather, demolition and sale of the vacant site.

In Dubbo in 2006 the claim, “He and others believe the NSW Department of Housing has been tacitly encouraging the arsonists in order to hasten the estate's demise, so that the real estate could be sold off to developers” was reported in the Australian. "If they had listened to us and taken us on board a little more seriously they may not have wasted all this money," was reported by ABC News Online. A Sydney Morning Herald newspaper article on Dubbo shed light on the real estate sales and attendant income generation for the government. “A radical overhaul has transformed a Dubbo estate from the state's worst address to a real estate drawcard. Some buyers are about to triple their money in less than a year. Such is life today on Dubbo's Gordon Estate, 2½ years after alcohol-fuelled New Year's Day riots exploded here in 2006 and marked it as NSW's ugliest public housing mistake.”

The NSW Government recently won an award from the Urban Development Institute of Australia, NSW, for its Dubbo Transformation Strategy, which judges called "a great example of courageous and innovative leadership addressing problems and perceptions in a notorious public housing estate". The Government is about a third of the way through converting this public ghetto into private suburbia. It has sold 63 public housing properties to private owners in the past year after relocating scores of tenants – sometimes against their will – and renovating or demolishing their former state-owned homes. There are 304 left to sell by June 2012.

The NSW Parliamentary Committee report on Macquarie Fields, whilst making calls for better coordination between services, did not call on the Government to fund the Macquarie Fields Community Action Plan beyond one year. Following the historic pattern the imminent community collapse will create the media circus that will see the bulldozers escort the real estate agents into the area for the delivery of the government’s response to the generated public outcry.

The signs are that Rosemeadow is now subject to the time proven process. “Everything that could go wrong in a society went wrong,” said Phillip Cox, the Sydney architect who introduced the [Radburn] design to the state, of an estate in Villawood. "It became the centre of drugs, it became the centre of violence and, eventually, the police refused to go into it. It was hell.” The quote appeared in a Sydney Morning Herald article in 1998. The article continued: “The Government revealed yesterday it would demolish part of the troubled estate as police continued to deal with the fallout from Monday's brawl, which left two people with bullet wounds and several others stabbed and bashed.”

Time will tell if the NSW Government’s established pattern of fund raising by sale of infrastructure and other government assets will continue. Recent publicised sales have included the sale of the electricity generation infrastructure, whilst other income generation streams such as the state lotteries office are mooted for sale. Once the family silver is sold, it cannot be replaced.

Sales of Housing NSW assets in general do not attract attention and there has been a steady stream of them over the period. There has been no identification of where and how many “replacement” properties have been bought – despite this being the tantric response when the issue of what happens to property sales income is raised. An even vaguer response is given by HNSW when the question, “How many bedrooms are there per dwelling front door, and has this ratio altered over time?” is raised. This may well be the devil in the fine print – same number of properties, however with reduced numbers of people housed, and a lower value per property.

The concept of utilising induced community decay, bulldozers and real estate agents as preferred means of delivering community development gives a novel twist to the implementation of the NSW State Plan, especially of its two principle components, Keeping People Safe and Building Harmonious Communities.

This article first appeared in the Rimfire Review, Monday January 19. The Rimfire Review is the weekly opinion publication of the National Tenant Support Network.

Photo: Andrew Collis - Caption: Bulldozed construction site on Kettle Street in Redfern

Source: South Sydney Herald February 2009