By Clay Lucas
The vacant land where public housing once stood in Northcote.Credit:Justin McManus
In a promotional video sent to prospective buyers of new homes overlooking Northcote’s Merri Creek and selling for up to $3 million, MAB Corporation development manager Ross Osidacz is spruiking hard.
“The site is really something that’s very unique,” says Osidacz, of a hectare of land where MAB will soon begin construction of 151 apartments, including some lavish penthouses with river views or city skyline panoramas. “To have the ability to develop a project in the inner city, on the banks of the Merri Creek, is something that’s extremely special.”
What neither Osidacz nor MAB’s accompanying 59-page brochure highlights is who lived on this land for the six decades preceding its clearance in 2020.
William Gwynne leans on a tree in what was once his backyard in Northcote, on the banks of the Merri Creek.Credit:Penny Stephens
Public housing tenant William Gwynne doesn’t want it forgotten. Until three years ago, he lived there, in an apartment with river views. His was one of 87 dilapidated flats, spread across the land in nine walk-up blocks, that housed the poor from the 1950s.
Rundown it might have been, but his flat had a small balcony overlooking the Merri – the same view now being marketed to wealthy Melburnians by MAB. “It was beautiful and green; you may as well have been in the Dandenongs, it was that green,” says Gwynne, who – like every family in the estate – was rehoused by the Andrews government elsewhere in the city.
The housing that once stood on the Northcote land will be replaced by private apartments spread over five buildings – four with river views. On 20 per cent of the land once entirely devoted to public housing, a separate building will contain 106 new social housing units; its view is of High Street.
A deal with hidden terms
As well as the inclusion of 79 affordable apartments in the Northcote development, a profit-sharing arrangement for the private sales was struck by the Andrews government in 2019 with MAB. The developer is also selling apartments at two other public housing sites in Preston and North Melbourne as part of the deal. It means a proportion of the profit from each apartment comes back to public coffers, and is reinvested to create more social and affordable housing.
But what proportion of those profits will go back to government remains secret. Asked by The Age this week, and in parliament in 2019, the government said these deals were commercial-in-confidence (a spokesman points out Victoria’s valuer-general has signed off on the contracts, guaranteeing value for money).
MAB is owned by brothers Michael and Andrew Buxton who, according to this year’s AFR Rich List, have a net worth of $764 million. The Age asked MAB the same question on the profit-sharing deal; it referred all queries to the government.
The Northcote public housing estate before it was demolished in 2020.Credit:David Kelly
Gwynne and his former neighbours all have the right to return to the new social housing building, which will actually have cooling, vastly better heating, and accessibility for those in wheelchairs or with impaired movement.
Gwynne says he won’t return, in part because of the view he fears from his window. “What I’ll be looking out at will be rich people living where I used to live. On conscious and subconscious levels, that is just gonna make me feel, y’know, not good.”
He says the sense of community on the old estate – as bleak and confronting as it could be at times – will also be gone.
“Being a poor person and marginalised through mental health, when I was living there before, I was with other people who were like me, in some sense,” says Gwynne. “They were migrants, or women fleeing domestic violence, there were drug addicts, there were blind people and people in wheelchairs, and everyone was, like, struggling along in their own way.”
Public housing is demolished at the Northcote estate in 2020.Credit:A still taken from the “Things Will Be Different” documentary
Filmmakers Lucie McMahon and Celeste De Clario will this month preview their documentary, Things Will Be Different. It tells the story of Gwynne and a neighbour whose families were among the last to leave the increasingly broken estate as it emptied in 2019.
“It’s an intimate portrait of their experiences with the loss of community, and the strain of displacement,” says McMahon, who argues that renewal programs like Northcote look good on paper but in reality do real damage. “These programs take people who often have already experienced trauma into a traumatic situation. They have to deal with the psychological impacts of displacement.”
An artist’s impression of the new private housing to be built overlooking Northcote’s Merri Creek.Credit:MAB Corporation
‘We’ve got to do better’
This isn’t the narrative the Andrews government wants as the focus of its social housing program – an enormous once-in-a-generation investment in increasing the number of homes available to the disadvantaged.
In 2020, amid the pandemic’s grimmest days, former housing minister Richard Wynne convinced his party to fund new homes on a colossal scale: $5.3 billion is being poured into building more places to live for those with the least.
“The Big Housing Build”, as the spending has been branded by the government, “is the largest single investment in social and affordable housing by any state or territory government in Australia’s history”, says new Housing Minister Danny Pearson, who last week held his first press conference on housing in Melbourne.
The event was called to mark the halfway point of the Big Housing Build and to showcase the construction of 206 new social housing and affordable apartments in Hawthorn, on land once occupied by 52 run-down public housing units.
Pearson talks passionately about his electorate of Essendon.
Housing Minister Danny Pearson (front), with Hawthorn Labor MP John Kennedy, at last week’s media conference in Hawthorn.
There, in Flemington’s sprawling public housing estate, he had once met a five-year-old boy who lived in a rundown, walk-up apartment, similar to those now demolished in Northcote. During a summer heatwave, that boy tried to open a window. “This little boy [had] put his hand on the window-sill just to rest for a moment, to get some cool air to come in and freshen his face. The window dropped and he nearly lost his finger.”
Pearson recalls thinking at the time: “We’ve got to do better.” Now, in the job that requires him to deliver better, Pearson appears fired up about the mammoth task ahead.
The Andrews government’s Big Housing Build will result in the construction of more than 12,000 new homes across Victoria – boosting supply of social housing by 10 per cent in the four years to 2026. It is a massive jump on what state governments of all persuasions have managed in decades.
The funding will mean thousands of existing public housing units, built decades ago that are freezing in winter and boiling in summer, will be replaced with energy-efficient homes, saving tenants money on power bills.
The program combines the existing Public Housing Renewal Program at sites like Northcote, commenced in 2017, with initiatives like the government’s $1.38 billion Social Housing Growth Fund.
“It’s going to change the lives of tens of thousands of Victorians, not just now but for decades to come,” says Pearson, who in his press conference drifts almost into a sermon.
“Those of us in the Labor Party, this is what we’ve been sent to do. Public life, it’s a calling … This is what I was sent to do,” he says, adding that becoming the housing minister has given him “the opportunity of being able to do something like this – to make these sorts of really significant investments right across the state, to provide safe, secure, affordable housing, to give public housing clients a decent place to call home, a place where they can live and lay down their roots”.
Asked four times at that press conference by The Sunday Age whether he supported the sale of public land to help pay for social housing redevelopment, Pearson talks around the question, at one point labelling it “hypothetical”. But he is also at pains to communicate the many ways the government is finding to deliver new housing “to the most vulnerable and isolated and disadvantaged”.
“You need a multiplicity of solutions. I don’t think it’s a case of saying ‘public good, private bad’,” he says. “This is about providing 21st century energy-efficient, affordable housing to the people who need it most.”
Pearson points in particular to a new ground lease model the government is rolling out, where public land is never sold to a private buyer. Instead, the government grants a 40-year lease to a not-for-profit group that finances, designs and builds new housing. A community housing provider then manages the homes for four decades, at the end of which it hands back the land and all the houses to the public. Under the Big Housing Build, this model is funding the construction of 2500 homes in Brighton, Flemington, Hampton, South Yarra, Port Melbourne and Prahran.
“We’re making these investments to make sure the people who have never had a break in life, never had a chance, have a safe place to raise their families and give their kids a chance to live meaningful and fulfilled lives,” Pearson says.
‘We make no apology’
The various packages of new housing for the disadvantaged being rolled out under the Big Housing Build are being delivered by a specially created agency, Homes Victoria, tasked with increasing social and affordable housing and reforming the sector.
“We work with partners to get the best possible value for money and ensure that every dollar spent on housing has the maximum community impact,” an agency spokesman says. “All new social housing is modern, accessible, safe, secure and energy efficient – meaning homes will be more comfortable, less costly to maintain and much easier to cool in summer and warm in winter. We make no apology for redeveloping housing that is costly for tenants, does not meet accessibility standards and has outdated and obsolete design and amenity.”
At every site being redeveloped, public housing tenants are offered temporary or permanent housing and get a right of return on the same conditions they had before, he points out.
The group representing not-for-profit housing groups delivering thousands of new homes is the Community Housing Industry Association, whose members build and manage homes for people priced out of the private rental market. These not-for-profits can maximise public spending on housing because, as charities, they can borrow funding and attract tax concessions and philanthropic donations as well as contributing their own land and money to increase Victoria’s social housing.
“This means we can build more housing for the same level of government investment, and building more housing is the ultimate goal,” says association chief executive Sarah Toohey.
Victoria lags the rest of the country, with just 2.9 per cent of all homes being social housing, Toohey says. “To catch up to the national average of 4.5 per cent, we need to be building around 6000 units a year for the next 10 years.”
Most of Victoria’s high-density public housing stock was mass-produced in the 1960s and ’70s, a time before energy-efficiency standards. “They’re hard to heat in winter, incredibly hot in summer, and very expensive to maintain,” Toohey says. “Many three- and four-storey buildings don’t have lifts, meaning they’re not accessible to people with disabilities and can be difficult for people as they age, or families dragging prams up and down three flights of stairs.”
Urban planning academic Libby Porter, from RMIT, has spent years looking at public and social housing projects. She despairs over what has transpired in Northcote, which she labels “state-led gentrification”.
“The replacement of an existing community of people experiencing disadvantage with luxury housing for the wealthy in Northcote is a contemptible act of public policy,” she says. “More than 80 families have been displaced so that a private developer can make a windfall and wealthy households can have a luxury apartment with city views and creek frontage.”
Porter is more generous towards the Andrews government’s substantial financial commitment to social housing in the Big Housing Build. “And we certainly need investment, and a lot more of it, to address rising homelessness and housing precarity,” she says. But she worries that the program “exploits existing public housing stock at enormous expense to create a tiny yield of a few extra low-income housing units and an enormous amount more market housing”.
Former Northcote tenant William Gwynne now lives in public housing in Fitzroy, but he still marvels at what he has seen occur where he used to live, and how sought-after that land became over the years.
“That housing wasn’t built there because the people wanted to live there. It was built there because the Merri Creek was such a sewer,” he says. “It was full of dead animals, slurry and machines. So for all of those years, public housing served as a kind of warehouse for land.”
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