An important community campaign is evolving on Melbourne’s inner-city public housing estates. The campaign is in response to a long awaited announcement by the Victorian Liberal State government sneakily made in a confidential briefing to Yarra Councillors three days after Christmas Day. Two of the three estates earmarked for drastic changes are in the Yarra Council municipality, with the third one in nearby Prahran.
The State government wants to sell to developers as much as they can of what is now prime public housing land. The Age newspaper reported that the provisions of the leaked ‘Draft Masterplan’ for the Fitzroy and North Richmond public housing estates would mean thousands of square meters of new private sector commercial office and retail space.
Worse still, the ‘Masterplan’ also announced that what are now 100% public housing estates would now only be a maximum of 50% public housing. This translates into at least 800 new private units on the Fitzroy estate (currently made up of four 20-storey towers) and at least 900 at North Richmond (which now has five towers, each of which is either 20 or 22-stories).
The ‘Masterplan’ left open the option of tearing down the towers and made no pledge to rehouse residents in public housing, let along in the same geographical area. After the community outrage in the weeks after The Age article, both the Victorian Housing Minister Wendy Lovell and the Premier, Ted Baillieu ruled out the towers being demolished for now. If this is true, the only place to build hundreds of new expensive private apartments, as well as new offices and shops, would be on what are now the playgrounds, community gardens and parklands on the estates.
This open space is currently used by the children of the estates. One-third of Yarra’s children live on the 1% of Yarra land that is made up by the two estates. These kids have no gardens as they live in high-rise towers. What is a commercial opportunity for the State government in effect removes the gardens for hundreds of people. The parks are also enjoyed by nearby private residents and indeed the open space at Fitzroy is the largest park in this suburb.
In the days after The Age article the Socialist Party immediately letterboxed leaflets to all residents with the facts about the Masterplan in Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, Dinka and English. This was in stark contrast to the Housing Ministry who run the estates for the government. Their ‘information sessions’ for residents last year on what was then just a vague idea of some future changes on the estates gave away no information and seemed aimed at sowing confusion not clarity.
The local Council voted against the Masterplan, with even the three ALP Councillors being forced publicly at least to express opposition. This of course was due to enormous community pressure. The last Labor State government carried out a similar development at the nearby Carlton public housing estate and the finances for the current plans are partially funded by the Federal ALP government (which has been propped up by the local Green Federal member, Adam Bandt) who insist on private units as part of any development on the estates.
This is sold to the public as ‘social inclusion’ to improve the prospects for public housing estates. In reality, at Carlton for example, the private units are physically separated from the public housing units to increase their sale value.
In February the Socialist Party called meetings on each of the estates. The local Housing Department bureaucrats tried everything to stymie these meetings. They banned the party from using the normal community halls on the estate due to a “heat wave”.
At the same time they did a u-turn on their past policy of telling residents very little and decided to call their own meetings at exactly the same time and date as ours! They even tried to use the same venues we had been banned from using, despite the alleged “heat wave”.
As it happened, the hard work of the Socialist Party and its supporters on the estates meant we blew the representatives of the State government out of the water. Our meetings were packed affairs, translated into several languages, and each one endorsed the creation of an Action Committee made of residents to fight the government’s plans. The Departments meetings in contrast were flops, one meeting only had three people in attendance.
The Action Committee met for the first time on in late February and a delegation was selected to go and meet with Victorian building industry unions to seek their support for the building of new public housing for the 40,000 on the waiting lists on vacant State government land, instead of yet more private units on open space.
The Action Committee also agreed to call a community rally at 2pm on Sunday March 24 at the Fitzroy estate (corner of Brunswick & Gertrude Streets, Fitzroy). The campaign will focus outwards towards community groups and the general public to gather more support and to keep the local Council on the right track.
The campaign has already drawn in more than just public housing residents. Local people living in private homes are also involved, as have local union members and young radical activists.
The Socialist Party will continue to offer militant strategic and tactical advice for the campaign as well as supporting its widening to all those who genuinely want to defend and extend public housing in Victoria.
We encourage all our readers in Melbourne to get involved.
By Stephen Jolly