Chips are down: Millers Point residents protest against their treatment by the state government. Photo: Tony Walters Robert Goodsell, 94, won’t leave his home. Photo: Tony Walters
An impression of the proposed Barangaroo development.
Millers Point in a bygone age.
Walk around Millers Point and one thing that stands out is the number of front doors that have yellow ribbons attached to them. On many is also a small poster saying Save Our Community.
It was here that in 1900 the first person in Sydney was diagnosed with bubonic plague, a byproduct of the rats that filled the nearby wharves and streets. The plague killed 103 people.
The yellow ribbons signify the fear felt by residents of being evicted and who say, once again, the area is on death row.
A clue to their concerns can be found in High Street, with its bird’s-eye view of the massive Barangaroo building site.
Sometimes you can taste the dust in the air. The foundations of these workers’ cottages have been shaken to their heritage-listed bones by pile driving for the new tower blocks and at sunset the cluster of Lend Lease cranes are silhouetted against the sky looking west to Pyrmont.
Now it seems that the knock-on gentrification effect of Barangaroo means this social housing with its elderly and vulnerable residents is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Millers Point, for many years the brunt of political indecision, is like The Rocks, one of Sydney’s historically significant urban villages.
”The area is unique and presents a complex challenge to governments and urban power brokers who control Sydney’s development,” say historians Shirley Fitzgerald and Christopher Keating in a book named after the area. ”In meeting that challenge the widest possible public debate must be allowed and due consideration given to the historic richness of this area.”
The residents have been told they might get some answers to their concerns about being evicted – to where, they don’t know – after the federal election. You can understand that the state government would appreciate that the politics of evicting people from their homes ahead of September 7 isn’t going to be a vote winner.
Residents say the objective seems to be to allow their heritage-listed homes to fall into disrepair. The grass is growing at impressive length in the gutters, rising damp is a feature of many of the houses and for years the repairs have been botched and inappropriate for heritage properties. It seems that it is hoped the tenants, some of whom have lived in the road all their lives, will finally give up the fight.
Run-down properties are then being sold off like the family silver, at about $1 million a pop with a 99-year lease. Someone else pays for the refurbishment and NSW Housing escapes with a much-needed one-off injection of cash.
The NSW Land and Housing Corporation said: ”The Government is currently evaluating a possible extension of the Millers Point renewal program. This will be subject to a more detailed assessment over the next few months. The next steps in the process are not determined by election dates.”
The sales of 29 houses on 99-year leases have earned the government $28 million.
It isn’t a scheme that greatly impressed Auditor-General Peter Achterstraat, who released a report Making the Best Use of Public Housing last month. Having been told by the NSW Land and Housing Corporation it had implemented measures such as selling properties and delaying maintenance expenditure, Achterstraat concludes: ”This will impact the condition and level of stock, and is not financially sustainable long-term.”
The report says neither Housing NSW, Community Service nor the Housing Corporation ”have as yet articulated long-term strategies or plans to address the challenges for the provision of public housing to those most in need. In the absence of such a clear direction … tenant and asset management activities have sometimes been inconsistent and short-term.”
The state opposition spokeswoman on housing Sophie Cotsis says: ”The O’Farrell Government is trying to use the development of nearby Barangaroo as an excuse to sell off the homes of some of the most vulnerable people in Sydney.
”The value of these workers’ cottages is for the whole of the city – not just for the people who live in them but for all of us to appreciate. Our city has been built by working people and this is a reminder of that.
”Barangaroo is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Sydney, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse by the O’Farrell Government to kick pensioners out of their homes.”
Labor’s City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott called for a hold on the City’s $37 million committed to the development of Barangaroo until the Liberal Government agreed to save Sydney’s heritage, but the motion failed. ”Mr O’Farrell can shuffle his ministerial cards as he wishes, but what the community needs is a clear and unequivocal commitment from the Liberal Government to stop the sale of these historic houses.”
But now there is a new voice behind the outcry and one, when it comes to safeguarding Sydney’s heritage, that already has an exemplary track record.
In the 1970s union boss Jack Mundey led the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) in the green bans, their successful campaign to protect The Rocks from excessive and inappropriate development.
Surveying High Street, Mundey says he would consult the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engineering Union about the issues in Millers Point.
”I think it is another example of the price we are having to pay for Barangaroo and to Mr Packer,” Mundey says. ”It is clear that the intention here is to drive these people from their homes.
”When you look back 45 years, the fight to save the Rocks and Millers Point and Dawes Point is continuing and I think we should all come together and back these residents … I will report to [the union] the concerns of myself and others about the people living in High Street because we are, after all, going to be building Barangaroo so surely it is of great concern for the union to know that these people are so disadvantaged.”
The prospect of being moved on is a difficult one for Robert Flood, 64, who has lived in Millers Point all his life.
”My grandfather was up in Kent Street. He went to the First World War. Was killed,” he says. ”My father lived up at 60A at the other end of the street. He went to the Second World War, Middle East and New Guinea. He came back a nervous wreck for fighting for freedom and now it looks like we are all going to be emptied out of the place. They won’t tell us when or why but it is just like being on death row here.
”You can imagine when it is finished over there [at Barangaroo] what these properties are going to be really worth. Three people have dropped off the perch already with the worry and the stress.”
Ninety-four-year-old Robert Goodsell, who goes by the nickname ”Cowboy Bob”, says he isn’t going anywhere.
”Why would I want to leave?” he asks. ”I am worried what they are going to do but I’m not moving. If they want to try and get me out they’ll want a team of horses to do it.
”I don’t think Packer should be building a casino but that’s his business. His old man was a good bloke, buying those zapper things [defibrillators] for the ambulances. We don’t need all of this gambling and the booze. No. I’m against that but they’ll still build it. Probably.”
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