Comment: Saying goodbye to Millers Point, an ancestral home

Protester holds sign reading save community during a demonstration against a decision by the NSW Government to evict public housing residents of Millers Point, on March 25, 2014. (AAP)

Families who have lived in The Rocks for generations are now preparing to say goodbye, writes Elly Clough.

I moved to The Rocks in December of 2006. I moved into my late grandmother’s apartment and took over her 17+ tenants in two buildings. Being a live-in landlady at the age of 24 with property management experience was… interesting, but I loved it.

Almost all of my family had lived in the buildings at some point. It felt very much like an ancestral home. And the freedom the job afforded me was a wonderful opportunity at that time in my life.

That’s not to say it was without its challenges. The late rent payments, the noise complaints petty arguments between tenants, the wharf rats. One particularly memorable tenant always dressed in all white and handed out prayers printed on tiny squares of paper. He complained once that someone had been breaking into his room and replacing his white t shirts with slightly smaller white t shirts while he was in the shower. But he always paid his rent on time.

In October of 2009 the 20-year leases secured by my grandmother and her fellow landladies expired. The management of these properties was handed over to a community housing organisation, and those of us who were not moved out to other Housing properties at that time were put onto individual leases.

One of my grandmother’s friends lived a block or so up managing another of the rooming houses. When I would visit her she would be sitting in her squeaky rocking chair, chain smoking. The walls were stained sticky yellow and the TV was always on, though she would mute the volume when she had guests. I’d make tea in her little kitchen and she’d tell me about what her tenants were up to and catch me up on the gossip on the street. After the leases expired she was moved to an apartment on High St, one of the properties that are now earmarked for sale. She died within a month.

The recent decision from the government to sell off all the public housing stock is not surprising, but it is disappointing. Despite my personal connection to the terraces my family lived in, I understand that the situation is of another time and agree that it makes sense to lease those buildings as luxury homes and offices and invest that money in more suitable public housing, but the purpose built Sirius building and the dwellings in the Observatory Hill Resumed Area are good public housing. They are close to services and the argument that they are too expensive to maintain would be easier to swallow if the dwellings hadn’t been purposely run down over decades and the Sirius Building wasn’t purpose built in the 1980s. These properties are good public housing, good for the tenants and good for the city.

There are many reasons why demographic diversity is important for the vibrancy of an area. The Rocks can be an annoying place to live. The top George St is closed every weekend for The Rocks Markets. Wherever there is a major event on the Harbour Foreshore the area is shutdown and inundated, making it tedious to get in or out of. These annoyances are the kinds of things public housing tenants tolerate without much complaint. I will be surprised if the people who move in and spend millions on these homes will be so tolerant. With the development at Barangaroo and Arts NSW’s proposal for the Walsh Bay Cultural Precinct I predict there will more disruption and more noise and the government is making a rod for its own back by replacing a tolerant community with one that will not tolerate disruptions.

Last year I made the decision to leave The Rocks. My personal circumstances had changed, and I wanted to leave on my own terms. After years of being told by the community housing organisation I then rented from that I would be evicted ‘within two months’ I wanted to live without that anxiety. The thought of being evicted from my ancestral home was overwhelming, but leaving of my own volition felt different. I was extremely privileged to be able to make that decision to leave in my own terms when so many will be forced out with no options.

History is so on the surface in The Rocks. I don’t just mean the architecture and the cobbled streets, it’s the people too. Families who have lived there for many more generations than my family did. People who literally watched the building of the Sydney Opera House from their front window, people who called the area home long before it was the prize property it is now, people who have been a part of building the city they are now being evicted from. The Rocks has been mismanaged and neglected for decades by governments of both stripes, it’s so sad that the people who will suffer are the people who fought so hard for the area they love.  

Elly Michelle Clough is a publicist and writer.