Australia

Melbourne tower lockdowns expose what it's like to live inside high-density public housing

One of the iconic high-rise public housing towers in Flemington. Source: AAP

The hard lockdown of 3,000 public housing tenants inside their homes has put the spotlight on the conditions within these buildings, with some calling for the outbreak to lead to lasting policy change.

At 3pm on Saturday, Ikram* was sitting in her flat on the ninth floor of the North Melbourne public tower scrolling through social media when she saw the news. 

For the next five days, at least, the 18-year-old and the nine relatives she lives with would be confined to their three-bedroom unit, not even permitted to leave for exercise or to purchase essential supplies.

This level of lockdown goes further than the Stage 3 restrictions to be imposed on residents in the rest of Melbourne, who will still be allowed to leave their residence to work, study, care for others, buy supplies and exercise.

It was also introduced without warning, so residents like Ikram, who requires gluten-free food, and her family were unable to purchase supplies to last them through the lockdown period. “The fact that we're not even allowed to prepare ourselves for this lockdown is what got me angry,” she said.

The hard lockdown of the nine public housing towers across North Melbourne and Flemington, enforced from Saturday, is the first in Australia since the beginning of the pandemic.

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The unprecedented announcement directed public attention to the towers, which have long been the subject of campaigns for better living conditions. 

Forty-seven high-rise public housing blocks are scattered across Melbourne, constructed in this style up until the 1970s, to provide low-rent housing for families facing financial difficulties. 

Other forms of public housing such as three-story estates and “salt and pepper” housing - standard family homes scattered throughout residential areas - also exist throughout the metropolitan region. 

Over time the towers have become increasingly crowded and out-of-date. In one of the Flemington buildings currently under lockdown, a resident, who didn’t want to be identified, told SBS News there was only one working lift servicing the entire 20-storey, 160-apartment tower when the pandemic broke out.

An elevator and communal laundry space inside the public housing tower at 130 Racecourse Road in Flemington.
An elevator and communal laundry space inside the public housing tower at 130 Racecourse Road in Flemington.
Supplied

Enza, another resident of the same building, told SBS News there were only two washing machines for every eight units and no access to balconies or outdoor spaces. "Even if you go out into the corridor, you can't open the windows, there's nothing like that," she said.

Many residents, like Ikram, are also forced to share the high-rise units, which are typically two or three bedrooms, with up to three generations of family members.

Trapped inside, she said she’s feeling “claustrophobic”, particularly as she shares her bedroom with her older sister and one-year-old nephew.

“Everyone is everywhere,” she said. “It's a bit too much, as a teenager, in a way, like, I would want privacy to myself, but the fact that I'm in the same household, everyone near the same spot, not much space, it's too much.”

Labor MP Peter Khalil, who grew up in medium-size public housing during the 1970s and 80s, told SBS News the concerns about overcrowding in the apartments are not new. 

“There’s density in most public housing, but there is much greater density in those towers that have been under hard lockdown,” he said. “There are a range of issues at those housing estates that haven’t been necessarily dealt with because of the lack of funding.”

Federal Labor MP Peter Khalil lived in public housing in the 1970s and 80s.
Federal Labor MP Peter Khalil lived in public housing in the 1970s and 80s.
SBS Punjabi

David Kelly, a research fellow at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, said the issues evident at the towers are the result of a “concerted effort” from the state government over four decades to divest from public housing, resulting in a “dire” situation. 

“Victoria has the lowest proportion of public housing in the entire country,” he said. “We dedicate the least amount of money to public housing than any other state and our waitlist for public housing is spiralling out of control.”

Experts estimate approximately 100,000 Victorians are currently on the public housing waitlist, in line with a 2016 government report that said between 75,000 and 100,000 low-income households were unable to access affordable housing. 

The government was also not maintaining public housing buildings to the level they should, Dr Kelly said.

From the onset of the pandemic in March, residents and their families had raised concerns about the potential for a coronavirus outbreak due to the overcrowded living and shared common spaces, including laundries and lifts.

Public housing towers in North Melbourne.
Public housing towers in North Melbourne.
AAP

But despite pleas for more comprehensive social distancing information, including image-based posters for people who could not read and more effective in-language information campaigns, they say the government only installed hand sanitiser.

A Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson, however, said information about the virus had been provided to all public housing estates from the beginning of the pandemic, including in languages other than English, and additional cleaning had been undertaken. 

Mr Khalil hopes the current focus on the towers leads to ongoing change in public housing policy. “The invisible is starting to become visible,” he said. 

“We have a moment now, where we’re shining a spotlight on the public housing and housing estates, let’s take this moment and really talk about what needs to be done going forward.

“What about engagement with those communities through their faith and community leaders, what about funding for better housing options for people, both at the state, federal and local government levels?”

A 2017 Victorian Auditor-General’s review into the state’s public housing found the average age of all public housing stock was 35 years.

Following the report, the government launched their Homes for Victorians plan in 2017 which aimed to establish more social housing, renew 2,500 existing buildings and improve public housing management. 

This involves a shift towards social mix housing that has private and affordable housing tenants living in the same government buildings or estates.

But Dr Kelly said it was important that new mixed housing developments were not built at the expense of additional public housing for the growing number of Victorians desperately in need.

"The way to move forward is to have someone to come in and actually look at the conditions, and really assess the conditions, and observe everything from the laundries to the stairways to the lifts, everything," Enza said.

"And if they did, it doesn't take a genius to see that updates need to happen, renovations are required, it's critical."

The Victorian Minister for Housing Richard Wynne and the Department of Health and Human Services have been contacted for comment.

*Name has been changed.  

Residents in Melbourne public housing towers who need access to support and assistance should call the Housing Call Centre on 1800 961 054. If you need a translator, first call 131 450. Both services are 24/7. More information can be found here.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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