• Changing faces of Redfern-Waterloo clockwise from top left: The Block, Tent embassy at The Block, the Waterloo towers and a new small bar. (AAP)Source: AAP
The towers, gentrification and what will happen when the last public housing in Sydney’s traditional Aboriginal neighbourhood disappears. A special report by Danny Teece-Johnson.
Danny Teece-Johnson, Robert Burton-Bradley

The Point
9 Mar 2016 - 2:02 PM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2016 - 12:11 PM

The last vestiges of NSW's failed public housing experiment are about to come down in Redfern-Waterloo. The bulldozers will start in earnest next year, dismantling what many locals and successive governments have considered a failed social experiment.

Thousands of people live in the six drab grey public housing buildings known as the towers and named Cook, Matavai, Turanga, Solander, Marton and Banks in Waterloo, just on the outskirts of Redfern. The plans to tear down the towers and redevelop the nearby Block in Redfern into a mix of private and public housing is seen by some as the final act in a long and slow squeeze that has seen the area’s Aboriginal community slowly disappear.

Watch the full story on The Point:

For Wiradjuri woman Lorna Munro, who has lived in the Solander tower for 10 years, it’s more apparent than ever that long-term locals are being displaced by an influx of predominately white, wealthy young people.

“You know I love my community, I’ve grown up here. It’s been a place where, you know it’s probably one of the most famous Aboriginal communities in the country - but if you’re a white hipster in the area then it’s pretty much (what you want) that goes, and its hard seeing that, you know all day every day,” she told The Point.

Click here to watch SBS's award-winning doco: The Block

Redfern and Waterloo are deeply rooted Aboriginal history: it's the birthplace of the Black Power movement in Australia and the nearby Block is an area of historical importance in Redfern, having been the site of protests and community gatherings since the 1960s, when landlords campaigned to evict Aboriginal residents.

But the suburb’s gentrification in recent years has seen property prices and rents soar, with the median rent now at $830 a week for a house, and $580 for a unit. To illustrate how much it has changed the average house in Redfern cost just $592,000 in 2007 compared to today’s hefty $1.325 million price tag, according to figures from realestate.com.au. In 1968 some 35,000 Indigenous people lived in Redfern, by 2011 at the time of the last census it was at just 300 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and a report for NSW Urban Growth.

It’s an ongoing source of anxiety for local Aboriginal families and service providers who are struggling to stay in the area, according to Ms Munro.

"In the last 20 years things have changed so much it’s not the same community anymore. Massive gentrification happening in the area so on one side of the street you’ve got people that are living off $300 a fortnight across the road form private housing and hipsters and swanky coffee shops and pubs," she said.

Government engineered social change

Minister for Social Housing Brad Hazzard told The Point the government intends to keep public housing tenants in the area, but at the same time, remove some of the social disadvantage associated with the housing blocks.

“Our thinking was that would provide an opportunity for a redevelopment of the area to make sure all of the social housing tenants there are rehoused in nice, new accommodation over the next, well it won’t happen overnight, over the next 15-20 years to complete it and try and address some of the social disadvantage that’s occurred in the area,” he said.

Wiradjuri woman Rae Johnston said she fears some residents will be displaced by the change to a mix of public and private housing and questioned what would happen to the community.

"It's definitely a hub for Indigenous people, not only the Gadigal people of the region but from all over the country," she said.

"It's a place where you know you can find that sense of community that you'd find back home."

The distrust of the government’s intentions is part of a long history of forced evictions and mistreatment of Aboriginal people in the area and in particular around The Block in Redfern. Until late last year a tent embassy at The Block opposed redevelopment plans by the Aboriginal Housing Company which owns the site. The fear was the development would be for wealthy private owners – effectively ending the Aboriginal community’s long association with the site. It took a compromise and some extra funding from the Federal Government before the protesters were satisfied the new development would include Aboriginal housing.

The size of the Waterloo redevelopment - there are 1263 units in the towers alone, means the process of moving the 1580 tenants, five per cent of whom identify as Aboriginal, will be one of the largest relocation exercises the NSW Government has ever undertaken.

The public housing tenants will be moved to nearby accommodation as the developers knock one building down at a time. Once the new dwellings are built tenants can then move back in according to the government.

Lorna Munro, who is expecting her first child, is concerned the scale of the change will heavily impact existing residents and permanently disrupt the local community.

“Seriously I can’t even imagine moving house. Packing up and getting ready even for having this baby is hard enough, then packing up within the next year to move out is going to be like I can’t even imagine the stress that I’m going to have to go through and have to do that with a young baby as well. And that’s why I don’t see it as a realistic option staying here, and those kids won’t have had the experience of living here and things like that,” she said. 

New housing, but will the poor lose out?

Housing groups are also concerned there will not be enough new public housing added to the new development once the old towers are torn down and new private housing is added.

Wendy Hayhurst from the NSW Federation of Housing Associations points out that 30,000 public homes are needed at a minimum in NSW, but that only 9500 have been committed to over the course of the next 10 years.

“At the moment the Government has a waiting list of about 60,000 people and at the rate it’s going to at the moment it’s going to be a long time, and people will be added to the list so, a combination of knowing what we know about the backlog, we are saying there needs to be more done than the initiatives they have come up with so far,” she told The Point.

“What we are saying is that affordable housing should be treated as roads and rail, its essential to the working of a city isn’t it.”

Brad Hazzard acknowledged that the shift to a mix of public and private housing was intended to change the demographics of the area.

“What we’ve found when we have done that in other areas is that really does have a very big downward push on anti-social behaviour and because it also sends a message that the sky is the limit if you’re in social housing you’re going to see some people going off to work next door, in the house right next door to you and you're going to say: 'hey I can do that to'. So it’s about changing those dynamics, but we are very sensitive to making sure people’s views on that are heard,” he said.

There's little doubt the government has a grand vision for Redfern and Waterloo, yet will that vision come at the cost of the communities who live there ask long term locals like Lorna Munro.

“The main message is not to let the dollar override people’s lives and to control that, and that cities need to have diverse faces and they need to hold on to their Aboriginal communities and support their Aboriginal communities; you get rid of the diversity here you get rid of the social cohesion and that’s what makes a community a great community.”