Housing renewal cautiously welcomed

Photo by Julius Dennis
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The Andrews government's public housing renewal program's new "socially mixed" estates may appeal to tenants but some experts say they fear its success is unlikely. Julius Dennis reports.

The Walker Street Public Housing Estate in Northcote is decrepit. Built in the 60s the estate is falling apart, its occupants, including Effie Stefanidas and Michael Aboujundi, cannot wait to get out. Luckily, this is in the works as a part of the Andrews Government’s public housing renewal program (PHRP).

The program will demolish nine similar estates around the city and replace them with new “tenure blind, socially mixed” estates, a theory which combines private and public housing under the same roof. The new estates will be roughly 30 per cent public housing, with the overall number of public dwellings rising by 10 per cent.

In executing this plan, the government is selling a large chunk of its public housing assets, something that may seem strange considering that there are nearly 36,000 individuals and families on the Public Housing waiting list state wide. However, Mark Feenane, executive officer at the Victorian Public Tenant Association (VPTA), says in this case, action is better than nothing.

Photo by Julius Dennis

“We’ve got a significant problem and just saying ‘the government should spend money (doesn’t make sense)’. No government has shown the appetite to actually do that. I think the scale means they have to look at more innovative ways of providing affordable housing and social housing.”

According to Michael Aboujundi, a senior tenant advisor at the VPTA and 10-year volunteer representative of his fellow tenants, already a third of the tenants have been relocated from the Walker Street Estate in a process in which tenants are being given a range of choices for relocation.

“I am one of them, (who is) just looking forward to getting out of here,” says Mr Aboujundi, who has called the area surrounding the Northcote estate home since soon after his release from a detention centre after arriving in Australia from Syria as an asylum seeker.

However, tenants do not have to immediately take what is being offered.

“I’ve been offered twice now. Two offers already… And I said no,” says Mr Aboujundi.

This leeway is part of the relaxation of rules that normally stipulate a certain number of options that can be offered per tenant or family.

This relaxation has been a huge help to the process, says Mr Feenane.

“Technically a person is only supposed to be made three to five offers, and they’re saying we’re going to keep offering until people have got something they are over the moon with.”

Tenants who are moved as part of the PHRP’s relocation process will be offered a place in the new socially mixed estates when the project is finished, something that is likely years away.

A combination of this relaxation and the future offers means that tenants who are embedded in their communities such as Walker Street tenant Effie Stefanidas, will not be moved away from their networks.

“If I like it there, I stay there. If I no like, I come back here, because 48 years in Australia, I (have) never lived anywhere [else], just Northcote,” says Ms Stefanidas.

It’s a seemingly flexible arrangement. In the words of Mr Aboujundi, “the first form has been signed. That means, Effie gives the authority to the housing officer to start looking for a place for her. But, a lease will be signed once the new place is ready.”

For now, Mr Aboujundi says, “no contract has been signed.”

While this is all well and good, there have been critics of the PHRP, especially of the “tenure blind” approach. All the more so since both its prior applications in Melbourne, Kensington and Carlton, can easily be viewed as failures.

“There is little to no research that demonstrates that social mixing works as a philosophy, even to the extent that the salt and pepper approach has been applied across this country and many western countries,” says geographer David Kelly.

While anecdotal, data from the Kensington estate points to children being a key element of social mixing being pulled off successfully, something that is unlikely to happen as a part of the PHRP. The program is focussing on one- and two- bedroom apartments, a tactic taken due to the high number of singles and elderly people on the priority waiting list.

“We hear from the department (about) … over-55 single people, parents with one or two kids and perhaps homeless people and people with higher needs (such as) mental health cases, so it’s not necessarily larger families that are the priority grouping these days,” says Mr Feenane.

In light of this, David Kelly says a successful, balanced and successful social mix is unlikely due to the lack of families with children on the new estates and the minimal chances of individuals mixing socially.

“In regards to places like the Kensington development, social mixing as a design principle of the estate actually led to more adverse outcomes, especially when you take children out of the equation.”

“Children are the catalyst for interaction in social mixing, but with the reduction in family units there is actually less children on the estate, so there is less chance of social mixing taking place.”

Photo by Julius Dennis