It is a fantastic time to be a public housing advocate. Every day new community groups are coming out in support of more public housing.
Of course, none of them want the public housing built anywhere near them.
“We are not against public housing,” they explain earnestly. “Some of our best friends used to live in public housing.”
In Canberra, the Holder Community Action Group was formed when it was announced that the ACT government will submit a development application for 30 public housing units and townhouses.
Representatives of the group insisted that “they were not opposed to public housing in the area, but wanted the opportunity to discuss alternatives to the current plan”.
The alternative being, presumably, that the public housing should be built somewhere else.
In Melbourne, the Ashburton Residents Action Group play a similar tune. Fifty-six dilapidated post-war housing commission flats on Markham Avenue, Ashburton, were demolished over 14 months ago. The residents are opposing the government’s proposal for 62 new public housing units and 190 private units.
“We don’t want the homeless being stuffed into dog boxes, while the rich are provided million-dollar views,” the group said. “And we don’t want profit-driven, substandard apartments for the poor.”
But with no alternative proposals on the table, fighting for the status quo means the homeless remain homeless and the land remains vacant.
Head to Melbourne’s north, and locals have had no problems with public housing land sitting vacant since homes were demolished in 2011. The government has proposed to build 68 new public housing units. No private housing, no million-dollar views, no problems (you would think).
Locals objected to the plan and despite council officers recommending that the plan be approved, councillors voted against it.
Poor design, they said.
“We look at this site and think it’s a brilliant opportunity for the government to do something really, really special,” one local said.
But, they hastened to add, we support public housing.
Back into Canberra, the Old Narrabundah Community Council tried to stop new public housing being built by arguing against the 60-year-old stock being demolished on heritage grounds.
It soon became apparent, however, that the main concern was an increase in the level of public housing. Chairman John Keeley said that by his calculations, the new developments would mean about 30 per cent of Narrabundah residents were public housing tenants.
“We’re an area that’s facing a lot of social issues so this is just part of the bigger picture for us,” Mr Keeley said.
“We feel it does have an impact and all the literature says 10 to 12 per cent is a good average, it’s a good mix, but when you’re pushing 30 per cent we say what’s the impact for us? What is the social fabric for us?
“When we’re pushing 30 per cent it starts to affect our businesses, it starts to affect our assets.”
At least Mr Keeley was honest enough to say what his real concerns were. It’s a little hard to take in Victoria where public housing represents only 4 per cent of housing stock. We dream of achieving rates of 10 to 12 per cent.
Victoria Point residents in Queensland in January this year also had a lot to say about a public housing proposal. There, the government was proposing to build six public housing units. Six.
Victoria Point councillor Lance Hewlett said the area was too posh for public housing.
“Clearly the Department of Housing isn’t concerned about value for money because if they were they would not be purchasing premium waterfront properties.”
Wherever public housing is to be built we hear the same things. Residents are concerned about their property values dropping. They say they were not consulted (what they mean is that they do not have a veto). They worry about security.
We understand that residents have the right to campaign against new developments, public housing developments or otherwise. And we are mindful of the need to ensure community cohesion once projects are delivered and the public housing tenants need to live with their new neighbours.
It is time for people to stop hiding behind professions of support for the concept of public housing, while simultaneously opposing actual proposals to build public housing.
We are in a housing crisis and part of the solution must be building more public housing. Current proposals may not be perfect, and we should seek to constantly do better.
But talk is cheap. Now is the time to get on with building the public housing that we need.
Raoul Wainwright is a spokesperson for the Victorian Public Tenants Association.