This week the state government announced plans to sell off 293 public housing properties in Millers Point and The Rocks.  Residents of Millers Point and The Rocks must be thinking here we go again, as this is not the first time the housing has been considered for sale.

The area has a long history of conflict over housing and housing rights, spanning most of the twentieth century and now the first decades of the twenty first.  It also has a long history of publically owned housing.

In 1900 the arrival of the plague in Sydney heralded the resumption of Millers Point and The Rocks by the state.  Residents’ houses were resumed and demolished, and the government became the new landlord.  To replace those lost the Sydney Harbour Trust, and then the State Housing Board, built new apartments and flats between 1908 and about 1915 to house the workers, many of them wharf labourers, who had lived in the area.

Shops and flats built by the Trust in Millers Point
Shops and flats built by the Trust in Millers Point

In 1936 the Trust was reconstituted as the Maritime Services Board, and responsibility for housing was divested to the MSB.  The MSB provided the houses for workers and their families already in the area, rather then what we would consider needs based housing that Housing NSW provides now.  Some of these families were second or third generation residents.  This practice of inheriting the house continued until the late 1980s, when with the declining wharf usage in the area, the MSB handed control of housing to the NSW Housing commission, putting Millers Point into the general pool of housing.

In 1988 the then Greiner Liberal Government made the first attempt to sell properties in the area.  In November the sale of two hotels, the Hero of Waterloo and the Harbour View, was advertised.  After protests about undermining the character of the area, the sales went ahead with Conservation Orders on the hotels to protect them.  Attempts to sell some of the shops and residences above them the following year was meet with more opposition, and the sales were deferred.  Research into the area as part of the proposal, concluded that Millers Point was an area of national significance, with an outstanding urban significance best managed through ongoing government ownership.

In The Rocks, the current proposal is also to sell the Sirius apartment block.  This block was built in 1979 to house those long term residents who had lost their houses in the demolitions on the 1960s and early 1970s that had led to the Green Bans by the BLF.  The Sirius apartments were a revolution in public housing in NSW.  Designed by Tao Gofers and Government Architects for NSW Housing Commission, the modernist design incorporated individual refinements for residents determined through interviews with the prospective tenants.  Much like in Millers Point, the residents included families who had lived in The Rocks since the colonial period.

Sirius Apartments, from the brochure, 1980.
Sirius Apartments, from the brochure, 1980.

One historian has commented that the Sirius building is ‘an artefact of a time when governments believed that all citizens deserved quality housing’.  Those days may be coming to an end.  Mind you they’re a tough bunch down there and have won fights before.

The question is who does the city belong to? Is it only for the rich, those who can pay up for harbour views?  What about public housing in other increasingly exclusive suburbs like Newtown, Redfern, Balmain, Glebe?  Any what about diversity, vibrant communities, a fair go for all?

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