Melbourne: Homeless Persons Union of Victoria media release about Markham Avenue estate

The Homeless Persons Union of Victoria speaks out against the impending demolition and privatisation of yet-another Victorian public housing estate

The Andrews government recently announced that the Markham Avenue public housing estate in Ashburton will be demolished by the end of 2015, and the site will be redeveloped in consultation with the 10 remaining households, the local community, the city of Boroondara, and other stakeholders. The Homeless Persons Union of Victoria takes issue with a number of elements of the government’s proposed plans. We will speak to the issues in this document. Ultimately, we will prosecute the argument that the immanent bulldozing and public-private mix of the Markham Avenue estate is emblematic of how free-market ideology has come to shape government policy, media discourse, and public views of public housing estates and tenants.

Government neglect or planned demolition by proxy?

To begin, the HPUV believes that successive Victorian governments have ignored the ongoing maintenance needs of the Markham Avenue estate, leading the now-Andrews Labor government to argue the case for demolition. We refer the Victorian public to the promised $500,000 slated by the Bracks Labor government in 2006 to fund a program of building works for the estate, including improved ventilation, window repair, and anti-mould painting, all to improve the estate’s living conditions. Despite this promise, Minister for Planning Richard Wynne was quoted in November 2014 saying that the estate’s conditions are ‘Third World’. As a consequence, the HPUV can only surmise that the 2006 works were never undertaken. We believe this illustrates the inertia, inaction and blatant lack of concern Victorian governments have displayed over time towards Victoria’s most vulnerable.

Investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW in 2014 revealed that the area in which corruption has been most active has been between state governments and land developers. Speaking to the Markham Avenue estate, we find that:

‘Almost three-quarters of the new units will be sold as private houses so the state is likely to earn a hefty profit on the project’

In light of these revelations, and the poor track record of Victorian governments’ responsibility towards public housing, the HPUV asks what else other than the bottom-line could have motivated governments’ lack of action over time and its announcement of massive privatisation to the Markham Avenue estate? Were there always plans on the drawing board for the Markham Avenue estate to be dominated by private dwellings, on what are Victorians’ rightful public assets? Markham Avenue is OURS; it belongs to the public, paid for from consolidated revenue, and it is not the government’s to sell!

The illusion of democratic participation

The Homeless Persons Union of Victoria is also deeply concerned that the government’s announcement to consult with the 10 remaining households is manipulative, constituting a form of tokenism. A succession of Victorian governments over the past ten years have neglected their fit and proper maintenance of the property, thus abrogating their responsibilities, leaving 10 vulnerable households to ‘consult’ with departments, councils and other unspecified stakeholders, who have greater resources to engage in such high-level bureaucratic ‘horse-trading’. Such resources include legal knowledge of planning practises, and the identification of potentially negative outcomes such redevelopments can have, including rises in rent prices and discriminatory tenancy eligibility. Furthermore, it is a possibility that current tenants who now live independently on the Markham Avenue estate may find themselves forced into dependence upon housing options such as supported accommodation, boarding houses, or old-age residences, which may impact negatively on their quality of life. We believe therefore that the government’s announcement of a consultation process is a deceptive manoeuvre to seduce the public into believing there is an equitable procedure in process, when in reality it lacks credibility, legitimacy, and does not stand up to scrutiny. For all these reasons, the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria believes that the government’s consultation process is an an example of ‘rubberstamping’ that creates the illusion of participation, when in actual fact it amounts to an imbalance of power and is a form of ‘bulldozer-politics’.

Public not social housing

The state government’s property development agency, Places Victoria, claims that the Markham Avenue estate plan will increase the site’s social housing stock by 10%. Minister for Housing, Disability & Ageing, Martin Foley, stated that this increase is evidence of the government’s acknowledgement of Victorians who are struggling with high housing costs, and that it must build more social housing to reflect this fact. However, The Age reported on September 6th 2015 that the redevelopment will only include 60 social housing units, with the rest being apportioned to 180 private sector dwellings. The HPUV finds this massive privatisation an affront to the near-35,000 Victorians on the 7-10 year public housing waiting list. However, what we find most worrisome, in addition to the disproportionate allocation of private dwellings vis-à-vis social dwellings, is the plan for the building of social housing itself, as opposed to public housing.

‘In Australia, as in most countries around the world, a household is considered in housing stress if its members pay more than 30 per cent of their gross income on their housing costs‘

The Community Housing Federation claims that community or social housing is only available to those who pay 30% or more of their income in a private rental property. In addition to the nebulous nature of this statement, we note that HPUV members currently pay 50% or more of their government benefit on their social housing dwelling, leaving them oftentimes reliant on food charity and on poorly funded not-for-profit organisations. In general, social housing rents contribute to the existing difficulty that all recipients of government benefits are facing to meet the costs of living. These costs have been acknowledged by Australian Council Of Social Services’ Cassandra Goldie’s and the Business Council of Australia’s calls for the federal government to increase the Newstart allowance by at least $50 a week, calls which have been ignored.

In contrast to social housing, public housing was established to meet the real needs of low-income and disadvantaged households, where rents are capped at 25% of a tenant’s income. We believe that successive governments have broken the spirit of this social contract they have held with the Victorian public. The public housing rent cap traditionally recognised that tenants on low incomes must have access to choices and the empowerment to exercise self-determination. Victorian electors understand that the conventions of responsible government demand that government is required to invest taxpayer monies into health, law and order, and emergency services, in order to have a socially inclusive, healthy, and equitable community. Public housing is a critical aspect of this social contract. By proposing that the Markham Avenue estate redevelopment will include social housing, instead of public, the government is illustrating its break from this convention. As a homeless persons union we find this to be a regressive move, especially in the current housing affordability crisis. We believe it is a case of governments’ ever-increasing adherence to free market solutions to long-standing problems of social and economic inequity.

In addition, this adherence has seen a dramatic decrease in public housing stocks, from 5.7% of Australia’s total housing stock in 1984 to 3.8% in 2011. This is a trend that has also swept across most European countries. Decreasing public housing stocks in this country rubs salt into the wound of the 23,000+ Victorians and 106,000+ Australians who are currently homeless (2011 statistics). These figures include the 1,000+ Victorians who are rough sleeping on any given night. Homeless Victorians include pregnant women sleeping in doorways, and those stuck in violent, unregulated rental traps in boarding houses, supported and crisis accommodation. As a homeless persons union we understand that homelessness leaves people exposed to violence and other traumatic experiences and that public housing can provide the beginnings of a life of safety, stability, and self-determination.

The HPUV asserts that it is only Australian governments, by virtue of their traditional responsibility in providing a safety net, who have the economic ability to invest in affordable and secure housing. It is the government’s role in the Westminster system to serve the interests of all electors, be they professionals with large salaries or those on government benefits. We ask how a reliance on private developers can meet the just housing needs of those Victorians with complex needs, who have bills to pay, food and medications to buy, transport costs to cover, and a right to secure and affordable housing? Such groups already live below the poverty line. If the housing crisis is left to private interests these problems will fester and will exacerbate existing inequality, homelessness, and isolation. We demand the Markham Avenue estate public-private mix be dramatically altered to meet the real social and economic needs of Victoria’s most vulnerable, including the aged, victims of family violence, childhood trauma, and sexual abuse; all experiences that can lead to homelessness.

‘This housing affordability crisis, which has largely been manufactured by federal government policy failure, affects not only young households seeking to buy their first home, but also older women affected by divorce and widowhood, women and children victims of domestic violence, and most people with physical and mental disabilities’

Despite such damning media reports, who can forget the following insensitive comments made by former-Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey in June this year?

‘The starting point for a first home-buyer is to get a good job that pays good money. If you’ve got a good job that pays good money and you have security in relation to that job, then you can go to the bank and you can borrow money … If housing were unaffordable in Sydney nobody would be buying‘

We believe these comments illustrate how out-of-touch government officials are with the harsh economic realities that both the Victorian and Australian public are facing.

A complicit media

The Homeless Persons Union of Victoria believes that commercial media provides tacit support to the free market solutions to the long-standing problems of social and economic inequity that we have highlighted. The domination of Australian media by commercial interests gives rise to a narrative which stereotypes public housing estates, portraying them oftentimes as havens for crime and deviant behaviour, where drug users, misfits, leaners, and general miscreants congregate. We refer to articles in The Age in which public housing estates have been described in derogatory terms, by language such as ‘squalid’, ‘rotting’, ‘languish’, ‘graffiti’, ‘run down’, ‘concrete blocks’, ‘dilapidated’, and the list goes on. The HPUV is offended by this language as we believe, by implication, it is a damning reflection on the character of the existing 10 households who remain on the Markham Avenue estate. What such reports fail to show is a lack of understanding for the antecedent factors which may have lead to these tenants’ decision to remain at the estate. We believe the kind of depiction of public housing tenants and estates we have noted is a form of ‘poverty porn’ in which disadvantaged Victorians are looked upon as a spectacle.

Public views

It is not only commercial media which brings public housing and public housing tenants into disrepute, but such views are also found to be held by state members of parliament. In a petition, Victorian MP Graham Watt implied that the Markham Avenue estate is not ‘family friendly’, and he has been a vocal opponent against plans to redevelop the site to enable 194 social housing apartments. Mr Watt would rather see the site redeveloped for a building for young people now in nursing homes, returning the site to parkland, or for an artist’s studio complex, instead of public or social housing for low-income Victorians who are struggling to make ends meet. These are the near-35,000 Victorians on the 7-10 year public housing waiting list and the 23,000+ homeless Victorians.

‘Renewal’ equals privatisation and corporatisation

In Fiona William’s recent presentation to the Council to Homeless Persons conference she stated that one of the government’s objectives and principles for growth is to renew neighbourhoods to reduce disadvantage so as to optimise connections to employment and education opportunities, transport and services. To add, Minister for Housing, Disability & Ageing, Martin Foley, asserted that the Markham Avenue site is in desperate need of a rebuild, but well located, close to Alamein station, Holmesglen TAFE, parks and walking trails. We believe that the unstated key message of these statements is that public housing tenants are incapable of accessing the existing infrastructure surrounding the Markham Avenue estate. We believe this is a derogatory moral judgment towards public housing tenants and their lifestyles. Why does the injection of private renters into an area necessarily equate to infrastructure being better utilised?

To conclude, in this document we have attempted to prosecute the argument that successive Victorian and Federal governments, and the commercial media, are captive to a dispassionate, calculating free market ideology which creates an environment in which blaming-the-victim become acceptable within public discourse. We believe all the factors we have mentioned have led to the creation of a perfect storm for the demolition and privatisation of the Markham Avenue estate. It is the role of the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria to raise these issues to ensure that the voice of the marginalised, the disempowered, and isolated is heard. We ask the Victorian public to reflect on the nature of social justice in our communities. In pursuing free market solutions to social and economic inequity, are we not effectively leaving people behind?

The Homeless Persons Union of Victoria – no longer the unheard voice!

Homeless Persons Union of Victoria
hpuvic [at] gmail [dot] com