BY ALEC SMART
The last four tenants in Millers Point social housing are facing imminent eviction as the NSW Government finalises the sell-off of their homes, on behalf of Family and Community Services (FACS). And yet the sold-off properties, which caused the eviction of almost 500 long-term tenants, aren’t bustling with new families or city workers. Most lie empty.
In March 2014, the NSW Government Minister for Family and Community Services, Pru Goward, announced that all of the 293 public housing dwellings in Millers Point, The Rocks and Dawes Point were to be sold off to the private sector.
An additional 79 apartments in the iconic Sirius building, built in the Brutalist style, were also scheduled for sale, or, as seems increasingly likely, demolition to make way for new high-rise apartments.
The Sirius was constructed in the late 1970s and opened in 1980 to rehouse the original residents from The Rocks that were displaced during the large-scale destruction of Sydney’s harbour-side heritage area for high-rise apartments – ultimately stopped by Green Bans.
In July 2016, when it was reported that only 42 tenants were left in this latest mass eviction and sell-off of The Rocks, Millers Point and Dawes Point precinct, the NSW Government refused to grant heritage status to the Sirius Building despite the Heritage Council recommendations. The decision was justified on the basis that a heritage listing would reduce its value by $70 million. The following month, 94 Millers Point properties were sold for a cumulative $264 million, an average sale price of $2.48 million per dwelling.
Property NSW is managing the sales on behalf of FACS. The NSW Government catalogues these sales on the webpage rediscovermillerspoint.com.au, of which it receives an extra bonus on the sale price through 5% stamp duty.
“The NSW Government is projected to make $700 million on the Millers Point sales,” said Barney Gardner, a Millers Point resident his entire life and one of those removed from the Victorian homes originally constructed for Sydney wharf workers and their descendants.
“People who buy these properties are supposed to restore them to heritage standard, but we knew they’d be short-term lets.”
All purchasers of properties in the Millers Point area are required to adhere to the NSW Heritage Council-endorsed Conservation Management Plans. These set out in detail the purchaser’s heritage maintenance obligations.
Kent Street in Millers Point, which Gardner dubs ‘Rent Street’, is largely deserted, with multiple properties vacant and occupied only on weekends or during peak tourist events by non-residents, when revelers often turn them into noisy party venues.
Undertake a Google search for Air BnB accommodation in Millers Point and you’ll find prices range from a heady $188 a night to an astronomical $835 a night. Several of these were former dockworkers’ homes that passed into the ownership of the NSW Government and were among the NSW Government’s mass sell-off to capitalize on a surge in property prices.
“119 Kent Street was the first to sell,” revealed Gardner, “fetching around $1.2 million. The purchasers illegally rented it out as an Air BnB and got away with it for 6-7 months before they were found out. Then, after only nine months ownership, they sold the property for a half a million dollars profit.”
A spokesperson from Air BnB told Domain media, “There are approximately 80 listings in the three inner city suburbs of Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks.”
Millers Point has a unique history. The houses were originally constructed for dockworkers toiling on the nearby wharves in which to shelter and raise their families. Their descendants retained the occupancy of the premises. The Heritage Council recognised the historical significance of the neighbourhoods in 1999 when it declared the entire area, including the occupants, a Heritage site.
In 1936 the Maritime Services Board took over management of the properties from the ports, which they in turn ceded to the Department of Housing in the 1980s.
“Initially the Department of Housing converted the properties into more modern dwellings,” said Barney Gardner, who was born in a terrace on High Street.
“They changed some from three to two bedrooms in order to fit bathrooms, and converted laundries into proper kitchens.”
After a few years though, Gardner insists the systematic running-down of properties began.
“Housing management started to get worse and worse as the years went by. It appears in hindsight that their basic plan was to get us to live in squalor so they could eventually find a reason to rehouse us. We couldn’t get proper maintenance or repairs, neglecting their basic Duty of Care.”
On a walk around the empty Millers Point houses still awaiting auction, Mr. Gardner showed City Hub the rotting balconies, mouldy interior walls, collapsed drain pipes and general disrepair that he and his neighbours insist they endured for years before the government’s Relocation Officers persuaded them to leave.
He called it “Eviction by Dereliction.”
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, when she learned of the state of the dwellings, said, “If Housing NSW had been a responsible landlord they never would have allowed these properties to fall into neglect.”
A large proportion of the tenants evicted from the Millers Point area were over 65. The Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman about a number of Housing NSW’s procedures around the sell-off, including the omission of information given to them about their right to appeal relocation decisions.
The Ombudsman subsequently upheld RLC’s complaint and made recommendations for change in line with the issues raised.
“Once Housing want you to move, you’re lucky if you get more than 30 days to pack up your possessions and move on to their suggested relocation,” said Gardner. “You only get two formal offers of a new home; if you don’t accept by their deadline you’re on the street. Then they can bring the Sherriff to remove your personal property. They didn’t do this but several people were threatened with warning letters.
“They also threaten you with tribunals. If you consent to move you’re under intense pressure to go as quickly as possible. Some Millers Point tenants have moved out west to properties that also need repairs and changes – such as improvements in access for the elderly – but the changes have not been implemented, despite multiple complaints.”
“This shocking sale is devastating for this strong and proud community,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said of the NSW Government’s forced evictions. “Millers Point is one of Australia’s oldest communities, in the most historic place in our country. Many residents here have connections to this area going back generations.
“For decades Governments have eroded the social heritage of the area by relocating existing tenants, neglecting property maintenance, selling 99 year leases for social housing properties and leaving properties vacant for long periods of time.”
Housing policy groups in Sydney, including the Tenants Union and Shelter, were highly critical of the Millers Point, Rocks and Dawes Point housing sell-off. They insist it dissolved a vibrant, historic community for the benefit of wealthy landlords, while the funds made will have little impact on the thousands of people on the social housing waiting list.