Caption: Barney Gardner displays his original eviction notice. Credit: Alana Levene

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BY ALANA LEVENE

Over the past five years, Barney Gardner has watched his Miller’s Point community slowly fall apart.

The 69-year-old retired wharf worker knew his working-class suburb had little chance of survival when in 2014, the government announced the intended sale of 300 harbourfront public housing properties. Tenants in Millers Point, Dawes Point, and the Sirius building were to be relocated. Some left voluntarily. Gardner fought to stay. He’s one of the few who succeeded.

Gardner’s story puts a spotlight on the Coalition government’s public housing policies, a key issue of the 23 March NSW election. Over the last eight years, the Government has emphasized privatisation across a range of policy areas, including land and property ownership, said Frank Stilwell, a professor emeritus in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

Lucrative harbourfront real estate

The government has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from selling off the lucrative harbourfront real estate and reinvesting the proceeds into a higher quantity of public housing across the state.

But public housing advocates and Opposition candidates claim the Coalition government is not doing enough to address housing issues, and that their privatisation endeavours have aggravated the housing market more than they have helped.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the Coalition has done nothing to remedy social and affordable housing shortages.

“Instead of increasing social and affordable housing in NSW, this government has evicted public housing tenants from their homes in Millers Point, while the purpose-built Sirius building has sat empty for more than a year,” Moore said.

For the nearly 53,000 households on the NSW public housing waiting list, wait times can exceed a decade. Until they can secure public housing, low-income households are compelled to live in the private rental market and compete with people on much higher incomes, according to Shelter NSW CEO Karen Walsh. (Shelter NSW receives funding from the government.)

Households on low, or even moderate incomes in some places in Sydney, are forced to endure “severe or extreme housing rental stress,” Walsh said. Rent can eat up to 65% of their income.

The gap between the public housing that is needed and what is available, especially in high-demand areas like inner Sydney, is getting wider and wider, according to Walsh.

“We’re losing the equivalent of 2,500 social housing homes, falling behind population growth every year,” Walsh said.

Shelter NSW has asked the State Government to commit to building at least 5,000 homes a year for the next 10 years in NSW. Independent MP Alex Greenwich affirmed this target.

Penny Sharp, Deputy Opposition Leader, did not confirm that Labor would meet this target, though she said Labor would invest $200 million in new social housing stock.

Greens MP Jenny Leong announced the Greens plan to build 300,000 new social homes across NSW in the next 10 years funded by a state-based banking levy.

Established communities destroyed

If Labor wins, the government is likely to put more emphasis than the Coalition on expanding the stock of public housing, Stilwell said, even if they don’t buy back properties sold under the Coalition.

Established communities, like that of Miller’s Point, have been irreversibly “destroyed”, Walsh said.

Even if more public housing is built in the outer suburbs, experts have raised concern over what might happen when low-income people become excluded from the inner city and its services, jobs, networks, and transport hubs. Dislocation of inner-Sydney public housing tenants can bring about adverse consequences for society, Stilwell said.

In an email, a Liberal Party spokeswoman said their initiative constitutes “the biggest social housing construction program in Australia”.

The program encompasses the Communities Plus program and the Social and Affordable Housing Fund (SAHF). At an Energy and Housing March Assembly held on 14 March, NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin said the Coalition is on track to install at least 3,000 new social and affordable housing dwellings each year over the next 10 years.

“We’re absolutely committed to act,” Harwin said. “More importantly, all of these promises are funded and in the budget.”

The Liberal Party spokeswoman said that more than 320 people have already been moved into social and affordable homes funded by the first phase of the SAHF and that they’re on track to deliver hundreds of more homes this year.

While many public housing residents have been forced to relocate to Sydney’s outer suburbs, Gardner was one of the lucky few. He  lives in a one-bedroom Kent Street unit, surrounded by blocks of units that were redeveloped and sold for millions. He pays the government $115 a week in rent.  “It was like one big family,” Gardner said. “It’s a very sad place now. They took the heart right out of this place.”