BY ALEC SMART
Another spate of vandalism at Addison Road Community (Addi Rd) in Marrickville was probably committed by the same people who targeted the premises earlier this year. Unfortunately, these abhorrent acts harm every organisation on this unique multicultural site, and ultimately threaten its long-term viability. Hate speech and trolling – generated in social media by people in dispute with Addi Road management over vital increases in rent – likely fuelled these destructive actions.
In November 2018 supporters of The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre, a charitable operation that trains people in repairing worn furniture and encourages recycling and sustainability, were incensed when it was revealed that the organisation was facing eviction from Addison Road after 20 years on the site.
Addison Road Community Organisation (ARCCO), which manages the 2.6 hectares of Crown land in Marrickville, and is itself a charitable organisation, posted an eviction notice after seeking legal advice on what constituted a breach of the lease.
The notice, served in conjunction with an Inner West Council-issued Development Control Order of 23 October, required The Bower to vacate the premises by close of business Tuesday 13 November. This resulted after approximately two years of safety and fire concerns surrounding non-compliance with repeat requests to remove illegal structures and dangerously stored goods.
On Monday 19 November, The Bower, winners of both the prestigious Premier’s Award for Environmental Excellence and the Community Leadership Award at the 2016 NSW Green Globe Awards, and the Sustainability Leadership Award at the 2016 Inner West Business Environment Awards, found they were unable to open their premises. ARCCO changed the locks on hut 34 in the converted World War 1 army barracks complex citing The Bower’s failure to comply with the Development Control Order.
Dispute turns toxic
The Bower’s general manager, Guido Verbist, told Domain property magazine: “They [ARCCO] are constantly on a path to dismantle this centre to stop us operating and trading. I can’t tell you why, to tell you the truth…”
The Bower then went on a social media offensive and launched a petition on Change.org, titled “Fight for Your Right to Repair!” that has since attracted almost 17,500 signatures and raised almost $15,000 through crowd-funding to finance The Bower’s legal fight, originally scheduled for the NSW Supreme Court.
On 9 January The Bower enlisted prominent lawyer, refugee activist and former child soldier Deng Adut’s support, and he responded: “The Bower needs the support of the general community … As a lawyer I have provided The Bower with some advice, but I’m speaking today as a concerned member of Sydney’s community. Attempts to remove environmental organisations from the Addison Road Community Centre are deceptive and short sighted…”
Hereafter the dispute turned toxic as anonymous supporters of The Bower began a guerrilla campaign against Addi Rd, damaging property, making threatening phone calls and posting hate-speech over the internet.
Between December 2018 and February 2019, several acts of vandalism were committed against Addi Road vehicles and property on the site. CCTV cameras were smashed, a fire extinguisher sprayed on the ARCCO office building, a window cracked, and nails were rammed into the tyres of a staff member’s car and a van run by Food Pantry – a food charity that feeds over 1200 low-income people a week from the Addi Road building.
False allegations circulated that Addi Rd were facilitating a devious plan to evict all Addison Road community tenants to enable developers’ high-rise ambitions on this prime piece of inner west real estate.
Many spiteful and libellous comments were written across social media, including The Bower’s Facebook page.
Hundreds of libellous comments against ARCCO are still prominent on The Bower’s Change.org webpage; for example:
“Evidently the landlord is trying to sell off the land to developers..”,
“It’s disgusting that they would be elbowed out by a shameless money grab”,
“The Community Centre is now acting like vile slum landlord..”,
“So f%%%%g sick to back teeth with this attitude of milking everything good in society for every last dime some w%%%r in a suit can pay for his next range rover sport”,
“The landlords should hang their heads in shame. A DISGUSTING MONEYGRAB!!!”,
“Such a shame ARCCO is not a responsible landlord..”
And yet Addi Road are not the greedy landlords reviled by many Kangaroo Court activists across social media. Addi Road expressed concern that this sort of hostility, prejudice, and inaccuracy emanating from The Bower and others is not free speech, but hate speech that may encourage malicious damage.
Rosanna Barbero, Addi Road CEO, told City Hub: “We manage the lease on Addi Rd, so we’re responsible, but we’re not landlords. This vandalism is terrible. We’re a charity, so why is this going on? Who benefits?”
Some of Addi Road’s charitable highlights from 2018 include: hosting 303 community events, from fundraisers to concerts, exhibitions and workshops; 900 people fed every week with free fruit and vegies and low-cost groceries from The Food Pantry; hosting the 4th annual Public Schools Arts Festival in August for budding artists in public schools across Sydney to develop, design, showcase and display their work in a professional exhibition at the StirrUp Gallery; and over 9.6 million containers recycled at the Addi Rd Return & Earn station.
“We also provide free market access for refugee entrepreneurs to showcase their inventions and products,” Ms Barbero continued. “We support childcare facilities that benefit the community, ethnic centres that address discrimination, aged care for the elderly who are otherwise isolated, and outreach programs.”
Tensions on the Addi Rd site predate November 2018, when they came to the wider public’s attention. For example, The Bower were formally expelled from the Addi Rd membership in October 2016. Ms Barbero revealed to City Hub: “The members put forward a motion of No Confidence against the Bower; they acted in a way that put the entire centre in ill repute.”
The issue allegedly began with The Bower’s anger at a computer getting damaged by a power-surge during a storm. They demanded Addi Road pay for their building’s electrical problems when it appears their electronic equipment wasn’t surge-protected, and brought in Ausgrid to inspect the premises. Ausgrid gave assurances there was no immediate danger, but a staged upgrade across the site was put in place.
But proportionate and fair rent is also at the heart of the stand-off. Addi Road claim that The Bower are a financially profitable business bringing in thousands of dollars a month, and yet over the last decade their rent has increased marginally from $53 per week in 1998 to $400.30 per week in 2018 (this being the rent The Bower insists is their right to pay – and not the rent as per the Rent Policy and not consistent or fair, in relation to the other tenants on site).
It is well below market rate for the area. The latest rent increase that The Bower reject seeks a transitional increase over five years, but ultimately below the going rate for premises in the area.
Mark Mordue, Communications Manager for Addi Road, told City Hub: “These arguments are chewing up energy, money and goodwill. This place is a precious resource; with lots of space and very cheap rents, we’re a refuge for charities and organisations escaping market forces and indifference. Addi Rd provides the ability for users to meet, talk, share ideas and information.”
On 2 July 2019, it was discovered that Gumbramorra Hall, the community gathering place at the centre of the Addi Rd site, had its roof repeatedly punctured.
“Someone who is either on site or a neighbour, who knows when they can come and go without detection, climbed onto the roof and drilled a series of holes,” revealed Mordue. “It was done so that rainwater would have dripped into the ceiling but not leak through, yet compromise the plaster to the point that we would only have noticed when the whole ceiling collapsed.”
Thankfully disaster was averted by a roofer, who noticed the holes while doing some repair work on the hall.
A week later, on July 9, in the immediate aftermath of Mark Mordue condemning the roof vandalism on Addi Road’s webpage, the hall was targeted again: the drains directly behind the rear entrance were blocked up with paving slabs to prevent stormwater from escaping.
Ms Barbero found the blockage when she joined several panicked people in the hall with mops and brooms to repel an incoming tide of rainwater, which she eventually blocked with sandbags.
Ms Barbero told City Hub: “That drain is an offshoot to the main stormwater pipe. It was a strategic sabotage: someone who knew what they were doing blocked the drain. Because if water flows under the door and floods the hall, the wooden floor buckles and it has to be completely replaced with the hall closed for months.
“More than 100 multicultural communities use the hall for a gazillion things, from social activities to fundraising, trading stalls and markets and people expressing themselves. It’s the only hall in the inner west where six wheelchairs can get together. We have activities for the wheelchair-bound, that’s why the hall has low floors. Where else can six wheelchairs fit at the same time?”
Sadly, this vandalism inflicted on Addi Road is not a recent phenomenon. In January 2012 a new representative members board was instituted, and a fairer rental system introduced for Addi Rd users, which resulted in a backlash of personal threats and vandalism from anonymous tenants and their supporters.
A report in the South Sydney Herald dated 5 October 2012 reveals that it came to a head on 21 September 2012 when concrete was poured down the sewage pipes of the hall.
It seems that when fairer systems are implemented to ensure people can work and socialise together in sustainable environments like the Addison Road Community, there are always reactionary forces willing to sabotage without examining the benefits everyone can enjoy.