arch-peace editorials

21 October 2012

Public housing in Australia - selling out?

Keppel St, Carlton public/private housing development on a former hospital site.

Over the last decade, the concept of what public housing is in Melbourne has been rewritten, again. Perhaps it has been lost altogether. Once it was a backstop, there to ensure that manufacturing workers had somewhere to live that was secure and socially-connected and close to work. By the '90s the mix changed with a wave of deinstitutionalisations almost doubling the number of people in these flats with special needs. In 2012, urban public housing provision has deteriorated to the point that it's a token gesture, ill-coordinated and incremental. If you sell it with enough spin, no one will realise that the new public housing development contains no new public housing.

Superman slum-clearing to cut crime in 1939. [Cracked magazine]
Inner Melbourne has a suite of large housing towers, of the cut rate Corbusian model. As elsewhere, these towers swept away slums and replaced them with what was one of the last gasps of grand modernism for the public good. They have been abhorred by the media ever since, a failed architectural folly that everyone has to look at as they drive past.

Public housing towers showing the new PPP developments in colour.
True, they are no Unit├ęs d'Habitation. They look like giant battery hen houses, but they are not Pruitt Igoes either. Strong communities have formed, with which Architects for Peace have worked, and they have generous swathes of green space around them, integral to the original model.

In late 2005, when the state government announced that it would redevelop many of these precincts, people were fairly supportive. There was little information to read, but there was also a great shortage of public housing, and the relentlessly negative media coverage of drug dealing around the towers meant that no one could protest an effort to change them. These "ghettos" might be demolished, open space would be preserved, and public housing numbers would of course be increased, said the housing minister at the time. A good thing, as over 100,000 people were homeless in Australia at the time. Displaced residents would be rehoused locally during the works – tick. They would go overboard with community consultation – another tick. The derelict site of a former hospital would also be covered in housing – more ticks. And it would all be designed sustainably by Melbourne's top architects – even more ticks.

"In the past, public housing has been decidedly basic — Soviet-style, concrete high-rises marooned in bleak, urban gulags where no one would choose to live. The future of public housing looks considerably more appealing for tenants, with the government taking a more enlightened approach." The Age, 2010
The first signs of action were the demolition of many small four storey "walk-up" flats. These were getting tatty and didn't have lifts, but they weren't offensive as buildings. They had to go as they took up the space needed for the redevelopment. Then the large green spaces for active play were fenced off. I think they were called "lungs" once. The nearest parkland is one kilometre away. Small gated gardens are to be the new lungs. No community facilities have been included in the redevelopment other than an aged care facility, so kids will just have to kick the footy at home.

"The sleek, contemporary exterior of Viva Carlton is the outward manifestation of architecture designed for unlimited living. Signatures include Viva Retreat, the development’s own large private garden, ample natural light and space, and sightlines which make the most of the standout location." Early real estate marketing for the Viva Carlton development (one of the private components).
It's 2012 now and some of the projects in Carlton are reaching completion. The precast concrete blocks have been given shallow surface treatments by local architects to make them look less like concrete blocks. The resulting architecture has not stimulated much discussion. But they signal that we just might have reached a nadir in public housing provision here.

Princes Street Carlton. Public / private (PPP) housing development - street edge.
New public housing, segregated from the private, facing onto an arterial road, Carlton.
This 7.5 hectare project, costing the government who knows what (figure are hard to come by), and disrupting the lives of hundreds of residents, will leave us with precisely 138 fewer public tenants on the sites. While the number of public flats (now including "community housing" owned by NGOs) has increased by 54 to 246, the flats are all smaller than those demolished. Who knows where the relocated families are meant to move back to. The new flats are not suited to families, as the demand on the waiting list is for smaller homes.

And what about all the towers, whose 'stigma' was the initial justification for the redevelopment? 51 of the 844 high-rise flats in Carlton are being refurbished, and their surrounds are being landscaped again, so at least it will look like something good has happened.

Street-level cosmetics to existing high-rise flats in Carlton.
We end up in a worse situation than before, while the waiting list for public housing in Victoria has grown to 37,887, 10,544 being urgent cases. Many of those urgent cases are living in poverty, spending up to 60% of their income on private rentals. Meanwhile, the developers managed to incorporate about 670 private apartments onto these once public sites. The "salt and pepper" mixing of public and private housing didn't eventuate. Instead the public blocks are separated off, with their own entrances and good views of the major arterial roads a matter of metres away. They act as a very effective acoustic barrier from the traffic for the private housing behind.

In the governmental rationalisation of PPP housing schemes, this private housing helps fulfil its public housing obligations, which are now more about increasing the amount of "affordable" housing to people "caught in the middle". But prices start at around $300,000 for a one bedroom apartment next to a very busy road, which is no less than market rate. People renting these apartments will be subject to local market rents, which have escalated 83% in the last 10 years. What a bonanza, for landlords.

The state housing minister sent a discussion paper to all public housing tenants this year, noting this private rental cost increase. They didn't do this to reassure tenants that their rents would continue to be pegged to inflation. Instead they stated that due to escalating rents, people renting privately while on public housing waiting lists were paying up to three times as much as public housing tenants, and this difference was neither fair nor affordable. Public rental increases and new tenant selection criteria are now on the cards.

The underlying truth, as reported recently by KPMG, is that public housing has run out of money. "Without additional funding, the supply of housing stock will not increase under the current model." There is no money even to repair the 42% of public housing stock that has deteriorated through 30 years of neglect.

KPMG recommended that the government out-source its public housing responsibilities to private companies and community housing associations, as this is the only way to fulfil its responsibilities economically. But these associations have their own beliefs, influencing how they select their tenants.
"Increased targeting of public housing to those most in need is not the answer... Targeting of public housing to high-need clients has contributed to the financial unsustainability of public housing." CEO, Housing Choices Australia, a Victorian housing association.
The City of Melbourne was unable to have any meaningful input into the development as the State Government had taken charge of it. They weren't happy. "This is a missed opportunity to increase the provision of public and social housing in the Carlton area, particularly as there are 35,000 households on public housing waiting lists in Victoria." The local residents association went a step further, writing that, "the much heralded Public Housing Estates redevelopment is mostly about private housing for sale into the buoyant Carlton real estate market for private profit, and very little about desperately needed public and affordable housing."

Hopefully people will eventually come to wonder, "what on earth happened here?" Public housing still has an important role, but our governments seem to have forgotten what it is.


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