News / Housing

Council to oppose demolition of Barkly Street tower

Plans to redevelop public housing towers are ‘privatisation by stealth’, councillors say

The Barkly Street public housing tower is home to 116 residents.

Mark Phillips

MERRI-BEK Council will “strongly oppose” the demolition of the Barkly Street public housing tower in Brunswick, and is concerned the land could fall into the hands of a private property developer.

At their monthly meeting on October 18, councillors voted 9-1 to campaign against the Victorian Government’s recent Housing Statement, which includes the demolition and replacement of the 44 public housing towers in Melbourne.

The council is concerned that the redevelopment of the tower at 351 Barkly Street, which is unlikely to take place for at least five years, could result in the permanent displacement of current tenants to other parts of Melbourne.

Councillors have called on the state government to consider a program of refurbishing the existing public housing rather than demolish and replace it.

“We need to be really firm about the fact that public housing needs to stay in public hands, and we shouldn’t be privatising a fundamental human right,” said Mayor Angelica Panopoulos.

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The replacement of public housing is part of a bigger plan to provide 80,000 new dwellings a year in Victoria over the next decade which also includes removing from local government control over residential developments valued at more than $50 milllion.

The government says the demolition and redevelopment of Melbourne’s 44 high-rise public housing estates by 2051 would be the largest urban renewal project in Australian history.

All of the towers were built between the 1950s and 1970s and are home to 10,000 people but are considered by the government to be no longer fit for modern living. It says there would need to be a substantial investment to retrofit them to meet modern standards including for sustainability and disability access.

Instead, the government says it could deliver an extra 20,000 new dwellings through public-private partnerships to redevelop the towers, but only 1000 of them would be social housing. Most are situated on large and valuable parcels of land in the inner city.

Built in the 1960s, the Brunswick tower is home to 116 residents across 12 floors. It is not listed as among the first towers scheduled to be redeveloped by the end of this decade.

Councillors resolved to oppose the demolition of public housing after a fractious debate.

Panopoulos said it was incumbent upon the council to take a strong stand in solidarity with public housing residents on a human rights and public policy issue.

“Our concern is really that the state government doesn’t have a plan to keep this public land in public hands,” she said.

“There’s no plan for where the residents are supposed to go during construction.

“It’s not clear if they’ll be able to return back to the same kinds of apartment complexes, the same kinds of homes, and it’s also not clear that actually all 44 towers need to be demolished.

“There’s a lot of evidence that says that you could save millions of dollars if you just renovated existing stock and built infill around the existing towers.”

The Barkly Street tower was built in the late-1960s.

Independent councillor James Conlan said the plan was “privatisation by stealth” of the state’s social housing stock and would result in a reduction of public housing.

“Everyone recognises the market is absolutely never going to solve this crisis and has no intention to do so. So the fact the government is preparing to demolish public housing especially in this context [of a housing crisis] is just unconscionable, in my opinion.”

Conlan said research showed that 80% of tenants would not return to their homes after they were relocated during redevelopment.

Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton said the demolition of the towers would be “the death knell of public housing in this state”.

She urged the government to consider refurbishing existing housing stock rather than replace it.

“Basically, residents are being intimidated into leaving the public housing towers,” she said.

“There’s been no evidence put forward which proves these public housing towers are actually beyond their use by date and in fact evidence points to the fact the vast majority of them are still structurally sound and could be refurbished.

“Really this proposal I think is more about private developers getting their hands on public land in the inner city.

“If the demolition goes through of all of thse public housing towers it will be pushing poorer people and refugee and migrant communities out of the inner city.”

An artist’s impression of the new Harvest Square project in Brunswick West where a public housing estate has been redeveloped as a public-private partnership.

But Labor councillor Lambros Tapinos accused opponents of the plan of “playing politics”.

He said the state government was doing the opposite of how it had been portrayed by renewing ageing and dilapidated public housing stock.

“[The towers] pretty much are deficient in every way, shape or form for modern living,” he said.

“[The government] is renewing them and in the process of renewing them it is constructing more dwellings that will be sold to pay for the renewal works.”

Tapinos challenged other councillors to talk to residents of the Barkly Street tower about what they wanted before opposing the plan.

He said the conversion of the Gronn Place public housing estate in Brunswick West into the new Harvest Square estate was an example of a successful redevelopment.

Harvest Square, which is nearing completion, is an $86 million joint project with AV Jennings that will result in 119 social housing homes and 79 apartments and town houses to be sold on the market from $435,000 for a single bedroom.

“Why don’t you come to Harvest Square so you can actually see how a renewal project has taken these rundown, almost uninhabitable public housing dwellings in Gronn Place and converted it to a new modern development that meets modern living?” Tapinos said.

The Merri-bek Council resolution has been welcomed by a key advocacy group for public housing residents in the inner city, the Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre.

“Public housing estates in Brunswick and around Melbourne are people’s homes and communities,” said Louisa Bassini, Acting Director of Legal Practice at the centre.

“The destruction of the towers without a commitment to rebuild public housing on the estates will leave residents worse off – and tear the heart out of Melbourne’s inner city.

“At a time of housing crisis we need more public housing not less.”

In addition to opposing the demolition of the Barkly Street tower, the council passed a second resolution outlining a range of details it will seek from the state government about its new housing policy and its plans for other public housing in Merri-bek.

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