Community Fights to Save Public Housing

21 Jul 2023

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Here’s an article I recently wrote about how a community is fighting to save public homes in Victoria. As the state is in the grip of an ever-growing housing “nightmare” – the Labor government has decided this is the time to abandon public housing, rather than protect it.


When my grandparents met with a terrible car accident 20 years ago and suffered very serious injuries, it meant they would struggle to continue to live independently in their small unit.

But the system kicked in.

Their existing application for public housing was made a priority and they moved into a small unit in Nunawading. It was a low-rise, close-knit community of mainly elderly public housing residents.

My grandpa sadly died a year later, but my grandma survived for more than 15 years alone.

It’s clear to me now that one of the biggest factors in how she remained healthy and happy despite the catastrophic injuries she had survived – let alone the trauma of living in a war zone in Sri Lanka – was her public housing community.

Margaret Kelly reminds me of my grandma.

Margaret is the last remaining resident of the Barak Beacon public housing estate in Port Melbourne and she is currently staging a protest against the Victorian Labor Government’s plans to privatise public housing in Victoria.

Over the last week, she has been joined by community members who are occupying the remaining homes at the site.

Many of these protesters are young people who are facing the dire housing crisis engulfing the country.

But despite growing opposition to this disastrous project, the government doesn’t want Victorians to know the full story about its plans to privatise public housing.

If you seek any information on the plans for Barak Beacon and other estates, you will see glossy websites from Homes Victoria with slick messaging.

But the truth is this is just the latest public housing earmarked for privatisation. No public housing will be rebuilt at Barak Beacon or any of the other sites after they are demolished.

The government will instead carve up these estates with approximately two-thirds of each handed over to private developers for expensive housing.

The remaining land will be handed to community housing providers.

While details are scant about how these long-term leasing arrangements will work, it is clear developers will make large profits with taxpayers footing a bill of $475 million over the next 40 years via direct payments from government to these private companies. Privatising these four sites will cost over $700 million for just 52 extra community homes.

The government wants nothing to do with public housing and they are in a hurry to get rid of their stock and responsibility.

If you search government websites, you will rarely find any mention of public housing. You will instead see references to “social housing”, which is an umbrella term for both public and community housing.

No public housing will be rebuilt at Barak Beacon or any of the other sites after they are demolished.

Public housing is housing that is owned and managed by the government and where residents’ rights are protected by law. It is for people on low incomes that are most in need, especially those who have recently experienced homelessness, family violence or have complex needs.

In short, it is for those that are most at risk of homelessness and the data says that the need is growing under this government.

Community housing is housing that is managed by non-government organisations and many of them regularly hold multimillion-dollar housing portfolios. Community housing providers are allowed to charge tenants higher rents than public housing and lease conditions can be different to public tenants.

While community housing was designed to tailor housing for specific groups around their needs and continues to provide a valuable service, it was never meant to replace public housing.

The housing crisis in Victoria is resulting in skyrocketing rates of homelessness, with more than 30,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night and more than 120,000 now on the housing waiting list.

Between June 2017 and March 2022, this waiting list grew by 55 per cent.

But right now, the government has no plans to build or rebuild any new public housing.

The neoliberal experiment this government likes to call the “big housing build” will only facilitate community housing, if anything, and for-profit private housing.

If this government is committed to retreating from public housing, it needs to come clean to the community. Hiding behind spin will wear thin and the protesters at Barak Beacon are living proof of it.

At one time, good governments saw it as their responsibility to make sure their citizens could access safe, secure and affordable housing.

To achieve this vision, those governments built public housing as it is the most direct and effective way of making housing affordable. And if we are to build the thousands more public homes we desperately need now, we need land to build them on – not hand the only public land we have to private developers.

More public homes means less people pushed into homelessness and less people needing to compete in the private rental market. This reduced demand increases the supply of private rental homes, thereby making renting more affordable.

When governments stop building public housing, they give up on making housing more affordable. If that is what the Premier is doing, he should just come clean and admit it.

To hide behind slick websites and public relations spin is to betray our trust and consign the next generation of Victorians to an ever-growing housing nightmare.

This article was published on July 18, 2023. Click here for the original piece. 

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