In the interests of tenants
An interview with Associate Professor Michael Darcy
What, realistically, are the likely gains for the present public housing tenants from the redevelopment of Waterloo Estate as an integrated mix of private, social and affordable housing?
Despite the rhetoric about the benefits of social mix for low-income tenants in redeveloped neighbourhoods, I don’t think that existing residents are the intended primary beneficiaries of the current project in Waterloo. To the extent that the project succeeds in releasing the value of prime inner-city land, and that the proceeds are directed as promised at net additions to social housing, then the beneficiaries might be other low-income people waiting on the register, and of course future social housing tenants in Waterloo who will presumably have access to newer higher-quality dwellings without some of the supposed negative consequences of a local image and reputation.
Of course, current and returning residents might also expect eventually to see the benefit of this, and if we were planning and building a new project from scratch on a “green field” site, then of course we would make it “mixed tenure”. However, current residents are going to have to live with relocation and disruption over a very long period, and given the current age profile and the possibility of relation to another area, might never see the end result.
As for the claimed benefits in terms of improved job opportunities and outcomes, or improved local services, I am yet to see evidence that, to the extent that they actually happen, these things are the result of income or tenure mix. After all, if we just take a slightly wider geographical lens we can see that Waterloo is already a very income- and tenure-mixed place. Attracting and retaining services and opportunities that meet the needs of lower income residents is not a product simply of having higher income residents nearby but requires specific interventions that go beyond who your neighbours are.
What, realistically, will be the likely losses for the present tenants of the Waterloo Estate of the envisaged integrated redevelopment?
This will be noisy, at times dusty and disruptive. It will certainly involve relocations, whether local or longer range, and dislocation of existing networks of neighbours and friends. It will need to be carefully managed with major emphasis placed on listening to tenants’ problems and needs, and sadly the record on this has not always been good. Some people might choose to relocate permanently to other neighbourhoods to avoid the disruption. This may also lead to costs for some people also, particularly those who are involved in informal economic activities and exchanges like child care, whether or not money is currently involved.
What are the main fears of the present tenants regarding the envisaged integrated redevelopment and are they justified?
I am not a tenant and I don’t represent them so I can only replay what some have said to me.
For those who do stay, or return, it will be to a very different type of neighbourhood where the vast majority of people are working in well-paid jobs in order to pay for the cost of living there and are generally “upwardly mobile”.
Fears about the non-housing costs of living in post-redevelopment Waterloo arise from the fact that commercial rents are likely to be much higher, leading to higher prices and more up-market shops and services and the loss of local businesses. This is a justified fear even though there are likely to be many more shops especially around the metro station precinct. However, the impact could possibly be reduced if government can be persuaded to intervene by either retaining a proportion of commercial space for businesses and other services which provide for the needs of the low-income population, or placing some obligations on commercial tenants to provide for this market.
My experience of estates like Waterloo is that, because most tenants are pensioners of one kind or another, residents usually spend more time talking to each other and also have experiences in common. While the promise is that this population will still be in the area, they will form a minority in a much denser neighbourhood – so the street culture will definitely be different. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view.
Current residents might then fear that the stigma that currently attaches to the whole neighbourhood will be replaced by stigmatisation of them as individuals by their new neighbours. Whether this eventuates depends a lot on how the redevelopment is managed, the staging building releases and so on. For instance, it would be less likely to happen if social housing tenants are already living in their redeveloped buildings in a given precinct before private apartments are released to the market. That way prospective buyers accept this as part of the neighbourhood rather than an imposition on them.
How can opposing voices from the present tenants of Waterloo Estate make themselves heard so late in the process?
This is a very tough question. Tenants can make themselves heard in many ways – by recruiting allies in the media, unions and the universities; talking to opposition and minor party MPs and so on. But as the residents of Millers Point found, making your voice heard and changing the outcome are not the same thing. At this stage I think the broad shape of the redevelopment plan is well advanced and the options for changing it are limited. The main thing residents can achieve is to make sure that the process is managed with their interests as a key consideration. This means concentrating on things like the relocation process including issues like choice and timing, and also some of the issues I mentioned before like making sure that local shops and services that provide for residents’ needs can afford the rent and are also not lost in the relocation stage.
From the perspective of an equitable society, what are the main criticisms of using high-density redevelopment to finance social housing?
I don’t think that density itself is the problem. It is true that the land on which Waterloo is built is a valuable public asset and it could be used more effectively to help more people in NSW. So in principle I don’t have a problem with the broad sweep of the plan. However, I think we need to monitor very closely how it is rolled out to make sure that the benefits and costs flow to the right people. This is about both design and management of the process. After all, this is an established community and residents have made large investments (although not in money terms) in making it a good place to live, despite what outsiders may think.
It is also already a relatively dense place, and existing tenants have a lot to contribute to making density work. I believe the neighbourhood and the redevelopment plan could not only bear, but would benefit from, a higher proportion of social housing than the proposed 30 per cent, a figure which has never to date been adequately justified.
Such a plan could never happen in a neighbourhood where residents owned their apartments, and if it were proposed, residents would be compensated handsomely. I think it is very unjust to treat people’s homes and community so differently just because they are low-income public tenants – most people would not stand for it if it happened to them. If we accept that tenants will not be compensated, at the very least we need to make sure that they are not further disadvantaged. So we need to continue to turn up to every planning, engagement and consultation session and insist on tenants’ interests in everything from apartment and building design, quality and maintenance, to the kind of shops, parks and public facilities that eventually make up Waterloo.
And finally, it is essential not only that there is no loss of social housing in Waterloo but that we can see and measure the financial returns from the redevelopment manifesting as substantial additions to social housing in the inner city.
Associate Professor Michael Darcy, Urban Research Program, Western Sydney University.
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