The public housing residents of Waterloo, New South Wales, draw on two incidents to describe their relationship with their landlord. The first is the use of the phrase ‘I am excited’ opening a letter announcing the demolition of their homes. The second is the decision to buy Homebrand sausages, Homebrand white bread and Homebrand tomato sauce for a barbecue ‘consulting’ public housing residents about this demolition.
Sometimes the incidental things are the most revelatory. The government’s choices around this decision—the decision to announce it to residents at the same time as to the general public, the use of the phrase ‘I am excited’, the Homebrand sausages—confirmed for residents their suspicions about the government’s view of them as public tenants. They have long felt they are seen as the malingering tenants of a reluctant-but-benevolent landlord, and for more than a decade have been waiting to hear that their time is up.
Now it is. In December, 2015 the public housing residents of Waterloo received a letter informing them that their estate was to be redeveloped. The future of the site, according to the government, will be a brighter, more ‘dynamic’ one, in which most people will live in privately owned housing, and just a small proportion will live in public housing.
The government calls this kind of project ‘renewal’. In the Plan for Growing Sydney, the NSW Government’s key planning document, undertaking renewal is a key priority for areas within Sydney’s ‘global economic corridor’ as part of its aspiration for Sydney to become a ‘global city’. This corridor runs right through Redfern–Waterloo, apparently involving a future full of buzzwords: smart jobs, world-class infrastructure, innovation and renewal. Describing the experiences of the residents of Waterloo, however, involves using a very different set of words—words such as grief, loss, trauma and devastation. One resident describes the 18 months since the redevelopment as ‘the saddest time of my life’. At a consultation event not long after the announcement, a woman told those present that she felt despondent about the redevelopment, wondering whether she should even bother to water the garden each morning.
There’s a name for what the residents of Waterloo are experiencing: ‘domicide’. The similarity with the term ‘homicide’ is no accident—‘domicide’ was conceived by scholars to describe the deliberate destruction of home. Home can be destroyed in a number of ways—through fire, flood or earthquake, for example. Though devastating, none of these are deliberate. Domicide refers to those instances where the destruction of home is deliberate. There are forms of domicide that are extreme, such as what we see in warfare and genocide. But then there are the everyday varieties—the kind we are seeing at Waterloo. Everyday domicide is usually visited upon the poorest in society, the vulnerable, those who have no voice. Their homes are reclaimed, they are displaced, and the place they called home is transformed in one way or another, usually for some kind of urban development or infrastructure project.
Whereas ‘renewal’ and ‘revitalisation’—the government’s euphemisms of choice—focus on the bright, shiny newness of the redeveloped suburb, ‘domicide’ helps us focus on the residents and their experience. It helps us remember that those who lose their homes suffer grief, loss and depression. Betty, a resident, told me she was concerned that ‘people will die of broken hearts. They have lived here so long it’s home.’ They stand to lose connections to place and to people, and worry that soon they will be cut adrift, isolated from their community.
Those who have not lived in public housing are often quick to assume that the people who do have no connection to place or to their neighbours. From outside, it is easy to see public housing as hellish, a tenure of last resort. The towers of Waterloo have earned the terrible moniker of ‘suicide towers’, and are often seen by others as a blight on the landscape. We fail to see public housing as the residents often do—as a sanctuary, a home, a vital place that has become a lifeline, a place in which to live safely, affordably, securely.
Many Waterloo residents have lived there for decades, and can’t imagine living elsewhere. Earlier this year I was hanging out in the neighbourhood centre at Waterloo with Anna. Anna is a long-term resident of Waterloo who arrived from Yugoslavia as a young woman decades ago. We stood together over a ping-pong table, onto which was stencilled a map of the local area. Pen in hand, she was filling in details—street names, parks, notable sites. She spoke of the history of sites as she went.
‘This one used to be a chicken shop. Good chicken, cheap, and a nice guy too. Then it was something else. Now it’s a fancy café.’
With post-it notes she marked other businesses, services, landmarks. ‘This used to be a variety store. And this one, was this the doctor’s surgery? I can’t remember exactly, but I think so.’
I told her it seemed she’d seen a lot of change. Anna put down her pen with a sigh and turned to me. ‘So much change. Forty-five years I have been here, forty-five years it has been home. I don’t want to go anywhere else. When I moved here, I said, “no more moving. I will live in this tower until I die.” I don’t want to go. That’s why I’ve been talking so much.’
Anna has been talking to researchers, to journalists. She’s been featured in newspapers and on the radio several times. A champion of her community garden and a fierce opponent of the redevelopment, she’s become something of a local star. ‘My friends, they tell me not to talk. You’ll get in trouble, they’ll throw you in jail.’ Anna laughs. ‘I tell them, this is not Russia, they will not throw me in jail. I need to tell this story, so people know that I do not want to move.’
Like Anna, many of the residents of Waterloo have been trying to draw attention to their situation. They recognise that what is happening at Waterloo is part of a wider trend, and hope they might bring others on board their cause. Although the destruction of home is felt most keenly by those such as the residents of Waterloo, who are facing its direct impacts, the erosion of ‘home’ has been widespread. ‘Home’ has been replaced by ‘housing’—a commodity to be bought and sold, an asset, an investment, a nest egg.
We are told that housing price rises should be seen as a good thing—and, for those well-off owner-occupiers in a position to leverage, perhaps it is. But for everyone else—renters, the mortgaged, future generations—rising house prices make life more precarious. Renewal projects are pointed exactly at achieving ‘value uplift’—using improved infrastructure or changed zoning rules to produce an increase in land values. Of course, the general idea is that the government should capture some of this uplift and use it to contribute to the common good (however that may be defined), but many, including the residents of Waterloo, are doubtful that any government windfall from the redevelopment will be used to alleviate social inequality.
Renewal projects are almost universally justified by invoking the ‘common good’ and the ‘public interest’. The Waterloo redevelopment, like many others, is justified by the notion of creating a ‘socially mixed’ community. That neighbourhoods should have a diversity of tenure and a mix of incomes has become a mantra for city-makers in recent years. This mantra’s associated policy response—renewal of housing estates to achieve ‘social mix’—serves as a panacea for underfunded public housing estates across the Western world. Such principles would be a useful set of objectives to guide the creation of neighbourhoods from scratch. However, it is rare that city planning occurs on a blank slate. Rather, renewal involves working with an existing urban fabric—and an existing community.
Creating social mix in an established neighbourhood such as Waterloo involves great upheaval. It involves dispersing the existing population and bringing in a sizeable new population of middle-class professionals to create ‘diversity’. Never mind that Waterloo is already extraordinarily diverse, with a greater mix of tenures, ethnicities, languages and age groups than most other parts of Australia. Further, the neighbourhood of Waterloo already has close to the 30-70 social–market housing ratio that is so often touted by policymakers and planners as the ‘ideal mix’.
By bringing in diversity, so the theory goes, more opportunities will be created for residents to develop ‘social capital’—connections and networks that will help them to improve their lives. It should be noted that governments, despite their apparent concern for socially mixed communities, generally seem uninterested in diversifying the many areas of concentrated advantage that exist in our cities. I sat next to Emma, a Waterloo resident, at a recent capacity-building work-shop on social mix. After a university professor explained the concept, she turned to me, incredulous.
‘Let me get this straight. The government thinks that if I have a middle-class neighbour that I’ll suddenly learn how to become a better person?’ Emma scoffed, sat back in her chair. ‘What, do they think I’ll suddenly be able to get a job once I have a wealthy neighbour?’
The academic literature is ambivalent about whether social-mix policies achieve positive social outcomes for low-income residents. What is clear, however, is that the displacement caused by such policies often involves negative impacts for residents. Waterloo residents are concerned that their mentally ill or elderly neighbours might not cope with the stresses of relocation. The government is claiming that displacement will be minimal, that many residents will be able to stay on the estate and that those forced to move will have a right to return—though many residents remain sceptical that this promise will be realised, based on evidence from elsewhere in New South Wales, where rights to return have been revoked or conditional.
But for many who find themselves in such situations, the impacts are felt even without permanent physical relocation. Residents aren’t necessarily attached to Waterloo because of the physical environment; rather, they are attached to Waterloo because of the meanings that the place has: familiarity, security, safety, community ties, friendships and history. How familiar will Waterloo be to its residents once it has been wholly redeveloped, once local services such as the fully subsidised medical clinic have disappeared, and once the area is full of million-dollar apartments?
These neighbourhoods are not blank slates. By ignoring existing communities in the effort to engineer new ‘diverse’ communities, we risk visiting a severe injustice upon these people—many of whom are already our cities’ most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents.
Our politicians seem intent on remaking the city in their own vision—homes for the wealthy, schools for the rich, private roads for their luxury cars. What this means is a city that leaves behind the rest of us. It means public housing residents shifted from desirable areas to the outskirts of the city. It means hospitality workers, cleaners and retail staff commuting long distances from their far-flung, overpriced housing to their insecure jobs. Those who decide to stay in the city can never save enough to buy, especially with deposits getting further out of reach every week. As housing has become real estate, a commodity to be bought and sold, its importance as home has diminished—at least for those in power.
The residents of Waterloo are all too aware of this class-based remaking of the city. They believe that the government’s intention is, in the words of one resident, to ‘move poor people out of the city’. They talk of the redevelopment as ‘class cleansing’—and, among the Aboriginal community, as ethnic cleansing. For the Indigenous community members of Waterloo, this renewal is yet another in a series of violent purges that have been visited upon their community. Upon invasion, gunpowder and small pox wreaked havoc upon the Gadigal people who lived at Redfern–Waterloo. They were systematically alienated from their land in the decades and centuries that followed. A large Aboriginal community remained in the area throughout the twentieth century, retaining strong links to the neighbourhood and serving as something of a rallying point for the NSW Aboriginal population. But with the demolition of the Block in Eveleigh Street, the Aboriginal community was dispossessed again, shifted elsewhere in the area or out to the fringes of the city. And now they face yet another displacement with the redevelopment of Waterloo.
At events around the neighbourhood, you’ll hear Jenny Munro, a Wiradjuri elder and long-term Redfern–Waterloo resident, talk of the changes she’s seen in the area. When she first arrived in Sydney in the 1970s, the local Aboriginal community numbered in the tens of thousands. Today, according to census figures, only a few hundred remain. The community feels this is just another attempt to see them driven from the city for good.
The residents—Aboriginal and others—feel under siege. They talk of the redevelopment as a ‘war of attrition’, hoping they can wear down the government through opposition and activism. For them, this feels like class warfare, and they’ve been around long enough to see some crucial battles already lost. But they’re not ready to concede yet.
The battle for Waterloo is one for survival. It’s about more than just buildings and spaces—it’s about class, race and rights. It’s about real estate versus home, and about home as the site of family, community, belonging and security, rather than as a commodity, an asset or an investment.
Early in 2016, Brad Hazzard, the NSW social housing minister at the time, organised a community consultation session regarding the redevelopment. His staff wore green T-shirts and carried cheery balloons that read ‘I ♥ Waterloo’. Residents arrived with some simple but crucial questions: When will I have to move? How long will I have to move for? Where will I go? When will I return? And what will I find when I return?
But the minister didn’t have the answers. Instead, he trotted out public tenants who had been relocated elsewhere in Sydney, asked them to relate their stories of renewal and relocation, to reassure people that their fate was not so terrible. The residents of Waterloo were not reassured, and were not convinced that losing their homes would be anything but a major disruption to their lives. The session quickly degenerated, with residents yelling, and the minister shooshing participants who wanted their questions answered. One resident, turning on his heel to leave the room, yelled at the minister, ‘We may not own these houses, but these are our homes.’ The room went silent for a moment as the minister fumbled for a response.
Laura Wynne is completing a PhD exploring the impact of public housing redevelopment on tenants. Her writing has been published in the Conversation, Overland, the Lifted Brow Review of Books, Commotion and elsewhere.