By Katrina Kincade-Sharkey
The Department of Health and Human Services’ communication difficulties have devastated many of its North Melbourne residents, with tenants facing re-housing in potentially unfamiliar regions.
Several dozen of the several hundred DHHS residents housed in 16 blocks of apartments within the Abbotsford, Haines, Curzon and Molesworth streets triangle received initial redevelopment notification about their homes on a single typewritten sheet inserted within their quarterly housing newsletter delivered mid-March.
It said the blocks would be replaced within the near future with “… vibrant, better-connected, mixed-tenure neighbourhoods where people can live in housing that is safe and secure, and meets modern standards”.
DHHS simultaneously wrote to each of its tenants on that block, but gave no specific timelines for their individual tenancies, although it has said Abbotsford Street Estate will be completely rebuilt by 2020.
In questions and answers for the community released to the media on 17 March, DHHS says: “The Public Housing Renewal Program is part of the Victorian Government’s $2.7 billion in support for social housing and homelessness and to renew existing houses on public housing estates across metropolitan Melbourne and in regional centres of Victoria.”
This advice continues: “The renewal will result in a 10 per cent increase of social housing homes at each renewal estate.”
That generalised, fairly curt notification to the 108 letterboxed apartments provided no ability for residents to appeal proposals for redevelopment. It was their first notification of a major life change, delivered to many people who reportedly panicked.
Public Housing Renewal Program, North Melbourne, site analysis: Source: David Lock Associates
Those English-language letters were received by a housing community of predominantly disabled, aged and newly settled residents, many of whom could not read or understand its details. Certainly included were single paragraphs in several languages telling readers where they could access translations of the circular, but no specific translations about their future homes were included on the notification sheets.
Many worried tenants suspect restricted future access to critical medical, educational and social services for themselves and/or their families in the wake of this ‘estate renewal’.
Following its March letterbox circular DHHS called a public meeting in the grounds of the estate during April to deliver formal explanation of this major lifestyle change for its tenants. In leaflets distributed to the 60 or so people in attendance — several of whom were interested neighbours from adjacent streets — DHHS says it is “… developing our plans to renew the Abbotsford Street site … and we want to work together with residents, local services and council to decide how to create a new, integrated neighbourhood”.
The leaflet continues, noting the site “… consists of older public housing buildings that are rundown and have high maintenance costs. The site includes multi-storey ‘walk-ups’ — buildings commonly constructed in the early 1960s without lifts, making them inaccessible to people with mobility issues, families with small children and elderly Victorians”.
Further: “We [DHHS] want to improve and grow social housing at this estate because it is close to transport, education and work opportunities, as well as support services.”
Fortunately, the gardens info meet was held on a sunny autumn day, with DHHS providing make-up artists to paint young children’s faces, while several translators were on hand to speak with parents in their birth languages.
But tenants were given no new address notification and there was no appointed personal contact with their landlord (the DHHS Director of Housing) or with the department’s manager, stakeholder engagement, Lisa Taylor, although she did attend the meeting with several departmental staff, including a number of foreign language translators.
That meeting was the first of three planned ‘consultations with residents’ to assess their specific housing requirements, allegedly before any architectural plans are drafted for the site. Residents in attendance were asked to report their specific requirements at the next meeting, but not given a date or location for that event.
DHHS plans to begin work on its Abbotsford Street Renewal by the end of 2017, leaving little time for this desired ‘consultation and planning’, given the physical and emotional states of many residents.
Local residents’ concerns
Neighbouring property owners and residents were notified of DHHS public–private redevelopment proposals in late May at a meeting that several attendees said they’d only learnt of from community centres. Despite DHHS claims that all neighbouring properties had been letterboxed about the meet, several swore they had not received notification.
That neighbourhood meeting — at DHHS’s Melrose Street centre — uniformly rejected the “plan for discussion”, which included public housing buildings close to footpath perimeters, accommodation extending to 10–12 storeys and vastly less open area between those buildings.
Created by David Lock Associates Town Planning & Urban Design, this proposal suggested continuing Wood Street as a treed walkway access across the block to Molesworth Street.
Significantly, there was to be no underground car parking for public or private owners, this deemed “far too costly”, so “car space will be provided on the buildings’ lower floors”, according to a facilitator from KJA.
Further, little consideration had been given to providing space for large families in either the public or private residences, the majority of units providing only one or two bedrooms, “ideal for inner-city living”.
Response to the multi-storey plan was uniformly negative, despite the 10 per cent planned increase in public housing tenancies. The presenters told the meeting there were plans for private housing on two-thirds to three-quarters of the block’s area. If developed thus, it may house as many as 960 residents on the Abbotsford Street Estate, yet this was “merely a plan for discussion”.
At least 50 per cent of this estate’s tenancy is long-term, that is 10 years-plus, with many of those currently in outpatient attendance at the Royal Melbourne, Royal Women’s and Royal Children’s hospitals, as well as Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and numerous other nearby medical facilities. Had they been aware of the April DHHS meeting, it is probable many would not have felt able to attend.
Several local GPs and medical specialists agreed all patients — especially those who may be budget-stressed or otherwise socially prejudiced — needed confidence and emotional comfort in their continuing care, with assured housing being critical. Yet until 1 June there have been no programmed personal discussions with residents, especially no individual explanations in their native languages with the several dozen recently settled Africans. Consequently there has been no relief from the emotional distress felt by many about their housing futures.
Yes, DHHS provided interpreters for the information meeting, but that was not followed by individual doorknocks or later appointments for personal explanation with the majority of tenants who were not in attendance.
Significantly, many of these people battling language difficulties and professional re-education in their search for work to care for their young families are Afghanis, Sikhs, Sudanese, Somalis and mainland Chinese. Many were already socially marginalised by war and traditional ethnic bias back home, so desperately seek a better future for themselves and their families.
Many both recent and well-established migrant settlers on the estate escaped personal, political, economic and social persecution that destroyed their notions of any comfortable home life.
Now, many speak bitterly of settlement days when they were encouraged to relax, to feel comfortable and to view their Abbotsford Street Estate accommodation as their new Aussie home.
This chronic avoidance of personal notification has drawn major criticism from social and community workers, health professionals, teachers, local shopkeepers, sympathetic neighbours and residents themselves, but uniformly all residents interviewed were tentative to identify themselves in fear of departmental rejection of any future claims.
Each resident interviewed said they believed any public statement could jeopardise their future public housing prospects.
Rather than mere and certainly expensive renovation, this large domestic housing estate will be redeveloped to accommodate, at latest estimates, a 50/50 residential cohort, meaning half public/half private property owners.
A two-way housing mix would be similar to the bedevilled DHHS project on Racecourse Road, Ascot Vale, opposite Melbourne Showgrounds, where tenant trauma has been significant, according to local health professionals, Epsom Road shopkeepers and residents themselves.
“Rather than being ‘equal’ residents here [at Racecourse Road’s new development], we’re expecting to be treated like second-class ‘dogs’,” growled ‘Mario’ (not his real name), a 69-year-old former bricklayer who lived on Racecourse Road for seven years until redevelopment began.
He was offered an outer-suburban unit needing bus and train connections to the CBD, then a tram to Peter Mac Cancer Centre for treatment of his acute emphysema. He refused the offer.
“Now I board in Maidstone with my former wife, who gave me her spare room, thank God, but also with her new bloke and his teenage son, all of which is fine bar my breathing difficulties climbing on buses and trams to the hospital,” Mario says, gasping for breath.
Abbotsford Street Estate resident ‘Bob’ is also receiving treatment for late-stage lung cancer at Peter MacCallum. “But they’ve given us no dates for moving out, or for returning here, whenever that might be. And if we take their ‘new’ addresses, wherever they may be, how do we know there’ll be room for all who want to come back?
“How do we know there’ll be room for us all if half of the places become private?” Bob’s turmoil is patent. Long-term potential effects on the health of the significant number of outpatients living on the estate should well have been considered before these insensitive re-housings were planned.
Face painter Susan from Animals 2U with Nour: Photo: Jim Weatherill
Keep people local
But not all Abbotsford Street Estate’s residents were negative. ‘Matt’, a 35-year-old disabled pensioner, agreed with renewal: “It’s high time they tore down these derelict old blocks — the windows rattle, the water temperature doesn’t last, rainwater comes in in storms and they’re old and smelly.” Departmental advisors claimed their Phase One Engagement Program would do its “utmost to keep people in the local area, if they want to remain here”.
DHHS has promised rent subsidies for current public housing tenants forced to rent privately until the Abbotsford Renewal is completely habitable. Historically, this subsidy has lasted for two years, but advisors claim Abbotsford Street Estate Renewal is only at ‘early engagement’ timetable.
Aiming to adequately meet modern living standards with this new development, DHHS has still promised its current tenants that no more than 25 per cent of their government income — that is, disability or aged pensions, or unemployment or new settler allowances — will be charged for their rent.
DHHS rentals at Abbotsford Street Estate will provide more one and two-bedroom apartments for North Melbourne, which are in high demand, while also introducing homes for private sale to help address the constantly growing demand for inner-city housing. The Abbotsford Triangle is a potential goldmine.