Betrayal and resistance at the Block

At a big public meeting on 9 March, Aboriginal people, many of them former residents of the Block in Redfern – the heart of Aboriginal Sydney for many decades – accused the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) of once again selling out the community. Instead of listening politely, they demanded answers.

No wonder the 200 people at the meeting were angry. New plans mean that the scale of development on the Block will significantly increase, but the component of affordable housing for Aboriginal people will not.

In February the AHC applied to the NSW Department of Planning to nearly triple the height of the development – from six storeys to 16 – creating accommodation for 522 students, up from the original 154. The number of homes available to Aboriginal people will remain at the original 62.

In the planning application, the AHC attempted to cover up this dilution of the Aboriginal element of the project. The claim that the buildings will “accommodate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous tertiary education students” falls apart when you consider how shamefully few Indigenous students actually make it into the Australian university system.

AHC chairperson Alisi Tutuila claimed at the meeting that “there is no other money available to build the affordable housing”. Yet less than a year ago the federal government provided $5 million to get the project off the ground. It took a 15-month protest, the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy initiated by veteran Aboriginal activist Jenny Munro, to force the government to come up with the money.

Now, while that money sits idle, the AHC has blamed a lack of funding for its decision to increase massively the commercial aspects of what should hardly any longer be called the Pemulwuy Project.

Throughout, the AHC has justified all this with claims of the need to be “commercially viable”. The planning application says, “The underlying purpose of the modified development is to facilitate the economic use and development of the land by the AHC”.

It’s all about the financial health of the AHC, the opposite of the original land rights claim made on the Whitlam government by Aboriginal activists in Redfern in the 1970s, when the original AHC was granted $500,000 to purchase housing and land on the Block.

Lyall Munro Jnr, a founding member of the Block’s Aboriginal community from that time, had to demand speaking rights at the meeting to expose the truth about what the AHC has become. “Your plan is not a reflection of our plan”, he said, before the AHC chair closed the meeting down.

Jenny Munro, who started the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 2015 precisely because she could see the direction in which the AHC was going, told NITV after the new plans were announced, “It just demonstrates more greed … There’s a real problem with the mix of social housing and students – little rich kids, whether they’re little rich white kids, or rich overseas kids, they’re going to outnumber the Black community”.

At the meeting she said, “Those who seek to silence the real Black community with their gentrified minds need to remember we identified the 9 to 5 fly-in fly-out Blacks a long time ago. Those who seek to ride on our work and pretend it was them who did it are pretenders and liars. Where is our right of reply, our right to tell the history of the abuse and incompetence of AHC board and staff? Self-determination is about Black control, Black meaning Aboriginal and Torres Strait voices”.

Developers have been concerned for years to clear Aboriginal people from the Block, which to them merely represents desirable real estate and the chance for big profits. Despite its name, the AHC has once again proved it is no different from the rest.