Why governments hate public housing

The story about Sirius is about people first and buildings second. Sirius is a symbol of people and communities getting together to demonstrate to governments that their actions must be tempered by concern for more than the pockets of their wealthy friends and supporters. A city by definition must be inclusive, otherwise it is just a grey barren landscape without the colour of community. – Tao Gofers

The Sirius building has always been controversial. Is it an eyesore? A brutalist masterpiece? A concrete blemish on Sydney’s skyline? What many don’t know about Sirius is that, for its architect Tao Gofers, the building is much more than a place for 200 low-income tenants to eat and sleep; it was designed to create a community.

Gofers’ project, completed in 1980, was backed by Jack Mundey, leader of the NSW branch of the militant Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), whose green bans saved public housing in the Rocks over the course of a long struggle in the 1970s. Two indoor communal areas adorned with wooden sculptures designed by architect Penny Rosier, and a shared expansive balcony with views across Sydney Harbour, are spaces for residents to share an afternoon, a birthday party or a story about one of the many lives lived in the imposing geometric apartment block.

Or they used to. Only two residents remain. The state government began evicting people in 2015, despite a national housing crisis and an acute shortage in NSW. This process – the destruction by profit-hungry politicians of public housing constructed by progressive architects in collaboration with local communities – has been repeated in cities the world over for the past 30 years.

Mass public housing was erected after WWII to house low-income families. Some took this as an opportunity to redesign cities with the working class in mind. Affordable construction and high density were necessary, but many of the new apartment blocks were vast improvements on the stale and cramped conditions often associated with public housing.

The banlieues surrounding Paris are today notorious, their towering concrete housing estates associated with poverty and crime. But 50 years ago, there was a different vision for the sprawling urban landscape.

Creative and thoughtful embellishments of practical designs guided the work of progressive architects including Émile Aillaud in the postwar era. According to this generation, low cost didn’t have to mean low quality housing. Modern designs and functional spaces were made available to those living outside the wealthiest postcodes of Paris.

Les Tours Aillaud in Nanterre is a stunning example of this philosophy. Eighteen towers standing at different heights were clad with frescoes made to look like clouds in the sky. The blocks are separated by parks and playgrounds, Aillaud insisted that at least one tree be planted for every apartment built.

Unfortunately, this vision for modern cities did not last. Public housing was included in the savage attacks on social services beginning in the 1980s. As the state restructured to defend profits after the glory years of the postwar boom came crashing down, any spending that benefited working families was deemed to be fat that needed cutting.

In the UK, the passage of Margaret Thatcher’s Housing Act in 1980 marked the beginning of this onslaught. Under the new laws, council housing tenants were encouraged to purchase their dwellings. The government wanted to shift more of the housing stock to the private market. As thousands of flats were sold off, far fewer were built. Today just one new council property is constructed for every 11 that are sold.

The same depletion of stock has happened in Australia. The Hawke/Keating government followed Thatcher’s example, selling off thousands of public houses. Low income tenants were offered rent subsidies after being forced into the unregulated private market. However, the subsidies never matched the increase over the fixed and significantly lower rents paid by public tenants. Under the Howard government, both programs were slashed. Today, almost 200,000 are on the waiting list for public housing.

What remains of public housing stock is critically underfunded. People without access to adequate and safe housing can wait upwards of 10 years to secure a home. Basic repairs can take years to be attended to, and many estates have come to resemble the slums they were initially supposed to replace.

The Grenfell Tower disaster now stands as a horrific example of the contempt for low income families shown by major political parties and property developers. The risk to the lives of its 600 inhabitants was calculated to be worth less than the $8000 it would have cost to clad the tower in a material that could have prevented its incineration.

During his time as mayor of London, Boris Johnson frequently hosted housing expos at which property developers were encouraged to purchase empty council estates on the cheap to transform them into multi-million-pound luxury apartments. This process of “regeneration” can more aptly be named social cleansing.

The sentiment motivating so-called “regeneration” of public housing estates is that low income families have no right to share the same neighbourhoods as the wealthy, or to enjoy the superior amenities and public transport found in inner city boroughs. In Victoria, the state Labor government has announced a “renewal” program that will give property developers access to valuable inner city public housing land. Thousands of private apartments are slated for construction on some of the few plots of land currently set aside for public housing.

In NSW, whole apartment blocks, like Sirius, are slowly evacuated of residents as councils refuse to reoccupy vacated homes. Derelict building interiors caused by the deliberate neglect of authorities are used as an excuse to tear them down. So, while a housing price bubble and stagnating wages have increased the number of people sleeping on the streets, affordable homes stand empty so that developers can turn a profit.

Local communities are organising to try save their homes; in Sydney, Save Our Sirius was established in 2015 to fight the sell-off. From the window of 90-year-old Myra Demetriou – one of the two remaining residents –  a neon SOS sign glows over Circular Quay at night.

Friday evening events and weekend walking tours led by Tao Gofers have been organised to teach others in the community about the importance of buildings like Sirius. However, the prime location and potential price tag of the redevelopment project mean that Sirius remains under threat.

In Melbourne, residents of estates slated for “renewal” are starting to organise to keep the developers away from their homes. 

In the 1970s it was union muscle that saved public housing in Sydney city. Unfortunately, that strength too has suffered attacks over recent decades. The BLF was deregistered in 1986, precisely because of its success in giving the working class a say about the construction of our cities. The militant and fighting spirit shown by the BLF will be  needed again today to save the homes, communities, and progressive vision of a decent quality of living for all.