Millers Point
Type
Essay
Category
Activism
Essay
Public housing

No place like home

Millers Point is a suburb of barely a dozen streets. It occupies a narrow wedge of land on the southern shore of Sydney Harbour, and is surrounded by water on three sides: to the west Darling Harbour, to the north Walsh Bay and to the east Sydney Cove, where, in 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip formally declared possession of Britain’s new penal colony. The suburb is divided from Sydney Cove both by the looming on-ramps of the Harbour Bridge and by a natural wall of sandstone. The Argyle Cut, a passage through this wall that was tunnelled out by convicts, still makes for a dramatic crossing between the tourist-filled shoreline and the streets of Millers Point.

Millers Point is Gadigal land, and one spelling of its original name is Coodyee. The area is close to sites of first contact between Indigenous Australians and British colonialists.

In the 1820s, the area began to be known as Jack the Miller’s Point, after Jack Leighton, an ex-convict who ran three windmills on the promontory. (Windmill Street, which runs parallel to the shoreline of Walsh Bay, still testifies to the area’s former use.) In 1826, a drunken Leighton fell to his death from a ladder, just as the area was beginning to host the colony’s first commercial wharves and storehouses.

Through the gold rush, the Depression, the construction of the Harbour Bridge and the post-Second World War development boom, Millers Point was the heart of Sydney, both as the city’s port and as a home for working-class people. There are buildings here that have stood since the 1830s, but the majority of the suburb’s split-level workers’ cottages – its most distinctive architectural style – date from the turn of the twentieth century. It was then, after an outbreak of bubonic plague, that the newly established Sydney Harbour Trust took over management of the area and began a public works program, razing the rat-infested slums and replacing them with new buildings. Millers Point is the site of Australia’s oldest social housing, and for more than a century it has remained so. The majority of properties are owned by the NSW Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC), with a smaller number owned by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA).

On 19 March 2014, the NSW Liberal government announced its decision to sell all social housing in Millers Point on the private market. In total, this amounts to 293 properties. The announcement was made by Pru Goward, then Minister for Family and Community Services. Goward described the sell-off as a decision made ‘for the benefit of the entire social housing system.’ For every property sold in Millers Point, the government has argued, another three social housing properties (or another five – the figure seems to fluctuate) can be built elsewhere.

When the sale was announced, Goward said the government was ‘confident’ it could complete the process within two years, by March 2016. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the slated completion date for Barangaroo, the vast private redevelopment of the former docklands at Darling Harbour.

Social housing tenants in Millers Point were given no warning of the government’s decision. The community’s initial reaction, says Barney Gardner, a lifelong resident of the suburb, was shock. Letters outlining the sale began appearing in residents’ letter boxes on the day of the public announcement; six days later, says Gardner, agents from Housing NSW (which manages rather than owns social housing properties) began phoning tenants to discuss relocation. The day after the phone calls started – exactly a week after the sell-off was announced – agents began to door knock.

Gardner describes the pressure placed on tenants as incessant and intimidating: ‘If they couldn’t get you to the door, or if they couldn’t reach you by phone, or if you didn’t respond to a letter … they were just patrolling the streets, hoping to catch you going in or out of your house.’

In Goward’s announcement of the sale, she promised ‘specialist relocation teams’ that would work individually with each tenant, but Gardner says that he and other residents saw no evidence of this.

‘The only thing they were interested in doing was removing us. I did ask the general manager of relocations. I asked him in what capacity were they specialists? Were they specialists in alcoholism, drug dependence, the elderly? I was met with a blank stare.’

Gardner, sixty-five, is an indefatigable defender of the Millers Point community. His house on High Street is next door to the house in which he was born. Both his parents worked on the waterfront – his father as a wharfie, his mother in one of the canteens – as did Barney himself, as a painter and docker. He is a member of several community groups, and has been a constant presence at meetings and protests organised to oppose the government’s sell-off. He takes me on several guided tours of the suburb, pointing out which properties have been sold, which are still occupied and, more inexplicably, which have sat empty for years, despite the social housing waiting list having ballooned to more than 55,000 applicants.

Sydney is in the grip of a housing bubble, with the median house price around $1 million. This frenzy of property speculation, in which the majority of buyers are now investors rather than owner-occupiers, has in turn pushed rents in Sydney to the highest levels ever. Anglicare Australia’s most recent ‘rental affordability snapshot’ (conducted each April) tallied a mere fifty-five advertised rental properties in greater Sydney that were ‘affordable and appropriate’ for a single person living on the minimum wage; only eight rental properties were classed as affordable for a single person on the age pension. The swelling numbers of low-income residents locked out of Sydney’s private rental market will wait, on average, ten years for a transfer to social housing. That is if they are on the waiting list at all: by 2016, according to the Auditor-General of New South Wales, it is estimated that 132,000 households eligible for social housing will not have applied for it.

And yet, Millers Point residents note, social housing in their suburb has been left to deteriorate for years, to the point where much of it is now uninhabitable. The larger nineteenth-century terrace houses are in especially bad condition. These buildings were long ago subdivided into smaller apartments, but often have had only one tenant living in them. These economic inefficiencies, and the high cost of maintaining heritage-listed properties, have in turn become part of the government’s justification for the sale.

A walk through Millers Point seems to bear out residents’ claims. On Dalgety Road, which curves around towards the blue waters of Walsh Bay, stands a row of nineteenth-century houses known as Dalgety Terrace. Housing NSW’s guidelines on conservation management classify Dalgety Terrace as of ‘exceptional’ heritage significance, ‘deserving of full and authentic restoration’. Yet these impressive sandstone structures are disintegrating. The whitewash exteriors, victim of the sun and sea salt, are discoloured and peeling, like sunburnt skin; the wooden sash-windows are almost bare of paint. The houses are empty of tenants.

Gardner shows me inside his own house, an early twentieth-century workers’ cottage. It is part of a neat row that slopes downwards and then inclines again, conforming to the topography of High Street. The evidence of rising damp is obvious to the eye: large patches of paint are flaking from walls that have turned green from moisture.

Looking around this modestly furnished two-bedroom home, where a framed picture of Donald Bradman hangs above the fireplace, I wonder what critics of social housing in this area might say if the real condition of these properties were evident to them. There is a persistent idea that social housing tenants in Millers Point are somehow gaming the system, living it up in grand terraces with harbour views while the rest of low-income Sydney sweats it out in the suburbs. In characterising the sell-off as a policy that will bring ‘fairness’ to the social housing system, the state government has only furthered this misconception.

The sell-off is contrary to advice from the government’s own agencies. A 2013 report on public housing published by the NSW Auditor-General found that efforts by the LAHC to claw back much-needed operating funds by delaying maintenance work and selling off stock were not financially sustainable in the long term. From 2013 to 2017, the LAHC was projected to sell more than double the number of properties that it intended to build – and that projection was made before the announcement of the Millers Point sell-off. ‘LAHC advises that the money recovered from individual asset sales is rarely sufficient to build new housing to the same capacity,’ notes the report.

In April this year, the state government announced that ten two-bedroom public housing units are to be built at a new complex in Lurnea, a suburb nearly forty kilometres from the CBD, with money raised directly from the Millers Point sell-off. Ten houses is something, but nineteen properties in Millers Point have been sold already – hardly the five-for-one bargain that the government promised.

Removing social housing tenants from inner Sydney also indicates a wider economic trend, whereby the remnant communities of industrial trades are measured, almost literally, as worthless compared to the properties they occupy. Now that Sydney’s main industries are tourism and financial services, working-class neighbourhoods like Millers Point have become an obstacle to commercial profit.

What might be the consequences of scattering elderly, vulnerable residents to the city’s suburban fringes? This is harder to quantify. More than half of the social housing tenants of Millers Point are aged over fifty. A handful of those residents have connections stretching back six generations through the history of Sydney’s working harbour; the whole suburb is listed on the State Heritage Register as a ‘living cultural landscape’. The real, lived connections of Millers Point residents to this area – their care and pride in the neighbourhood, their intimate knowledge of its heritage – is a resource beyond price. In displacing residents from Millers Point, the state government risks displacing the suburb’s history, forever.

 

Walking along the iron parapet that protects High Street from a sheer drop, you can still see the balusters marking where a wide gangway once led to the wharves on Hickson Road, immediately below. Now, Hickson Road is a bustling construction site, like a cityscape in miniature, from which the casino towers of Barangaroo are rising, storey by storey. Seventy years ago, during the Depression, Hickson Road was called the Hungry Mile, where desperate men walked from wharf to wharf in search of work. Wharfies, employed only on a day-to-day basis, were subject to the cruel ‘bull’ system, in which they had to compete against each other to be picked for jobs. Only the strongest and most compliant workers would be hired.

Social housing, administered from 1936 to 1986 by the Maritime Services Board, provided some modicum of security. Residential leases in Millers Point were often passed down through the families of waterside workers; these multigenerational tenancies made the suburb a place where residents knew and trusted each other.

‘My mum tells a fine story about the days back past the Depression,’ says Gardner. ‘When someone didn’t have something, when they didn’t have enough money for a bill, the neighbours chipped in. When they didn’t have food, food was given to them.’

Other long-term residents tell me similar stories, of pound notes being slipped to them by friendly hands when they were out of work, and of front doors to which neighbours had the key.

The trade demands of the Second World War saw the fortunes of the wharves revive. A stevedoring inquiry by John Curtin’s Labor government granted permission to the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) to recruit non-union labourers, which in turn increased the union’s membership and its industrial strength. The bull system was ended. The militant WWF, with its links to the Communist Party of Australia, was particularly loathed by the conservative Robert Menzies.

But it was another union with Communist Party ties, the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF), that instigated the most well-known industrial campaign in this part of Sydney: the Green Bans. Looking to capitalise on the construction boom that began to transform Sydney’s CBD during the 1960s, the state government decided to redevelop the Sydney Cove foreshore area, known as The Rocks, into a high-rise office, retail and hotel precinct, demolishing a significant tranche of nineteenth-century workers’ houses in the process. The BLF, working with residents, was determined to oppose the redevelopment.

‘Though we want all our members employed,’ wrote BLF leader Jack Mundey in a 1972 letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment.’

The Green Bans attracted popular support – sit-ins at construction sites, large marches through the city and strategic work-stoppages – and proved enough to stop the government’s proposed redevelopment. The campaign succeeded in preserving the area’s architectural heritage: The Rocks looks today much like it did in the nineteenth century, with narrow, terrace-lined streets linked by steep staircases.

But the area’s housing was not protected by the state government to the same degree as in neighbouring Millers Point and as a result the suburb has become hugely gentrified; the leases here are now more commercial than residential. The working-class community that the BLF and local residents fought so hard to save is largely gone.

One important exception is the Sirius building, a brutalist apartment block crouched next to the Harbour Bridge. Sirius was built in 1980 to house low-income residents, and was carefully designed to meet the needs of elderly and disabled tenants. When Goward stood on the Cahill Expressway and announced her government’s social housing sell-off, the Sirius building was visible behind her. It, too, was on the sale list.

Ron Jennings remembers the Green Bans vividly. I spoke with Jennings in December last year, sitting with him in the foyer of Sirius. Jennings, eighty-five, was born in Adelaide, but moved to Sydney in 1968.

‘I’ve only lived in two areas in forty-six years,’ he tells me, ‘Millers Point and The Rocks.’ He spent many years living at the Sydney Sailors’ Home on George Street (a heritage-listed building that now houses the expensive Sailors’ Thai restaurant) and then moved to Sirius in 2001.

As we sit and talk, other residents of the building, many of whom have limited mobility, pass by in wheelchairs or using walking frames. There are no staircases in Sirius; instead, the building features a system of gently inclined ramps. The central elevators, which lead to the building’s seventy-nine apartments, have doors designed to open and close slowly. Jennings greets all of his passing neighbours by name, and each person greets him back.

‘Until this catastrophe happened,’ he says, referring to the sell-off, ‘it’s always been a closely knitted family community.’

Jennings, like Gardner, has dedicated a significant portion of his life to community work. For fifteen years he was a precinct representative on the Neighbourhood Advisory Board, volunteering his time to support social housing tenants in the area. He shows me a copy of the building’s lease, which runs until 2030. Its terms are clear: if the building is sold before that date, all money raised from the sale will go to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA), not to the LAHC. The SHFA is a statutory agency responsible for protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the Sydney foreshore, but it is also responsible for promoting economic development of the same land – if that sounds like a conflict of interest, then perhaps it is one.

Jennings estimates that around half of the Sirius apartments (which range in size from one to three bedrooms) are already empty. If the government succeeds in relocating the rest of the building’s tenants, then ‘there are only two obvious answers’ as to the next step. The first is that each apartment will be sold on the private market and renovated accordingly. The second, more likely outcome is that Sirius – which, like many brutalist buildings, is more loathed than it is loved – will be demolished and the site redeveloped. It is exactly the scenario that the Green Bans were put in place to prevent: the expulsion of low-income residents from the Sydney foreshore. Sirius is next to the south pylon of the Harbour Bridge; its commercial value as a piece of land is stratospheric.

‘There is too much money involved in this for things to stop,’ Jennings says. He is pessimistic about the possibility of halting the sale process.

It is shortly before Christmas when we meet, and Jennings describes to me the sad atmosphere of the Millers Point residents’ annual Christmas party. Some residents who had already been relocated came back just for the event, to see their friends and former neighbours. There is an element of panic, Jennings observes, to these relocations, with some tenants figuring that the early offers will be the best. Elderly tenants who have lived in this neighbourhood for decades, with access to local doctors and facilities, want to continue living as close by as they can. They certainly don’t want to be sent to Lurnea or, as Jennings has heard, as far away as Tweed Heads.

‘My God,’ he says, ‘that’s the bloody boundary! Cross the street and you’re in Queensland. You can’t go any further.’

I later learn from Barney Gardner that, only a few weeks after I spoke with him, Ron Jennings accepted an offer of relocation in Pyrmont, on the other side of Darling Harbour. Within thirty-six hours of moving, he suffered a mild stroke. Gardner wants Housing NSW to stop pressuring elderly tenants to move, as he believes the stress is making people ill.

 

The current NSW Liberal government, re-elected in March this year, is not the first state government to sell off property in Millers Point: sixteen vacant social housing properties were announced for sale under the previous Labor government in 2006, and a further twenty houses were sold in 2010. However, these houses were sold on 99-year leases, with a strict schedule of approved repairs and maintenance. The current sell-off, in which properties are being auctioned freehold, affords no such protection. There is little to stop investors from undertaking substantial redevelopment.

Throughout 2014, a small group of Millers Point residents and their supporters held regular protests outside the auction houses where sales were taking place. Although these auctions were of publicly owned social housing, they were closed to public observers; only registered bidders were allowed inside. At one protest, held outside McGrath Real Estate in the wealthy Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, private security guards wore body cameras and filmed the protestors. In September last year, the company’s chief executive, John McGrath, named Millers Point as one of his ‘top picks’ in the company’s annual report, describing it as ‘the best located suburb in the country’. A NSW government-sponsored website (resdicov
ermillerspoint.com.au) touts the suburb’s ‘world of potential’ and its proximity to Barangaroo, without mentioning its history of social housing.

There is the smallest hint of a softening government attitude from new state Minister for Family and Community Services Brad Hazzard, who visited Millers Point in June this year. Residents presented him with an alternative plan to the government’s total sell-off, one that would allow current tenants to remain in their homes while the largest terraces are sold.

Ultimately, though, says Gardner, he and other residents would like to see Millers Point remain as a suburb where social housing is available to Sydney’s low-income families and essential service workers. Rather than nurses and council workers having to commute for hours each day to and from the suburbs, asks Gardner, ‘Why can’t they use these simple dwellings around here?’

If the remaining social housing tenants of Millers Point are evicted – and of those who are left, many have vowed not to go until they are forcibly removed – there will be, effectively, no low-income rental tenants left within walking distance of the CBD. The workers’ houses of Millers Point will have become the property of millionaires.

Sitting in the Millers Point community centre, next door to the hall where dozens of protest meetings have already been held, and where I listened to Jack Mundey, now eighty-six, pledge his support to the community alongside members of the Maritime Union of Australia, I ask Gardner what it is about Millers Point that makes it a place worth fighting for.

‘We’re a community,’ he replies, ‘and that is what we love. We love people coming into the community, becoming a part of the community.’

‘We want to see that keep going,’ he continues, ‘because otherwise this will become a sterile area, an enclave for the rich and powerful. We don’t want to see that. We want to see this place remain, to show people what this city was like, at the point where it was first founded, when they sailed into Sydney Cove. This was the first suburb, built by convicts. It’s been working class and it’s done all right. It’s stood for near on 200 years and it’s still here, it’s still thriving.’

 

This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Anwen Crawford is a Sydney writer. She is the music critic for the Monthly, and her essays have appeared in publications including Frieze, Meanjin, and the New Yorker. Her book, Live Through This, is published by Bloomsbury.

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