With 60,000 people on the NSW social housing waiting list, and wait times of 10 years not unusual, it has emerged that social housing units are unused and boarded up at the Northcott estate in Surry Hills. John Moyle reports.
Sitting atop a hill in gentrified Surry Hills is one of the largest public housing estates in New South Wales: the Northcott estate.
Comprising multiple buildings, including a large, squat 15-storey tower at its heart, the estate opened in 1961 and was visited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1963, at which time it was presented to her as an idyllic, futuristic new community for low income earners.
The main tower is surrounded by smaller apartment blocks, mainly 1960s walkups of several storeys. The estate consists of 581 properties in all; a mix of studio, 1, 2 and 3 bedroom units.
Demand for these inner city units is high and turnover rare, which made it even more surprising when, on a quick walk around the estate’s grounds, the Sydney Sentinel found six units heavily boarded up, with many showing signs of age.
These six apartments did not include any properties in the main tower, as the entrance to its fifteen floors is rightly blocked to non-residents, requiring an access card.
Questions from the Sentinel to the NSW Land and Housing Corporation about why units were being removed from public housing stock were answered by a NSW Government spokesperson, who replied: “As of 3 November, the Land and Housing Corporation is not aware of any units at the Northcott estate that have been boarded up.
“On-site security performed a check of the Northcott building on 3 November 2020, finding no units boarded up.”
Bryan Lopes has lived at Northcott since 1997, and said: “In the main tower block, I can see at least three apartments boarded up, and they have been there for some time.
“There is a property on my level that is vacant because the person living there was removed for anti-social behaviour and they refurbished the apartment, but it has been sitting there since April or May waiting for a tenant,” he told the Sentinel.
Toby Zoates, who describes himself as an artist and activist, has lived in one of Northcott’s walkups for 31 years.
“The place next door has been vacant for a year, and three doors up from me there is another apartment that has been empty for several years,” Zoates said.
Peter “Pierre” Gawronski is also a long term Northcott tenant, having lived there for 24 years.
He is well known to the Land and Housing Corporation, and the NSW Department of Communities and Justice (the agency responsible for the estate), having taken them to various courts more than 40 times over tenancy issues and lack of services.
“I have won about 40 of those cases and most of those were about poor maintenance and not spending enough money and not doing the job properly when it is done,” Gawronski said.
Clisdell Street is one of the estate’s boundaries, running from Devonshire Street through to Belvoir Street, and has a number of walkups fronting the street.
“In Clisdell Street there are about a half a dozen flats boarded up and I don’t see new tenants coming in, or if I do, it is a year before they do,” Gawronski said.
“When there are around 60,000 people on the waiting list, why are these flats boarded up?”
Jenny Leong MP, NSW Greens Housing and Homeless spokesperson, said: “Boarding up homes instead of maintaining them adequately, or keeping them empty instead of offering them to people needing a safe place to call home makes no sense.”
Richard Weeks, the chairman of the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group said, “It is not only Northcott that has got empty places, they are all over the place.”
Weeks also suggested that with the redevelopment of Waterloo, alternative housing would have to be found for the 2,000 people who will be affected in the first move.
The Department of Communities and Justice’s website states that as of June 2019 there were 51,014 applicants on the NSW public housing waiting list: 46,530 on the general list, and 4,484 on the priority list.
Some of these applications are for families, not individuals, meaning the real number of people on the waiting list is even higher; estimated by Leong and others to be approximately 60,000 people.
In the Inner City zone, taking in Darlinghurst to Waterloo and The Rocks, in 2019 there were 792 on the general waiting list and 321 listed as priority.
The expected waiting times for a studio or one bedroom unit was five to 10 years while the waiting time for a two bedder was more than 10 years.
And this was before Covid-19 hit.
In May of this year, Jenny Leong put questions to NSW Minister for Water, Property and Housing, Melinda Pavey MP, about vacant and unrepaired housing stock.
Pavey advised that in NSW, there were 225 properties that had been left vacant for more than 30 days, and that 75 of these required significant maintenance.
From Leong’s questions on notice, it appears the NSW public housing stock is going in the wrong direction.
Between January 1 2020 and 31 May 2020, 103 public housing dwellings were sold – but only 39 new dwellings were constructed and six acquired during the same period.
Opposite the Shakespeare Hotel on Devonshire Street, in Northcott’s Devon Court block, there is a unit that has long been the subject of derision and wonderment.
Within sight of the street, pedestrians looking up can clearly see a unit that is filled floor to ceiling with rubbish that covers the windows and spills out to the ground below, on the rare occasions that the windows are open.
Clearly, there is a serous mental health issue at play, with ramifications for not only the occupant(s) but presenting other problems to the estate.
“I’ve had problems with cockroaches and rats and I think most are coming from this flat,” Gawronski said.
“The elephant in the room is that they are running the estate down so we can be relocated now that that the tram is here.
“The land here is worth a fortune.”
By wrongly stating that Northcott estate does not have any boarded up units, the Land and Housing Corporation and the Department of Communities and Justice have exposed themselves to the distrust of their tenants – which can only add to the divide between those in need and the providers.
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