Gentrification by stealth impacting Glebe

A view of housing in Glebe. File photo.

The inner Sydney suburb of Glebe is one of a number of localities being gentrified by stealth, writes Hands Off Glebe secretary Dr Hannah Middleton, in this opinion piece for the Sentinel.

Everyone has a right to safe, adequate, affordable and appropriate housing. This is essential for our health, wellbeing, and social and economic security. Social housing adds stability to the lives of the occupants and this is a particular benefit to their children and their education. 

Safe, affordable housing is the foundation stone that gives people a chance in life. However, many Australians struggle to obtain the housing they need. An unacceptable number of Australians have no home at all.

The same challenges exist in Glebe, where the poor, working class, elderly and sick are increasingly being pushed out as the neoliberal State Government pursues policies of gentrification by stealth. Our suburb has been through many transformations but this latest is simply not acceptable.

A history of displacement through colonialism, redevelopment and evictions has shaped Glebe. The Cadigal and Wangal people were murdered, killed by smallpox and violently dispossessed of their land after European invasion. 

Throughout the 19th Century, Glebe was a mosaic of middle class, lower middle class and working class neighbourhoods, sharply divided along class lines. It was a highly stratified and unequal society.

At the 1947 Census, Glebe was industrialised and working class in composition but from the late 1960s, a transformation had begun with growing numbers of professional and technical workers moving into Glebe. At the same time, blue collar workers were moving out. Glebe, which was one of Sydney’s original seafaring and waterfront workers’ residential areas, is now predominantly populated by young professionals and executives. 

Most recently, Glebe has been under sustained attack. The overall stock has been eaten away through market sales of public housing (over the past decade, Labor and Liberal governments in NSW have privatised 7,000 public housing properties) and run down through skimping on repairs and maintenance (often called demolition by neglect). 

And the NSW Government has been bulldozing public housing on inner city estates and rebuilding it alongside private apartments to create, it claims, a better “social mix”.

The social mix hoax

Government policy of replacing 100 per cent public housing complexes with 70 per cent private and 30 per cent public homes is justified as improving social mix. However, this is spin to conceal the politically sensitive practice of displacing tenants and selling the land they lived on to developers.

The government commitment to social mix is driven by an ideological imperative to privatise public assets and to capitalise on the sale of public land. It is not about assisting tenants.

Limiting social housing to 30 per cent in redevelopment projects is also promoted because of the belief that any more would scare off private buyers and reduce developer returns.

Imposed social mix disrupts support networks and social structures. Forced relocation from a neighbourhood brings with it serious impacts on physical and mental health. Minority communities may benefit from concentration in terms of safety and maintaining their cultural heritage. Social mix policies do not replace the social capital they displace.

And in the real world, social mix is a myth. In the redevelopments, buildings are separated according to whether the tenants are public or private, usually with separate entrance halls, parking lots, separate gardens and facing different streets or parks. Public and private residents rarely mix.

Recent cases

There are recent examples of these kinds of projects designed to open up valuable public land to high density private development rather than to reflect the low rise character of Glebe.

Some years ago there was a small complex of three public housing blocks next door to the former Valhalla Cinema in Glebe Point Road. One block was privatised – and almost immediately was separated from the public housing by a fence.

In 2011, public housing apartment blocks in the Cowper-Elger Streets estate were demolished, destroying a thriving community of almost 300 people. The homes may not have been architectural marvels, but the claim that they had to be demolished because they were ‘old’ is a lie. Some of the 16 low rise buildings had just been renovated including $4 million for lifts.

A promotional video for the West End Residences complex in Cowper Street, which replaced public housing demolished in 2011. Video: Dyna-Fix Commercial/YouTube.

The suggestion that the development provided social mix is another lie. Private and public housing are physically separated by Stirling Street.

In Cowper Street and Wentworth Park Road, the plan is to excise two sites from the St Phillips Heritage Conservation Area in order to change the existing height limit of 9 metres to 36 metres. This will allow the demolition of a two-storey building and four 1980s terrace houses and their replacement by two eight-storey buildings and five three-storey terraces containing 74 new public and private dwellings.

The planned construction includes unacceptable demolition of housing which has heritage significance and a building of high architectural merit, as well as destruction of the scale of this part of Glebe, opening the way to more high rise. Elizabeth Farrelly in The Sydney Morning Herald (26-9-20) warned that “this cancer will spread. With towers on the old fishmarket site and the nearby 10-storey Mezzo and West End gentrifications, selling for millions, this 50-year slide from a culture that gives poor people space and sunshine to one that crams them into the shadows will be unstoppable”.

She also criticised the government for “their neo-Liberal agenda-items: flogging public land, neglecting heritage, tripling height limits and densities and burying public housing under the private for-profit sort”.

The Mezzo development in Glebe, overlooking Wentworth Park. Photo: Oakstand.com.au.

And now in the latest travesty, the residents of the public housing complex between Franklyn, Glebe and Bay Streets face having their homes bulldozed and being evicted in two years’ time!

The proposed redevelopment will have around 295 private units but only up to 130 social housing dwellings ranging from two-storey townhouses to towers up to 14-storeys high.

The current homes are on a human scale. The government wants oversized inhuman boxes with the rich and famous at the top and social housing tenants scrabbling around in the basement looking for light and air. The homes are a little more than 30 years old, they are in good condition, fully occupied and fit for purpose. There are trees and lawns. There is a thriving community.

During Australia’s post-war public housing construction boom, governments recognised their investment as necessary to enhance economic productivity, improve public health, and support families. In many countries today, funds are invested in public housing in support of energy sustainability, economic stability, and social cohesion.

We desperately need a major public housing building program to meet the needs of the 60,000 people on the public housing waiting list and the many homeless in our city.

Some localities have lost what made them distinctive places but Glebe has retained a strong sense of place and kept its own unique voice.

We must not let the government and developers take this away from us.

Dr Hannah Middleton is a Glebe resident and the secretary of the Hands Off Glebe group. Visit www.handsoffglebe.org for more information.

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