Mixed passages: how public-private housing is shaping up in Melbourne
Private owners are moving into remodelled housing estates, alongside public tenants. Is it a magic potion or a bitter brew?
A white picket fence guards the Kensington Management Company’s office. But the modest, brick building on Derby Street isn’t a symbol of conservative suburbia. Inside, CEO George Housakos and his team are carrying out a bold change in our public housing system.
At nine o’clock, the office begins to bustle. The company’s twelve staff attend to the needs of over a thousand public and private residents. The not-for-profit company is a body corporate and rental business, as well as a service provider for public tenants. “We’re the first model of its kind in Australia,” Mr Housakos says.
On the Kensington site, the state government and Becton Property Group are redeveloping an old public estate.
It’s the first sod turned in a revamped housing strategy: the era of public-only housing will soon meet the wreckers’ ball. Policy-makers are now plotting developments with a blend of owner-occupiers, renters and social tenants.
New Becton CEO Matthew Chun says the company is pleased with the results at Kensington. The renewal project began in 2002, and is now about two-thirds complete and, so far, fully occupied. When it’s finished, there will be 455 private and 435 public dwellings.
Mr Chun believes the mishmash of residents and the design of the buildings work well. “The intent is that you can’t tell the difference between houses occupied by public housing tenants and those owned by the private sector.”
Victorian Minister for Housing Richard Wynne is keen to replicate that model elsewhere. The government has already announced similar makeovers in Carlton and Westmeadows, and will next tackle the Richmond towers. “My goal with all of these developments is to achieve a good public–private mix and to ensure that we don’t get a net loss of public and social housing,” he says.
According to housing expert Professor Bill Randolph, public–private redevelopments have become both a national and an international trend. “It’s happening in North America, it’s happening in England and parts of Europe,” he says. “There’s an international consensus that the old model of building big concentrations of public housing has failed.”
Professor Randolph, Deputy Director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) at the University of New South Wales, says that cycles of hardship emerge when there are a lot of people with disadvantages in a small area.
“The majority of public housing tenants are elderly, or they’re people with disabilities, or can’t work, or they’re carers,” he says. “They’re disconnected from the mainstream society and then they get preyed upon by the drug dealer who thinks he can set up shop in these sorts of areas.”
Minister Wynne is most concerned about high unemployment rates on the old estates. “When public housing was constructed in the 60s, it was worker housing. That is no longer the case,” he says. “So in any of the large public housing high-rises, due to the very tight targeting of public housing, the vast majority of people there do not work anymore. And we think that’s unhealthy.”
The overwhelming benefit of mixed residential estates is that they polish the tainted image of public housing. Professor Randolph says that AHURI research on the ground supports this theory. “There’s no doubt that renewing the estates by putting in new homes and a range of people reduces the stigma.”
But the policy may also have some drawbacks. Professor Randolph notes that governments are “chasing the holy grail of renewing these areas without significant amounts of public subsidy”. That means that public land, often in high-value inner-city areas, must be sold to fund the projects. It’s a one-off policy option. Next time the estates need refitting, the government won’t have the land to leverage with the developers. “I think it would be better if we recognised that there is a real genuine need for affordable housing that should be subsidised from the public purse to some extent.”
Another risk is that the private sector is wary of buying in, still put off by their perceptions of public housing. While the Kensington project has attracted many investors and renters, it has a low rate of owner-occupation.
The same goes for the Inkerman Oasis, a mixed-tenure development in St Kilda. The Port Phillip Council has transformed its old depot site into an award-winning 245-unit estate comprising both private and community housing.
Although the final stage of construction has yet to begin, the Port Phillip Housing Association’s 28 community units, as well as most of the private apartments, are already complete. The association favours applications from long-term locals. Its tenants, like Sue Nikora and her son, pay low rental rates (set at about 25 to 30 percent of the tenant’s income).
Ms Nikora left her last community townhouse because she had “neighbours from hell”. Here, in St Kilda, despite having some concerns about vandalism in the block, the 52-year-old says arriving home from work is a joy.
“When you are living in a mixed place like this, I think the ones that do tend to play up behave themselves a bit more.” Ms Nikora supports the tenancy blend. “We’re all people. You can’t just keep them apart. People have to learn to live together. It’s as simple as that.”
But some of her neighbours aren’t so happy. Robert Blair is a private owner and also the building manager of the complex. He says that while most of the housing association tenants are good neighbours, the younger ones cause trouble. “They put graffiti on the walls. They cause havoc,” he says. “We don’t want them here. Why they would put kids in a place like this is a bit of a mystery to me.”
Another resident, who asked not to be named, shares his concerns. She is disappointed by the lack of connection among neighbours. “There isn’t a real sense of community with the Port Phillip tenants. In theory, I love the idea of the mix. I’m a bit embarrassed to say, a couple of years in, I’m not a fan of it in my backyard.”
But both the council and the housing association say they haven’t received any complaints from private residents. “The mix works well because people are people,” says City of Port Phillip Mayor, Janet Cribbes. “How much money you have to allocate to housing doesn’t affect who you are as a person or what you are like as a neighbour.”
St Kilda real estate agent Simon Saint-John says the perception that private buyers are nervous is way off the mark. He says property values and rents are consistent with the local average. “From our perspective, it’s made no difference at all. There’s huge demand to get into that complex.”
Across town, Mr Housakos makes a cup of tea and readies himself for another busy day. He believes that a vibrant neighbourhood is a must if the Kensington redevelopment to succeed. “The bit that we think is critical is… the whole series of ways that we get the community to engage, from local jobs through to activities that improve health and wellbeing.”
The estate has a community development action plan and committee made up of a mix of residents that meet every month. There are also regular newsletters, a new common veggie patch and training sessions on nutrition. “We get both private and public tenants turning up,” says Mr Housakos.
Last year he undertook a brief study tour of England, Scotland and the Netherlands to learn from similar projects. “You can’t just build a new set of buildings. You’ve actually got to think about what happens to the people inside.”
A joint partnership between the state government and Becton Property Group, the redevelopment of almost 900 units is two-thirds complete. Half will be private and half public, including the refurbishment of two existing towers. Construction will finish by 2013.
Thirteen blocks of walk-up flats have been demolished across Carlton sites to make way for a new mixed estate. About 550 private, and 250 public apartments are on the drawing board. The state government will announce the developer later this year.
This July, Premier John Brumby announced a redevelopment plan for The Mews public housing estate in the city’s north-west. The project aims to add over 400 new public and private homes by 2014.
On the site of the old council depot on Inkerman Street, the Oasis eco-friendly development comprises 217 private, and 28 community apartments. The final two blocks of private units are yet to be built.