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A winnable fight

Approval of the tent embassy’s presence and focus is strong. “The protest has created a safe and dry environment. Peaceful. What they’re doing is good for the community,” one local resident said.

At the helm of the operation is Chairman of the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group, Richard Weeks, who turns 70 in two months. Weeks, a former military officer and teacher, has lived on or been associated with the Waterloo Estate for decades and is determined to see results following recent one-on-one meetings with representatives of the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) and the NSW Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC).

“I use law. I use Parliament. I don’t go kicking tins down and stopping traffic,” says Weeks of his approach to confrontations with government. “You only fight the winnable fight. And if you win enough of those then people will stand up and listen to you.”

The action group may have begun to win some of these fights thanks to this brand of pragmatism. The first victory has been in the area of maintenance. Longstanding issues ranging from electricity faults to plumbing problems have been remedied, assisted by a change in the company used to perform work on public housing premises in the area. “So far they’ve done everything we’ve asked,” says Weeks, who has recently seen long-neglected maintenance work in public housing dwellings from Waterloo to Marrickville addressed.

The next fight for Mr Weeks is for transparency from government as it moves to relocate some existing public housing tenants into temporary residences in order to make way for the redevelopment of the state-owned land. Mr Weeks maintains that in two meetings with representatives of LAHC and FACS a process for relocating and returning tenants was described in more detail. Under the system outlined, tenants would be moved into nearby accommodation on a stage-by-stage basis and returned once development is completed. Such a system would seek to lower the incidence of tenants being relocated to environments where the neighbours are completely unfamiliar. Under this “leapfrog” system the community could potentially remain intact and those most exposed to the anguish of forced relocation, such as the elderly, better cared for.

Mr Weeks’ view is positive for the affected community. “If the government does what the Housing Corporation says they’ll do, then I don’t think the community will lose much. Probably lose their familiarity with their environment or the building they live in.” He describes the system described to him to date as “new building on the same estate [where] the community stays together”. A spokesperson from FACS described the outcome of the stage-by-stage approach to the relocation process as follows: “While some residents may need to temporarily relocate for approximately two years into other housing in the local area, the majority will be able to move directly into new social housing as the site is renewed.” No clearer picture has emerged of just how this process will be undertaken for the minority of tenants that will be temporarily relocated.

Weeks admits that inequity remains a risk without the government putting anything into law and still harbours fears that the plans for Waterloo will mean a forest of high-rise buildings with little ground space around it. “You create a concrete jungle. You create poverty,” Weeks warns.

Waterloo Green itself is such an expanse. A feeling of openness, safety and community is present as the chairman returns to the fireplace by the placard-emblazoned tent embassy. It is nearing 6pm on a Monday evening and another meeting is taking place. Tonight’s topic for discussion at the action group is what options are available if deliberations with government break down. “At the moment we’re just running a petition and a peaceful demonstration. But then after that we’ll have to look at other avenues,” says Weeks.



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