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Minister’s miserable ploy – divide and conquer

The Minister’s office rolled out a mother with special needs children, Marissa Esposito, from the public housing waiting list, to justify the evictions of public housing tenants from the Millers Point area. It was a classic divide and conquer tactic – and a distraction from the real issues.

Instead of reporting on the state government’s failure to invest in affordable housing, the media presented a confected debate about who was the most deserving of government support.

Without doubt, Ms Esposito and her family are in need of help and they should not be left permanently in limbo on the public housing waiting list. But here’s the rub – the sell-off of public housing in Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks will not help Ms Esposito and her family one iota. To put it simply, she’s been sold a pup.

There will be no construction bonanza of new public housing properties and no reduction in the public housing waiting list. The Minister says that money from the sale of properties will go back into the social housing budget. But what she does not say is that the state government is actually selling more houses than it is building.

In fact, in 2013-14 the state government sold 1,386 properties but built only 536 new ones.

So where is all the money going?

The answer lies in the State Budget. Budget documents reveal that state government has cut funding for public housing maintenance. There is now an estimated $336 million backlog of maintenance work waiting to be done on public housing. And, as we discovered in the recent Select Committee on Social, Public and Affordable Housing, money from the sale of properties (including those in Millers Point) is now being used to make up the shortfall in maintenance funding.

Last year the Auditor General found the state government’s practice of selling public housing properties to fund recurrent maintenance costs was financially unsustainable. It does not fix the problem because, eventually, there are no more houses to sell. But, most importantly, reducing the number of public housing properties does nothing to reduce the waiting list. In fact it can only make the problem worse.

The Minister has claimed that the sale of each house in Millers Point will fund the construction of three houses in other parts of Sydney. The clear inference from these comments is that new houses will be built – but, when pressed, she is unable to say where or when.

She doesn’t have an answer because she doesn’t have a plan.

The public housing tenants at Millers Point have a lot more questions for the Minister. They have written, called, visited the Minister’s electorate office and invited her to their community. Minister Upton has refused to speak to them on every occasion – compounding the dishonesty over her government’s policies with disrespect for the people who are most affected by them.

But this is not just a matter of dishonesty and disrespect. There are important reasons why we all should care about the fate of the Millers Point community and why we need to retain affordable housing in the inner city. Without access to affordable housing, the low-wage service workers who make our city tick and the elderly residents who have given our city so much of their lives will be forced further away from their jobs, their communities and their support networks. And without them our city loses its workers, its heart and its character.

In their place will come a few wealthy home-buyers who are attracted to the idea of living in an area that was once an “authentic working class suburb” but has been tastefully renovated and turned into an exclusive enclave for the rich.

Once Millers Point is gone the state government will go after the residents in Ivanhoe, the residents in Woolloomooloo and other areas of interest to the property developers.

The real answer to addressing our affordable housing crisis is to invest in new housing stock, to ensure existing social housing is properly maintained and to retain a mix of housing that meets the diverse needs of local communities.

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