Samantha Ratnam

First Published in The Age

Last year, an emergency housing provider said something I’ve never heard in my 15 years as a social worker: “We are so sorry, but all we can offer is a sleeping bag.” This was in response to our desperate attempts to find a bed for a client who was facing homelessness. Housing services were hitting a breaking point.

In Victoria more than 35,000 people are waiting for public housing and growing numbers are living on the streets. Our homeless sector has been chronically underfunded and for decades governments have failed to tackle housing affordability.

Melbourne’s public housing estates have been vital for generations of Melburnians – from workers, families and the returning soldiers they were initially built for – to migrant families seeking refuge from war making a new life here.

Yet successive governments, both Liberal and Labor, have failed to build enough new properties to keep up with need, and have let existing properties deteriorate through poor maintenance.

Now, instead of coming up with a plan to reduce lengthening waiting lists, Victoria’s Labor government is selling vast swathes of public housing land on nine inner-city estates to private developers.

Melbourne’s public housing estates have been vital for generations of Melburnians – from workers, families and the returning soldiers they were initially built for – to migrant families seeking refuge from war making a new life here.

Yet successive governments, both Liberal and Labor, have failed to build enough new properties to keep up with need, and have let existing properties deteriorate through poor maintenance.

Now, instead of coming up with a plan to reduce lengthening waiting lists, Victoria’s Labor government is selling vast swathes of public housing land on nine inner-city estates to private developers.

Existing buildings will be demolished and developers will build new apartment blocks, including high-rise towers with special exemptions to height limits currently allowed by local laws.

Developers will likely make hundreds of millions of dollars at each site selling apartments to the private market, while only being required to rebuild the existing public housing with a handful of extra public dwellings.

That’s a raw deal.

Selling off prime public land is a bad idea. It allows developers to profit from an asset that currently belongs to us, the public. It wipes out the possibility of using rare, well-located public land for the public good, as it was intended.

Cutting the public housing waiting list will require a generational investment in public housing, not the scraps off the table. We need to construct of thousands of new properties, but this sell-off will mean there is nowhere to build these homes in the future.

It’s also concerning that under the government’s proposal most new public units will be smaller than the ones they replace, with three-bedroom family dwellings being knocked down and replaced with one-bedroom apartments.

At the Walker Street estate in Northcote, there will be 47 less public three-bedroom properties if the proposed development goes ahead. Where are families supposed to live?

Based on the limited information available about the nine pilot sites, there will actually be a reduction in the number of public housing bedrooms. That’s not good enough.

The government’s privatisation was set to sell off 70 per cent of the Ashburton pilot site to pay for six new public apartments. The only winners from that deal are the developers, who in return for the six additional public housing units would be allowed to build and sell 190 apartments and townhouses to the private market.

To stop that sell-off of public housing land, the Greens recently voted to block a planning scheme amendment that facilitated the redevelopment of the estate.

The government shrieked that the Greens were blocking public housing, when all we did was try to stop the sell-off of the land. Daniel Andrews argues that they can only afford $185 million to fund public housing renewals, yet recently found $2.6 billion to build the Westgate Tunnel.

So the question must be asked – are we being asked to privatise public housing land because there is no other way to pay for the renewal program or is it because the government refuses to fund it properly?

There’s no argument that these estates need to be renewed and more public housing built, but we cannot rush into a sell-off that sacrifices irreplaceable public land forever.

Samantha Ratnam is the leader of the Victorian Greens, MLC for the Northern Metropolitan region.