Uncertainty looms as public housing towers marked for redevelopment

Brendan Rees

A plan to demolish and redevelop 44 high-rise public housing towers across the inner city including Carlton is causing a wave of uncertainty and fears of displacement among residents, with advocates fearing the housing crisis could be made worse if public land falls into the hands of developers.

As part of its long-awaited housing statement, the state government announced on September 20 that it would knock down and redevelop the ageing towers by 2051 in what would be “Australia’s biggest ever urban renewal project”.

Some of the estates listed as first to go are Flemington, North Melbourne, and Carlton, which were originally built between the 1950s and 1970s. Currently, there are 10,000 people living across the 44 towers but after all the sites are rebuilt, the state government said 30,000 people were expected to be housed, along with a boost of 10 per cent more social housing across the sites. However, it is reported that 11,000 would be public housing tenants, with 19,000 other residents “in a mixture of social and market housing”.

Speaking of the housing statement and the government’s pledge to build 800,000 homes over the decade to 2034 to accommodate the state’s growing population, which is forecast to reach 10.3 million by 2051, Premier Daniel Andrews said, “unless we take bold and decisive action now, Victorians will be paying the price for generations to come”.

While the housing reforms have gained some support from advocates and community groups, the prospect of a public-private partnership with land being sold to developers has prompted fears the move could exacerbate the existing shortage of public housing and further disadvantage vulnerable individuals and families who rely on affordable options.

Among those calling for the government to reverse its decision to demolish all public housing towers is the Inner Melbourne Community Legal (IMCL), which said it “will not solve the housing crisis in this community, which is one comprised of vulnerable or marginalised people”.

The IMCL’s legal practice acting director Louisa Bassini said the government’s using the terms “social housing” and “community housing” interchangeably had created confusion among residents because there was a “significant difference”.

“Social housing is a term used for both community and public housing. Community housing is run by a range of usually small, non-government organisations that are not properly regulated and lack accountability. The rights of community housing renters are inferior to those in public housing,” Ms Bassini said.


Carlton public housing resident Graeme (right) and his neighbours are among many worried about where they will live. Photo: Hanna Komissarova.


Carlton resident Graeme, who did not want his surname published, has lived at the public housing tower on Lygon St for the past 12 years. He expressed concerns that little information was known at this stage.

“I’m going to be shifted. I don’t when. I don’t know where. No idea at this point. It’s just been lumped onto us,” he said.


We don’t know what’s going on. There’s been no real information supplied or discussed.


“It does create anxiety when everything’s up in the air and you don’t know what’s going on. We were going along thinking we were going to be here for life.”

The Victorian Public Tenants Association (VPTA), an incorporated not-for-profit organisation, said while it welcomed commitments around the public housing renewal, it urged the government “to be transparent as to who will ultimately be the manager of these properties, in order for this announcement to be as positive as it seems on the surface”.

It also called on the government to rule out the sale of any public land that is currently the site of public housing.

“Ensuring these new high-rises are public owned and publicly managed is absolutely imperative. As the peak body for people in public housing, we are seeing more and more people requiring our advocacy and assistance as a result of poorly managed issues in the community housing space,” the VPTA said.


Residents learn more about the proposed public housing redevelopment project during a meeting on September 26 at Open Door, a community centre at the Carlton public housing estate. Photo: Ajay Viswanath.


Is there a better approach? Residents in limbo

The Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre’s executive officer Tony Milne said the redevelopment of the 44 housing towers was still being digested by Carlton residents.

“Residents are telling us that new housing that offers better living standards for public housing residents is welcomed,” he said.

“There are, however, concerns about the details of the relocation process and the impact on their established communities.”

“It’s important that Homes Victoria make the most of this opportunity and address resident concerns, including confirming that this will remain public housing”.

Mr Milne said it was hoped residents would have a voice in the process and that their concerns would be heard.

Public Housing Residents Network and Save Public Housing Collective spokesperson Cory Memery said, “it’s going to be a relocation camp” with moving residents from “tower to tower” while new buildings go up.

“There are better ways to do it. They can retain, repair, and reinvest the money and keep people in the same communities they’re already living in without disrupting their kids from school, their hospitals, or their community,” he said.

Dr Iris Levin, a lecturer at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, and an expert in social housing, said, “waitlists have been increasing significantly we need to provide more housing for those most in need and not demolish existing housing that is still fit-for-purpose”.

“The Carlton public towers (the Lygon estate) were refurbished during the Carlton Redevelopment project (2006-2018) at a huge cost. Which begs the question, why have they been refurbished if they were unfit for dwelling?” she said.

State Greens MP for Melbourne Ellen Sandell said the proposed project “could be the end of public housing in Victoria”.

“Labor won’t guarantee these sites will be replaced with all or even any public housing. Instead, they want to give more public land to private developers so they can make huge profits while the housing crisis gets worse,” she said.

“The Greens are demanding the government rebuild these estates with 100 per cent public housing, not expensive private apartments. Without this, the public housing waiting list and rental stress will continue to grow.”

Council to Homeless Persons chief executive officer Deborah Di Natale said it welcomed measures to make renting fairer and overdue improvements to the high-rises, but the package fell short on housing commitments.

“We need at least 60,000 new public and community homes to be built in Victoria over a decade. Unfortunately, there’s nothing like that in these announcements,” Ms Di Natale said.



Carlton towers to be rebuilt

In another major housing announcement, the state government said two tired and worn-out buildings in Nicholson St, Carlton, would be torn down and rebuilt under a housing partnership between the state and federal governments.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined the Premier in visiting the now-vacant Carlton site on September 19 to announce the project, with demolition to begin next year.

The redevelopment would be funded by the federal government’s $2 billion Social Housing Accelerator and replace the 196 outdated units built in the 1960s with 231 modern, energy efficient homes, increasing housing on the site by at least 10 per cent.

Once complete, all former residents will be invited to return to live in the new homes on the site, “which will also be used to house tenants who live in other public housing redevelopment projects while they are underway”, the state government said.

The Premier said Carlton was the first of 769 homes it would build in Victoria as part of the Accelerator program, in addition to 12,000 social homes being delivered as part of the Big Housing Build. •

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