Motion: Inquiry Into Government Plans To Sell Public Housing | Sue Pennicuik

Motion: Inquiry Into Government Plans To Sell Public Housing

We know there are around 35 000 people on the public housing waiting list in Victoria, and this morning I spoke about homelessness and the growing rate of homelessness in Australia and in Victoria. In Victoria it has increased by more than 20 per cent — almost 21 per cent — in the last 10 years.
Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 8:45am
Speaker:
Sue Pennicuik

Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — I will move my motion in an amended form. For the information of all members, the motion that is on the notice paper has been slightly amended. I am happy to have the amended motion circulated by the clerks if people want a copy of it. I have circulated the amended version to the party leaders and whips, who do have it. By leave, I move:

That, pursuant to sessional order 6, this house requires the Legal and Social Issues Committee to inquire into, consider and report, no later than 20 March 2018, on the Victorian government's plan to sell a majority of the public land on existing public housing estates for private development under the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) public housing renewal program (PHRP), and in particular the committee should consider —

(1)      the adequacy of a proposed 10 per cent increase in public housing (or 1100 public units) on the sites given the size of the waiting list for public housing;

(2)   the ability to cater for all demographics including families, couples and singles with the proposed housing mix;

(3)   the effects on current public housing tenants, including:

(a)    whether they will be moved to accommodation that is secure, stable and fit for purpose;

(b)   whether they will be moved to accommodation that is close to existing social support networks, educational, health and welfare services;

(c)    whether current tenants will be able to return to the estates;

(4)   the allocation of parts of the sites between the proposed new public and private housing units;

(5)   the lack of public condition assessments of the estates or alternative options such as refurbishment of all or part of the existing housing units;

(6)   the proposed significant increase in density and heights and any local environmental impacts, such as the loss of open space and mature vegetation;

(7)   the removal of planning controls from local councils, and planning implications surrounding communities including existing neighbourhood character, traffic flow and provisions of services;

(8)   the proposed loss of third-party appeal rights;

(9)   the transparency and genuine community consultation with affected residents, neighbouring communities and the broader Victorian community regarding the short, medium and long-term implications of the PHRP model as currently proposed;

(10) public housing estates where similar models are envisaged or underway, including —

(a)    Markham Avenue, Ashburton;

(b)   Koolkuna Lane, Hampton; and

(c)    the corner of Stokes Street and Penola Street, Preston;

(11) previous Victorian public housing renewal projects, including but not limited to the Kensington, Carlton and Prahran public housing estates;

(12) best practice models for the provision of public housing from within Australia and overseas;

and any other matters the committee considers relevant.

Those 12 points mark out the terms of reference for the inquiry. Given the limited time on a Wednesday for general business items, I do not intend to spend an inordinate amount of time on this issue, even though I could very well have very much to say on the issue and the particular sites in question.

With regard to the public housing renewal program, the Department of Health and Human Services website says it will redevelop older public housing homes and create more social housing properties across metropolitan and regional sites, and some $185 million is being allocated to this program. The website also says that stage 1 will redevelop 1100 ageing public housing properties on nine estates. Those estates are in Brunswick, North Melbourne, Heidelberg West, Clifton Hill, Brighton, Prahran, Hawthorn, Northcote and Ascot Vale.

It would be fair to say that the more the public in the areas around these estates and in some of the estates — which I will go to further in the contribution — where this program or a similar program are underway know and the more the community around there and the local councils become aware of what the precepts behind the public housing renewal program are, the more concerned those people and communities are about the model that is being imposed on them with little warning or any opportunity for real or meaningful consultation or any opportunity to influence the proposals or the proposed outcomes. This program has had very little public scrutiny, and because of the significant short, medium and long-term implications of it on people, communities and the environment it needs to have much more security.

I thought I would go through the paragraphs of the motion, which will form the terms of reference for the inquiry by the Legal and Social Issues Committee should the motion be supported by the chamber, and explain why those paragraphs are there briefly so the house and the community understand the purpose of those particular paragraphs. As I mentioned, the crux of the motion is for the committee to inquire into the government's plan to sell the majority of the public land on existing public housing estates, and in particular the committee should look at these 12 paragraphs. The first paragraph concerns:

… the adequacy of a proposed 10 per cent increase in public housing … on the sites given the size of the waiting list for public housing …

We know there are around 35 000 people on the public housing waiting list in Victoria, and this morning I spoke about homelessness and the growing rate of homelessness in Australia and in Victoria. In Victoria it has increased by more than 20 per cent — almost 21 per cent — in the last 10 years.

This is really a crisis which should concern everybody deeply. The fact is that a lot of people who are homeless are actually on the public housing waiting list and cannot get access to public housing, so they are doing the sorts of things that I was talking about this morning: temporarily staying with friends, sleeping in their cars, sleeping out in the streets, some staying in supported accommodation, which is usually very short-term, and some bunking in with other people in very overcrowded situations and certainly not ideal situations.

Given that there are 35 000 people on the public housing waiting list, a 10 per cent increase could only be described as minuscule in terms of the need. A 10 per cent increase as a policy position and as a goal in terms of public housing is minuscule and is really just treading water in terms of what is required to address this very serious issue. So that is the reason for that first point.

The public housing renewal program website itself says 'at least 10 per cent more social housing properties', but in terms of the projects that have been made public in terms of the proposed number of units on the sites none of them are more than 10 per cent. So it might say 'at least', but it never actually gets above 10 per cent. It does not get to 11 per cent, so 10 per cent is really the figure. I think the committee should be looking at whether that is adequate for the task that is actually really facing the community of Victoria.

The second point that I feel the committee should consider is:

the ability to cater for all demographics including families, couples and singles with the proposed housing mix …

In terms of the housing mix the examination, for example, of the Markham estate in Markham Avenue, Ashburton, which is being developed on this very similar model, has in fact produced the actual number of bedrooms. Whilst there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of units, from 56 to 62, the actual number of bedrooms has decreased.

Now, this is an issue that I think the committee does need to look very closely at, because while we do know that there is a growing public housing crisis or homelessness crisis amongst older single people, in particular older single women, there still remains a public housing crisis for families or single women with a number of children, for example. What appears to be happening that I think the committee should look into is that in the proposals I have seen so far there are less three-bedroom units and more one and two-bedroom units. We really need to examine whether that is going to provide the mix to cater for the different types of people that are on the public housing waiting list and need to be housed urgently.

The third point reads:

the effects on current public housing tenants, including:

(a)    whether they will be moved to accommodation that is secure, stable and fit for purpose;

(b)   whether they will be moved to accommodation that is close to existing social support networks, educational, health and welfare services;

(c)    whether current tenants will be able to return to the estates …

I think this is an important matter for the committee to look at, because what I have learned from speaking to the communities around particularly the public housing estates that are concerned in Southern Metropolitan Region — and this was also reported in a recent Melbourne University report on the Carlton estate — is that a very large number of the tenants who were moved from the Carlton estate and were promised that they would be able to return have in fact not returned. It is not quite clear why that would be. It may be they were not given the opportunity, it may be that they settled somewhere else, but I think it is something worth looking at.

When you speak to the tenants at the estates that have not started yet, many are very anxious about being moved away from a place where they have established some social connections and they are close to facilities. The thing about most of these sites is that they are close to services and facilities because they are in inner Melbourne, so they are close to transport, they are close to schools and they are close to doctors, shops et cetera. The residents have made a life for themselves in those areas. I think that the committee should certainly be speaking to the residents as to how they feel about being moved and the disruption to their lives and what can be done to make sure that is minimised.

We know that in some of the estates people have been deliberately moved out, and it is not clear where all those people have gone or whether they have necessarily had a lot of choice in going. So I think a very significant issue is the impact on the current residents and the impact this is going to have on their lives.

The fourth point in my motion is:

the allocation of parts of the sites between the proposed new public and private housing units …

I think the report on the Carlton estate goes to this in some detail, which is that the original premise was that there would be a mix of public housing tenants with private tenants and everybody would be able to use the common property equally, but that actually is not what happened.

Once the project got underway the private developer decided that was not what they wanted to do, and certain areas of the common property are now not accessible to the public tenants. It is quite interesting to read the comments from the public housing tenants and the private tenants on that estate as to how that has worked out in practice. That is something that should inform any further implementation of this type of model.

In May Mr Davis moved a motion with regard to the Markham estate in Ashburton, which was basically a pilot of this program. I expressed concern then that on the proposed design of the site the public housing units are put right at the back of the site and the new private units are put right at the front near the park, with the park views. They are larger units; they have more car parking. There is a different ambience to them than there is to the proposed replacement public housing. I find that quite concerning. If that is how it is going to be on all of these estates, that is not a good message to be sending to public housing tenants and it is not a good practice. I think it needs closer examination as to how that is going to go moving forward.

The fifth point of the motion is:

the lack of public condition assessments of the estates or alternative options such as refurbishment of all or part of the existing housing units …

That goes to the fact that the condition assessments of the sites are not made public. The department simply says on its website that the existing units are aged or outmoded or it implies that they are falling down. But people who actually know these estates — and I certainly know the public housing estate in New Street, Brighton, very well; I did not know the one in Hampton very well but I have been down to have a close look at it — and residents that live nearby who are concerned about what is happening have told me those units are in very good condition and in fact could easily be refurbished and updated and become energy efficient and sustainable. In particular on those sites there is open space and there is a lot of established vegetation et cetera, which on the proposals we have seen for the replacement will disappear. The open space and the vegetation will disappear — it gives the feeling of a home, and a community could be lost.

In terms of that, too, when governments are proposing these types of programs there should be something to compare them with, such as, for example: what would it cost to just leave the sites as all public housing, double the number of public housing units on the sites and retain the public open space and the trees? What would that cost as compared to this model, which is the only model being put forward? What would be the cost of perhaps refurbishing those units that are in good condition and replacing the ones that are not in such good condition? That condition assessment should be made public so that people can understand on what basis these decisions are being made, because at the moment it is all done in secret — none of this is being made public. Even the design of the new public housing renewal program sites just pops out of the Department of Health and Human Services, Places Victoria, Development Victoria or some combination with a developer onto an unsuspecting public. There is no preconsultation with either the local community or the council on that design before it is actually foisted on the community as a fait accompli.

The sixth point of the motion is:

the proposed significant increase in density and heights and any local environmental impacts, such as the loss of open space and mature vegetation …

I spoke before about the local impacts in terms of removal of vegetation and loss of open space, but in terms of, for example, the New Street, Brighton, proposal, which is huge, the state government's proposal will increase the number of dwellings on that site by 268 per cent — that is, from 127 to 467 units, and only 140 of those will be public housing units. This includes multiple buildings being built to nine storeys, which is three times the existing three-storey level set by the local Bayside City Council planning scheme.

The community around the public housing estate there have been very vocal about their concerns: the need for more public housing, the sale of land to the private sector and, if this proposal is to go ahead, the huge increase in density and height of buildings on that site. Also, the concern extends to local environmental impacts. That site is right on Elwood Canal. It has a flood overlay on it — it does flood. It also affects the downstream suburb of Elwood in terms of flooding events. So there is a lot to consider with putting a massive development on that particular site. The council have objected because they have three-storey mandatory height controls and this proposal is for nine storeys. They say they would like to see a 50 per cent increase in public housing on the site.

On the impacts on each of the sites, the PRHP is almost a bit of a cookie-cutter model being imposed, without much attention to the impact on the local community and the local environment and the conditions of the particular area. As I said in the Brighton North example, it is about the proximity to the canal, the loss of the mature trees et cetera. I have mentioned before that the Markham estate, which is right next to Gardiners Creek and remnant woodland, will be particularly impacted by the massive overdevelopment proposed for that site, including the loss of a lot of mature trees, such as the river red gums that are there. It is a concern to the local community, and the more they hear about this the more concerned they are.

The seventh point of the motion is:

the removal of planning controls from local councils, and planning applications to surrounding communities, including existing neighbourhood character, traffic flow and provision of services …

We know that in the case of the Markham estate the council has pretty well been locked out of the proposal; over 18 months it has struggled to get any consultation with the government on the issue. Something the committee should look at is who retains the planning controls on the building of these particular sites.

We should be looking at the planning implications for surrounding communities, such as neighbourhood character. I mentioned the scale of the proposed new street development being way out of kilter with the surrounding neighbourhood character. If you are going to increase the number of dwellings from 127 to 467, that is clearly going to have an impact on the surrounding community and on traffic, for example, in the area. The committee should be looking at that and the provision of services.

The eighth point is the proposed loss of third-party appeal rights. It is proposed that these developments will not include the usual planning provisions, including exhibitions and appeal rights. Of course that is a huge concern to the local community given what I said before about the level of secrecy with regard to the design of the projects that are coming forward and sort of being dropped on the community.

The ninth point is regarding the transparency and genuine community consultation with affected residents, neighbouring communities and the broader Victorian community regarding the short, medium and long-term implications of the PHRP model as currently proposed. That seems like a very long sentence, and it probably is, but the fact is there has been little genuine community consultation on the projects that have been made public so far. What I have participated in and gone to is a number of information sessions, which usually are some drawings, posters and a couple of leaflets put out by DHHS and whoever is partnered with them, and a few people around the room to speak to the community members who are there. But you would not call that consultation; you would call that information. Certainly the message when you are at those sessions is that there is not going to be any change to what has been proposed. They are just there to inform you about it, not to ask your opinion or listen to any concerns about what is being proposed and how to change it. That is the experience so far. It would be good to see that changed and improved, but that certainly is it.

It is not just the affected residents and neighbouring communities. The Victorian community has not been consulted about this, and it does not necessarily realise that this public land will be lost and can never be used again for public housing once it is sold to the private sector. So it is a long-term implication and it is a medium-term implication. I do not recall the government going to the election explaining that this was what they were going to do. They have basically done it in a very under the radar way. This is why I have moved this motion, so that the program gets some public and parliamentary scrutiny.

The 10th point, Ms Shing, is because the public housing renewal program specifically mentions nine sites on the website I think it is important that there are a couple of others added to that list. They are the Markham Avenue estate in Ashburton, the Koolkuna Lane estate in Hampton and the estate on the corner of Stokes Street and Penola Street in Preston, which are not specifically listed on the DHHS website as being part of this.

I have had representations from the community, for example, about this site at Koolkuna Lane in Hampton. It has been described to me by one of my constituents as, '16 perfectly good, architect-designed, ground-level units with existing wheelchair and emergency access in its village-like garden setting'. It has not been maintained over the years; it has been left to deteriorate to justify the units being defined as 'obsolete'. He says that is not true because the existing 16 units are fit enough as they are able to be renovated to reflect contemporary, sustainable building innovation and accommodation. No evidence has been presented proving otherwise. They are a perfect fit for proper crisis housing because of the access to medical community services and public transport.

That is a small site, but everything does not have to be a massive site. It is an established one in the area, with some very desirable features about it. As my constituent — who has been to my office — tells me, he is very familiar with the site and very familiar with all the residents there. Of course they are very anxious about it because they have seen others have to leave the site. They are very anxious about their future and the loss of what has basically become their home. One of the other public housing tenants was saying to me, 'I asked at the information session how long these new units will last for'. I was told 30 years. He said, 'Look around, this one has been here nearly 60'. There is nothing wrong with it, and it can be refurbished.

The site has had some slight refurbishment over the years, but he said, 'Basically what you see is slapdash maintenance, things are let deteriorate, and that gives them the excuse to move us all out and demolish them'. So there is a fair bit of cynicism, anxiety, disappointment and fear from some of the tenants that I have spoken to. I think, though, the committee should be looking at those particular sites.

Under my paragraph (11) the committee should also look at previous Victorian public housing renewal projects including but not limited to the Kensington, Carlton and Prahran public housing estates which have undergone renewal, and I have mentioned that there has been a Melbourne University paper about the success or otherwise — the pros and cons — of the Carlton public housing estate redevelopment.

Lastly, the 12th point that the committee should consider is best practice models for the provision of public housing from within Australia and overseas. I think that is something that the committee, after having considered everything else, should be looking at. I know there are a large number of different models, including goals for more public housing than 10 per cent, and different ways, for example, of financing them and also different legislative environments that require minimum amounts of public housing and/or other types of community or social affordable housing when there are housing redevelopments of any sort. So I think the committee should be looking at that as well.

I think this is a really important motion. I hope I have outlined why I have structured it the way I have and the reasons for it, and I commend the motion to the house.


Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — I would like to think Ms Shing and Ms Fitzherbert for their contributions to the debate on this motion. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank groups such as the Ashburton Residents Action Group and the North Brighton Residents Action Group for the work that they have done in advocating on behalf of their local communities about in particular the Markham estate and the New Street, Brighton, estate.

I raise that just to follow on from what Ms Fitzherbert said regarding Ms Shing's reference to scare campaigns being run. In fact the concerns about these particular sites are actually coming from the community members. In the cases of Ashburton and New Street I know for a fact, having spoken to all those people, that as well as the concerns Ms Fitzherbert mentioned they are concerned about the need for more public housing. They want to see more public housing on these sites. Their number one concern is that the sites are only proposed to be 10 per cent public housing. They want to see a lot more. They know there are 35 000 applicants for public housing. They are very aware of it. These concerns are actually coming from the community and from the local councils as well, who are being shut out.

I can agree with a lot of the things Ms Shing had to say about the crisis et cetera in housing and the lack of action by the commonwealth over the years in terms of public housing, but I do not agree with her saying that this is about politics. It is about an issue. In fact the motion has been drafted very carefully to be about a particular public housing renewal program and the implications of that. In particular when you dispose of that public land to the private sector — as Ms Fitzherbert said, not everything should be about super profits — this will be about private developers making profits from public land, not from land they have purchased themselves, which is a completely different scenario, but public land. When we have got such a public housing crisis, where will new sites for public housing be found once those sites are used up for private housing?

In the interests of moving on to the other business that is ahead of us and allowing time to go through that, I thank those who spoke on the motion, and I thank the opposition for its support of the motion.