Public housing in Claymore is being redeveloped, displacing some and giving others hope
One of the first things a visitor to Claymore might notice is the number of boarded-up homes.
Some have long been condemned after years of neglect, not worth the cost of repairs to the landlord – the New South Wales government. Others have been more recently closed up because they’re soon to be demolished.
Forty-three years after it was established, the government is doing away with the public housing estate in Sydney’s south-west.
It’s part of a program of “urban renewal”, driven as much by a desire to address the concentrated disadvantage of public housing estates as by pressures on a public housing system that is widely seen as broken.
Frank Gallagher is one resident who is actually looking forward to Claymore being redeveloped.
“It couldn’t happen quick enough,” he said.
The 36-year-old has lived in Claymore for a decade, and he’s frustrated at how difficult it can be for younger generations to break out of disadvantage there.
“If you haven’t got a criminal record [here] you’re not somebody, you know?
“People look up to people with criminal records and it’s ridiculous.”
Frank is transforming his life after experiencing drug dependency and homelessness. He’s been clean almost two years and is studying to be a drug and alcohol counsellor.
“If the government’s going to disband everyone that lives [here, instead of] bunching everyone up in this sort of format, if they’re going to move us out into places where we have to integrate into normal society – I think that’s going to be beneficial for everybody,” he said.
Frank’s blunt view reflects a stigma Claymore has worn for many decades. At the 2016 census, it was home to just over 2,600 people and one of Australia’s poorest suburbs. The median weekly household income was $698, compared with $1,486 across the state.
More than a quarter of the population were marked as unemployed, compared with 6.3 per cent across the state.
Claymore is a suburb on the front line of a national concern.
According to the Australia Talks National Survey 2021, 76 per cent of us think Australia is doing poorly on the issue of housing affordability. Seventy-nine per cent think the wealth gap between rich and poor is too wide.
It’s a challenge for older residents to leave
Claymore wasn’t meant to end up as it has. It was built during a largely Commonwealth-funded post-war boom in public housing development that began in the 1940s.
The homes were designed for low-income families who might have struggled in the private market, but they were still seen as a mainstream option.
June Brown, 74, moved to Claymore with her late husband Fred 35 years ago.
“We put our name down for a Housing Commission house because we were in private rental, and then they offered us this place,” she said.
Just a week from the day she’s set to move out, her living room is scattered with moving boxes.
She’s in one of the streets next in line to be demolished, and her eyes well up at the thought of leaving the place she raised her two sons.
Her view, like many who moved in decades ago, is different to Frank’s. June has loved her home and community and the idea of leaving is sad and daunting.
“It’s been my home for 35 years,” she said.
“It’s a big, big wrench.”
It’s harder to get into social housing today
Claymore, finished in 1978, was one of the last estates of its kind. Not long after it was built, the federal money stopped flowing and the supply of housing stopped growing. But demand didn’t.
It became harder and harder for people to get into social housing, according to Jon Eastgate, who’s spent more than three decades working in social housing and now runs the social policy planning consultancy 99 Consulting.
“What happened was you got this bank of really high-need people, who were trying to get into that housing,” he said.
“State governments managed that over time by progressively tightening their eligibility criteria.”
Now, the general perception is public housing is only for the most marginalised, a view borne of the current reality.
“Even though very low-income workers technically might be eligible for [public housing], in practice, all the allocation of housing is done on a priority basis,” Mr Eastgate said.
Essentially, you must have significant needs to stand a hope of getting a place – experiencing domestic violence, disability or mental health issues. 51,395 people were on the waiting list in NSW at the end of June 2020.
A NSW government website shows how long it takes to be allocated a place in particular areas. In most cases, it’s five to 10 years.
‘My bathroom ceiling is caving in’
Heike Ignjatovic, 42, has been waiting to be relocated from her place in Claymore for 11 months.
She first moved in 20 years ago, homeless and eight months pregnant with her first son, and now lives there with her 11-year-old twin daughters.
Inside, it’s hard to believe this could be a home in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
“My bathroom ceiling’s caving in, my daughter’s bedroom ceiling’s caving in,” she said.
There are dozens of nails in the bathroom ceiling. Power points have been isolated – there’s so much water damage to the place that there would be a risk of electrocution if they were left live.
Heike’s daughter Jasmine and her partner Blake moved to Claymore nearly a year ago and live nearby with their eight-month-old, Lucas, and Jasmine’s brother.
They’ve been told their roof is unsafe because of water damage. The NSW Land and Housing Corporation have expedited Heike’s case and said they’re sending someone to look at Blake and Jasmine’s roof.
Footing the maintenance bill
Housing advocates slam the notion that the condition of many public housing dwellings is solely the tenants’ fault. They argue that much of the problem is driven by years of housing authorities deferring maintenance to try to rein in budgets.
The agency that manages the New South Wales public housing portfolio of 120,000 dwellings is the Land and Housing Corporation. Its maintenance budget is indeed eye-watering, partly because the housing stock – many a relic of that post-war boom – is ageing.
The corporation’s chief executive Mick Cassel said the organisation was working hard to maintain properties across the state.
“Every property that we have somebody living in needs to comply with the Residential Tenancy Act, same as a private landlord,” he said.
“We spend around a million dollars a day on maintenance, whether it’s fixing the toilet or the electrical wiring or the plumbing, or whether it’s putting new windows in a heritage building.”
Add to this a housing stock that is under-occupied – homes too big for the majority of today’s tenants’ needs – and housing authorities, not just in New South Wales, but across the country, face a tsunami of expensive issues and declining income.
The Land and Housing Corporation has to fund itself, through rent and land sales, with the occasional top-up from the treasury. But rental receipts are not what they used to be.
Mr Eastgate said because so few tenants now earn an income, all the corporation receives is a proportion of Centrelink payments.
“The value of money that they get from the treasuries, both Commonwealth and state, has stayed pretty much static. The amount of rent they get has gone down as their tenants become more disadvantaged, and the housing is getting older, so the maintenance has gone up,” he said.
“They have a big shortfall.”
Selling land can’t provide infinite revenue
Selling off land is a finite funding strategy but it can be lucrative. Perhaps most controversial in New South Wales was the $611-million sale of the Miller’s Point properties on Sydney Harbour.
In Claymore, land is being sold off too. In return, developers have to make the area higher density and build housing for both social housing and the private market.
Currently, there are 1,123 publicly owned dwellings there. When it’s finished, it’s expected to include 1,490 new homes, but 70 per cent will be sold off to the private market, and only 450 are expected to remain as public housing.
While Claymore will have fewer public houses, Mr Cassel said overall across NSW, the total stock will grow, if only slightly, and far short of the 5,000 additional units a year advocates like Shelter New South Wales are calling for.
“I think we’re starting on that trajectory of building more and more social housing,” he said.
“This year, whilst in the scheme of things it’s only a number of 300 [dwellings], that’s 300 that wouldn’t have existed if we didn’t start to push the boundaries on some of the models that we use to fund and drive up these types of options.”
Relocating can create anxiety, confusion for some
At the church-run Guardian Angel Preschool in Claymore, nominated supervisor Amanda Bain has witnessed the effects of the uncertainty families are living with.
“There’s a particular family at the moment who has received their letter to say that they will be leaving but still next door to them, there’s families moving back in,” she said.
Ms Bain said the mixed messages were causing upset and confusion. There’s also uncertainty around the future of the centre itself – the church doesn’t own the land and Ms Bain is worried the community could lose the service, which has tailored itself to suit the needs of the families.
“We are so blessed and so fortunate that these parents choose us to help them raise their children,” she said.
“The first five years of a child’s life is the make or break – it is the time where they learn to emotionally regulate, they learn to respect themselves and also others and we’re so blessed that we can share that with families.”
A glimpse at what happens after redevelopment
Urban renewal has changed numerous former public housing estates, including Minto, not far from Claymore. It’s now a “mixed-tenure” community, where the public housing is more or less indistinguishable from the privately owned homes.
Schoolteacher Muhammed Kharadi and his wife bought into the private market in Minto to be closer to their work in 2008, while the redevelopment was in its early stages. He says it’s transformed the place.
“The vibe overall is very positive and people want to move in,” he said.
“The shopping centre is thriving, it’s really buzzing – you can’t even find parking now. I remember that when I used to go to the shops it was deserted … it felt, like, haunted.”
NSW Housing Minister Melinda Pavey said Minto has been a great example of what could happen in Claymore.
“We had really good learnings out of Minto,” she said.
“When you see kids at school learning and thriving – it’s just so good. We had NAPLAN scores go off the Richter scale in Minto. You changed a suburb and you changed lives.”
Government denies the system is broken
Alongside housing affordability, Australia Talks data shows poverty is a big national concern. Eighty-five per cent of people surveyed think poverty’s a problem for the nation.
Mr Eastgate doesn’t think such concern is reflected in political will when it comes to the funding of public housing.
“There’s just not enough money in the system to sustain even what we have now, never mind to allow that to grow,” he said.
Privately, policymakers concede it’s broken.
“They’re having to engage in all sorts of strategies, which they wouldn’t necessarily do if they had plenty of money themselves, in order to just be able to come up with the money to get that housing renewed,” Mr Eastgate said.
Ms Pavey denies the system is broken.
“Not when we’ve increased the number of public housing by 10 per cent over the past 10 years. We’re actually moving forward,” she said.
Hal Pawson, an associate director at UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre, disagrees. While he concedes social housing grew from 2011 to 2020 by 8 per cent, he points out the population grew by 13 per cent.
Land and Housing’s Mr Cassel sees hope in super funds and other big investors backing the construction of affordable properties — they just need the confidence they’ll get the returns.
“They’ll start to drive more and more funding into that because you will get the land values that rise and are delivering the types of returns that super funds are happy with.”
Learning the lessons
While the redevelopment of Claymore is not without its bumps, the housing authorities are trying to show they’ve learnt the lessons from the disruption residents experienced in other renewal projects.
The redevelopment of Claymore is being staged, allowing consultation with residents and time to relocate them to a place of their choice. Some sections are already finished.
Neighbours Valda Fielding, Keith and Jeanette Webber and Yvonne Moss are thrilled with their new units. Keith, Jeannette and Yvonne first moved into Claymore nearly 40 years ago. All of them were relocated for nine years during construction, but they were set on returning to Claymore, a place and community they love and defend.
Yvonne didn’t even see the need for the redevelopment originally.
“I was quite happy because we moved [into our original places in Claymore when they were] brand new and we had our own little group,” she said.
“But I’m actually quite glad now that we have come back to units that really are purpose-built.”
It’s hoped current tenants won’t have to be dislocated as long as they were — the pace of development is ramping up because the state government injected an extra $75 million into the project as a COVID stimulus measure, expected to bring the completion date forward from 2032 to 2027.
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