Senin, 19 September 2011

Falling down in the best part of town

We make it a rule to stay away from the property pornography in the weekend Herald, but this story of a couple taking on a 'renovator's delight' in Millers Point caught our attention. The property in question is one of many historic buildings in the area owned by Housing NSW, having previously been owned by the Maritime Services Board and, before that, by the Sydney Harbour Commissioners, who resumed the area upon an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1903. Now these old buildings are being sold on 99-year leases*, with heritage conservation plans attached, to persons of means.

(Millers Point)

The sales started a couple of years ago, with 16 vacant properties put on the auctioneer's block. Now another 20 properties are to go. We don't mean to knock the new residents, but we have to admit to feeling uneasy and sad about what these sales mean for Millers Point.

We can understand Housing NSW's position. The houses are old and in need of repair. (We should know: until a few years ago, the Tenants' Union had its office in a terrace house on Bettington Street, Millers Point, and it was falling to bits. When the floor gave out under our litigation solicitor, it was time to go.) They are also historically significant, which makes the repair work very expensive.

So it would be costly to keep them... and letting them go to the bourgeoisie is proving to be lucrative. The house in the article went for $1.75 million. Last month another went for $1.25 million, and another for $980 000 – so far, $34 million has been raised, with which Housing NSW has purchased additional properties for public housing in the inner west.

But.... the decision to go further than the initial 16 properties rankles. It also makes Housing NSW's assurances that only vacant properties will be sold off less than completely comforting, particularly to public housing tenants at Millers Point. These people feel acutely the calculating gaze of Housing NSW's bean counters – and that of the media's self-appointed custodians of the public interest – and consequently enjoy less real security and peace of mind than they deserve.

It also seems a poor return for what public housing has done for the area. Sure, the buildings need repair; but the fabric of the area as a whole is a rare marvel. Walk up from the Quay: when you step out from the shade of the Argyle Cut, everything slows down; the residential streets and lanes are beautifully quiet. You can spend an afternoon walking through the history of inner Sydney: grand Georgian houses, Victorian terraces, working-class walk-up flats and boarding houses; the Observatory; the pubs and wharves and the sandstone cliff of the Hungry Mile; the Harbour Bridge.

Now, with the wharves being redeveloped as the Barangaroo parklands/office/floating hotel precinct, and the old houses being auctioned off, Millers Point is on the National Trust's 'heritage at risk' list. Intentionally or not, public housing helped keep Millers Point as it is. And we'd like to see it kept as public housing, with specific funds from the State's consolidated revenues for the repair and conservation of its heritage value.

* Why 99-year leases? According to community sector oral history, the resumption and redevelopment of the area has left the titles in a mess. More reliable explanations and evidence gratefully received.