How Should We Tackle Crime in Public Housing?

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Drug dealing, domestic violence, malicious damage – public housing estates have always had a reputation for being hotspots for criminal activity, and over the years a multitude of proposals have been implemented in an attempt to address these issues, with limited success.

The prevalence of crime and antisocial behaviour in public housing is often attributed to the concentration of socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, many of whom struggle with problems such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues and unemployment.

These issues, coupled with negative public perceptions of housing commission estates, has seen police target residents in a bid to reduce crime and alleviate the concerns of residents in neighbouring properties, who often lodge complaints about antisocial behaviour, theft and domestic violence.

As such, police cars and foot patrols have become a common fixture in the streets surrounding these complexes, with their presence often inciting violent clashes with residents who may have unfavourable views of police.

But what should be done to tackle crime in public housing and promote a safe and secure environment?

Ideas that have been put forth

Effectively addressing crime in such areas is a complex issue, with many competing interests at play.

On the one hand, surrounding residents argue that they should be allowed to live and raise their children in a safe environment free of crime, and many support an increased police presence or even the eviction of problem tenants.

But on the other hand, experts caution against stigmatising public housing residents and further disadvantaging already vulnerable people, especially when many of them have young families.

Evicting troublemakers

In September 2014, it was announced that the NSW Government was considering introducing strict measures which would see those convicted of serious criminal offences being denied accommodation in public housing.

The announcement was made in response to public outcry over several decisions which allowed convicted criminals to continue residing in housing commission estates, despite tenancy agreements prohibiting the use of property for criminal purposes such as drug supply.

In one case, the Land and Housing Corporation sought to evict a Redfern man who admitted to selling ice and cannabis from his taxpayer-funded apartment, but a ruling by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) allowed him to stay.

Following the decision, Community Services Minister Gabrielle Upton called on the government to remove the power of NCAT to make decisions regarding eviction where serious crimes have been committed.

Those in support of this approach argue that evicting problem residents would open the door to more ‘worthy’ residents. They point out that the waiting list for public housing is currently around 58,000 applicants – many of whom are elderly or disabled.

Others say that allowing convicted criminals to live in housing commission properties is an improper use of taxpayer money.

But while eviction may seem like a quick-fix, there may be long term consequences for the community as a whole.

For one, it would simply drive these people out onto the streets, where they may turn to petty theft, drug dealing and other criminal activity.

Such a move also has the potential to negatively impact children and other family members who may reside with these people. With nowhere to live, these people face the instability of crisis accommodation and homelessness, leading to mental and physical health issues or drug and alcohol addiction.

Transforming public housing

Yet another proposal is to demolish dated and derelict public housing buildings and replace them with new and updated facilities.

Those backing such plans argue they will offer disadvantaged residents access to better facilities whilst reducing the high cost of maintenance and repairs often associated with older buildings.

The government also believes that existing tenants would benefit from being relocated to areas which are more accessible by public transport.

It is also hoped that such an approach would overcome issues associated with public housing ‘ghettos’ by spreading residents out, rather than concentrating them in a single area.

But the move has made many existing tenants angry at the prospect of being displaced from communities they have lived in for years.

Residents of historic Miller’s Point are outraged at the state government’s decision to sell the estate to property redevelopers, who are expected to build multi-million dollar residences in its place.

Existing tenants will be turfed out to the suburbs – or even country towns as far away as Dubbo and Tweed Heads.

Long-term residents say that this move will destroy the sense of community, with many currently living alongside neighbours who they have known since birth.

But the government says that the multi-million dollar sell-off is necessary to inject cash into the public housing system, which will in turn be used to build new facilities and reduce the public housing shortage.

An integrated approach

In a notorious housing commission estate in Newcastle, police and government authorities have trialled a new approach to tackling high crime rates which is proving successful thus far.

The Hamilton South public housing estate is home to 1055 residents who comprise less than 1% of Newcastle’s population. Twenty per cent of the city’s crime is linked to the complex.

In November last year, a co-ordinated initiative was implemented involving the police and social services organisations such as the department of housing, mental health services and Centrelink. The program seeks to move away from ‘cracking down on crime’, instead implementing a co-operative strategy known as ‘place policing’.

Working with residents and government agencies has had positive results, with police saying that the reporting of crime had increased, while housing estate residents had benefitted from increased support from community services.

And, in a move that will likely be welcomed by housing estate residents as well as members of the general community, the Minister for Family and Community Services and Social Housing, Brad Hazzard, has indicated that the strategy may soon be rolled out across the state.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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