The controversial redevelopment of the Block in Redfern is now set to include a higher student accommodation tower, while there’s no funding whatsoever for the proposed affordable housing units for Aboriginal families.
A NSW Department of Planning and Environment report released last month makes clear that “there is currently no restriction on title guaranteeing the 62 dwellings… being provided as affordable housing” for local Indigenous people.
The report also outlines that the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC), the owner of the site, is not a registered community housing provider, and nor has any other housing provider been nominated as part of the development, known as the Pemulwuy Project.
Securing the affordable housing precinct of the development for local First Nations peoples was the reason the members of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy camped out at the site for a fifteen month period ending in August 2015.
As the protest action was coming to an end, Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion offered a $5 million grant to secure a loan to guarantee the affordable housing component of the project. However, the minister’s office recently confirmed the AHC didn’t accept the offer.
And now, it’s proposed that the student accommodation tower will be increased to 24 storeys with the capacity to hold close to 600 students. This is following an earlier revision last year that saw the tower increased from six to 16 storeys and the population broadened from 150 students to 500.
“The demise of the black heart of Sydney”
Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy leader Jenny Munro recalled that the AHC knocked back the offer of the affordable housing grant the day after it was made. “It was never their intention to take the $5 million from the government because that would have brought scrutiny of their books.”
The Wiradjuri elder explained that in the area where the Block is situated, the present planning laws don’t allow for buildings as high as 24 storeys. So, the AHC and developer Deicorp have requested an exemption from the Department of Planning.
The NSW Heritage Council has raised concerns about the height of the building in comparison with those surrounding it. It states that the tower should be no higher than the currently approved eight storeys. And further the design should draw on the aesthetics of those buildings already in the area.
In its assessment of the project modifications, the planning department states the height and density are acceptable, and it would have negligible amenity and traffic impacts. It further concludes that the proposal is in the public interest and is approvable.
“This process that we are going through now is the final nail in the coffin for our community,” Ms Munro told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. “There will be no visible black community.” She added that she believes new plans will eventually be developed for the area currently slated for affordable housing.
The Tent Embassy
One of the founding members of the AHC, Ms Munro launched the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy action on National Sorry Day, 26 May 2014. The group of activists camped on the Block for over a year to ensure construction didn’t begin without provisions for the affordable housing.
At the time, the $70 million Pemulwuy project had the financial backing for the student accommodation tower and the commercial precinct components of the development. But, there was no guaranteed funding for the housing.
In late August 2015, the NSW Supreme Court ruled in favour of the AHC and evicted the members of the tent embassy from the Block. It was on the following day that the federal government offered the funding grant for the affordable housing that was subsequently turned down.
A further dispossession
“It’s a betrayal of our people. It’s a betrayal of the people that fought so hard to get that block. It’s a betrayal of the community,” Ms Munro made clear. “When it was first established, the Block was a safe place for all of our community.”
Kaye Bellear and her late husband Bob – the first Aboriginal judge in Australia – were integral in the establishment of the AHC. Ms Bellear explained in 2014 that the Block was “the first land owned freehold by any Aboriginal community in the country” following British takeover.
A committee of local Aboriginal activists established the AHC in 1973, after the Whitlam government provided them with a grant to provide low-income housing on the Block for local Indigenous people. This followed the arrest of 15 Aboriginal men by Redfern police for occupying vacant terrace houses.
The committee was initially given permission to restore two vacant terraces at the site and this was eventually extended to 41 houses. However, the area eventually fell into disrepute and by the early 2000s, the AHC began tearing down the houses. The last remaining tenant was evicted in 2011.
And a further affront to the local community is the naming of the project after renowned Bidjigal warrior Pemulwuy, who fought a 12-year guerrilla war against the British along the Hawkesbury River and also in the Parramatta region.
Boycotting Rock the Block
The Aboriginal Housing Company is presenting the Rock the Block festival at the site on 24 November. The event comprises of a large line-up of Aboriginal performers. Members of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy are calling on people and performers to boycott the event.
Ms Munro explained that the housing company is promoting the event as an opportunity for locals to meet and share the atmosphere at the Block before the bulldozers move in and the redevelopment gets underway.
“The housing will not be built. They’re not worried about the housing component,” Ms Munro concluded. “They’re telling particular people in the community that they are, but the evidence, if you look at it, is simply not there.”
The Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy is urging people to submit comments to the NSW Independent Planning Commission about their disapproval of the project and the tower with its increased height. The period for public comments has been extended until 29 November.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.