A loss of place

24 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020, Aboriginal Issues, Public Housing, Public Housing - Waterloo, Social Housing,

The social housing residents of the Waterloo estate have been promised that they will be rehoused once it is redeveloped. But, as Laura Wynne and Dallas Rogers discuss, an absence of physical relocation does not equate to an absence of displacement. 

Waterloo has a long history of displacement and upheaval. The area is home to the Aboriginal people of the Gadigal clan of the Eora Nation. The Gadi clan — whose land stretched from Burrawurra (Sydney Harbour’s South Head) west to Blackwattle Creek — maintained the land through burnings and the maintenance of paths throughout their country.

After the European invasion and the displacement of the Gadigal people from their land, Boxley’s Clear — as Redfern was known in the early 1800s — continued to have importance as a meeting point for dispersed members of the Gadigal people and of their neighbouring clans. Eventually, however, European settlers became intolerant of their presence and the Gadigal were moved on to Waterloo, Alexandria, and beyond. Aboriginal connection with Waterloo did not cease with European settlement, and an Aboriginal community continues to live and work in the area. Waterloo and Redfern remain a centre of major cultural and political significance to the Aboriginal community.

In the 1930s, governments were lobbied by town planning activists and social reformers to implement slum clearance measures. The overcrowded, poorly maintained, and inadequate housing of the inner city was thought to be a threat to both moral and sanitary hygiene, and thus was determined to require demolition and rebuilding. Many residents were displaced farther west to suburban Sydney, and many were never given the opportunity to return to their former neighbourhood.

The NSW government continued redeveloping land around Redfern-Waterloo until the 1970s, by which time a large public housing estate comprising both low- and high-rise apartment buildings had been constructed. It is these homes — 2,200 public housing dwellings — that are now subject to a redevelopment project.

The project is framed by the government as an “exciting” opportunity to build a “dynamic new community”. The government labels the project a “revitalisation project”, and invokes an idea of the public interest to justify the redevelopment, arguing that value capture from the new private developments on site will allow a boost in affordable housing supply. Residents have been promised that they will not be forced to leave the estate in the long term and that all who wish to be will eventually be rehoused on site, although some may need to be temporarily relocated throughout the development process.

Some residents of Waterloo reported that the prospect of moving within their neighbourhood — from their existing apartment or building to a new or different one — was felt by them to be a form of displacement. When told that tenants “will not be made homeless” by the redevelopment, Catriona, a long-term resident, responded: “Yes, but we don’t know where [home] is going to be.” For Catriona, a move within her neighbourhood
would be experienced as loss of home — despite not being made homeless. When a government representative told residents that “no one will need to leave the estate”, another resident responded, “Yes, but the area will be completely different.” One resident, Robert, felt that, “The moment the first building is knocked down, this community will be non-existent anymore.”

The Waterloo estate will undergo substantial alteration as buildings are demolished and new structures are built. This transformation is not inconsequential for the incumbent residents, whose attachment to this place is at least in part linked to its symbolic significance as a place designed specifically to shelter those in society most in need. Catriona notes that, “Matavai and Turanga [towers] are models of their kind, they embody a vision for society; we might lose their legacy [if they are demolished].” The symbolism of these buildings — purpose-built in a time of more government support for the poor and disadvantaged in the interest of social citizenship — is important for residents, many of whom feel connected, not just to the buildings, but to what they represent.

Residents’ responses to the wholesale transformation of the estate point to an experience of loss of place despite staying put. The area within the boundaries of the estate is expected to house around 10,000 people when the redevelopment is finalised — a significant increase on the current population of roughly 4,400 people. Enormous spatial upheaval will be required to transform the site, likely rendering the area unrecognisable. Residents fear that they will find themselves out of place in the newly developed space — despite remaining physically in place.

The government’s initial indication for the completion of the redevelopment was 15–20 years. Initially, thanks to unclear wording around a “right to return”, residents were given the impression they might have to move away for the duration of the redevelopment. Further, the initial letter received by residents from the Department of Family and Community Services (now renamed Department of Communities and Justice) indicated that relocations of tenants would begin in mid-2017. No plans for relocation have yet been shared with tenants, indicating that — at the time of writing in 2020 — the residents are still some way from having certainty around relocation timeframes.

The long timeframe may mean that many residents will never see the end of the redevelopment. Bill, an older tenant representative, is concerned that, “If older people have to move from the estate they will never come back.” The long timeframes do not fit with people’s ability to imagine and understand their own lives, leading to a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety, particularly among older residents who fear they will live their final decades in uncertain circumstances.  Further, these long timeframes represent ongoing, protracted struggles that may cause chronic urban trauma, a slow violence inflicted over the long term.

Timeline uncertainty is a key problem in this experience of displacement for residents and there are several facets to this temporal uncertainty: there is a lack of clarity about when relocations will start and when the redevelopment will be finished. Temporal uncertainty appears to add to the experience of alienation from place —attachments are, in a way, put on hold, and residents appear afraid to act in certain ways because of uncertainty over the duration of their stay.

Valerie, a tenant representative, talks about the impact of the uncertainty on the residents: “I’ve got people coming up to me asking if they should paint their apartment, but they don’t know how long they’re going to be here for. People have so many questions. I don’t have the answers. People just want to know how long they’ll be here for. It’s very hard, facing this and not knowing when you’ll need to move.” Residents feel an inability to
plan for the maintenance and upkeep of their homes. They remain unsure about whether to invest energy, time, and emotional resources into maintaining home places and their relationship to them.

There are also concerns among residents about the post-redevelopment situation, including the formation of new community and social ties. Incumbent residents are concerned that newcomers will not have the same long-term commitments to place that they have. Corinne says of these newcomers: “They’ll all be rich international students; the students will never be part of the community — they’re temporary.”

The estate renewal policies being implemented across NSW involve explicit plans to improve social mix, creating “new mixed communities” through bringing more professionals and middle-class families to the area. The government has indicated its intention to secure a 70:30 ratio of private to social housing on the estate, indicating that social housing residents will be greatly outnumbered on the new estate and that a large number of newcomers is likely. Wholesale sociocultural upheaval is not, then, an unintended side-effect but rather the very point of the estate redevelopment at Waterloo.

A particular concern exists among the local Aboriginal community for the loss or fragmentation of their community. The local Aboriginal community has undergone several successive displacements from the Redfern- Waterloo area. This ongoing pattern of displacements might best be described as serial displacement and it is certainly a product of the Australian manifestation of racial capitalism.

Contemporary urban housing struggles are understood by many Aboriginal community members as an ongoing pattern of upheaval and displacement, colonisation and dispossession. The redevelopment is understood by the local Aboriginal community as another step in the systematic dispossession of their land and violence against their people: “They [the government] are subsuming our community, this is ethnic cleansing,” said Cathy. “They’re bringing the ethnic cleansing down here [to Waterloo]”. There exists a concern that the large influx of new residents will provide a means to transform the local Aboriginal community into a tiny minority with little voice or influence: “At this rate, students will outnumber community members,” said Cathy. “When I moved to Redfern in the 1970s there were 40,000 [Aboriginal] community members here, now there are 200 of us left.”

Residents of public housing estates are often engaged in a “shared project of living” — a common experience of “getting by” — that would be disrupted if the residents were relocated to dispersed housing units across the city.
Residents of Waterloo have expressed concern that the new households — who will be owner-occupiers or private rental tenants — will not become part of the Waterloo community. Concerns abound regarding whether maintenance of their community will be possible once residents are living in a “new mixed community”.

Cathy notes that people have grown accustomed to living in the Waterloo community, and that the community is very tolerant of its members: “This is a unique place, there’s nowhere else like this. We live together quite harmoniously compared to other places.” Incumbent residents are concerned that new members of the community might look down on social housing residents or might be intolerant of their behaviour, making it difficult for residents to continue their cultural and social practices.

Residents see the neighbourhood change as a sign that they, being poor and disadvantaged, are the subject of a policy that aims to minimise their presence in the neighbourhood through dilution — such that in addition to claims of “ethnic cleansing”, they feel the redevelopment is an attempt to reduce them to a minority or remove them from the area altogether. In the minds of residents such as Hannah, this is experienced as an assault on their community identity: “[This redevelopment is] slum clearance — we’re to be cleansed by living next to yuppies.”

Residents are also concerned about the economic transformation of the area, including a shift in the types of local businesses in the area. Changes in businesses will likely have implications for the affordability of the area as well as the distance residents will have to travel to access key services — in particular free or affordable medical care, mental healthcare, and pharmaceuticals. In Waterloo, as Corinne notes, “Services are targeted to areas on the basis of high need, but Waterloo won’t be ‘high needs’ any more after the redevelopment, so the funding will go elsewhere, and we won’t have the services we need.”

The experience of residents in Waterloo should serve as a reminder to urban scholars examining urbanisation and renewal processes to incorporate a nuanced understanding of time, space, and place as we consider eviction and displacement in the global city. An absence of physical relocation from a neighbourhood does not equate to an absence of displacement. We need to think about how the people of our cities — and especially the most vulnerable in our cities — will or will not adapt to this change. Indeed, some of the most vulnerable in our cities may not have the skills, knowledge, capacities, or resources to adapt. Should we simply leave them to the highly classed and racialised, neoliberal forces of the city? Or do we need to create a new structural context within which every member of our communities can deal with the transformation of our cities?

Laura Wynne is a senior research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Dallas Rogers is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. This is an edited extract from a paper entitled Emplaced Displacement and Public Housing Redevelopment: From Physical Displacement to Social, Cultural, and Economic Replacement