Redevelopment of public housing in NSW is not new. While the proposed redevelopments of Waterloo and Ivanhoe might be high-rise, public housing communities can learn a lot from what has happened in earlier estate renewals. Julie Foreman spoke to Robyn Stafford about her experience at Minto.

MorethanbricksandmortarTell me about Minto?

I love the Minto Community. The public housing community of Minto has gone as most of the original tenants have moved on. Some of the families went before the redevelopment and have bought their own places. I worked at the Post Office in Minto Mall until I retired 11 years ago so I am lucky that I knew, and still do, people from every area. Minto is a very diverse community. We have the rich, the poor, the in-betweens (young families trying to make a living and buying their own homes). It is also very multicultural with people from many nations living in our midst.

As part of the renewal I was moved over to Campbelltown for six years. I was lucky enough to be successful in the housing ballot and came back to a brand-new two-bedroom home in 2011. To be honest I am not that fussed about living where I do – once I put my car in the garage nobody would even know you’re here. I say hello to neighbours but don’t really know them. The fences are so high you can’t even be sociable over the back fence. This is different to when I lived in Minto before the redevelopment.

How did you find out about the redevelopment of Minto? How long was it expected to take?

I actually found out about the redevelopment on the 6pm news on TV on 29 May 2002 … I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Yes, parts of Minto did need attention, but it was not a ghetto. I had recently had my townhouse inspected and I was to have some work done and an upgrade of my kitchen so for that, I was excited. Officially I received my notification from Housing NSW the following day via a letterbox drop.

The redevelopment was expected to take about 10 years initially, but there were four Housing Ministers before the masterplan was even signed. After the masterplan was approved the completion time was put back till 2015 and now that has been extended till the end of this year (2016).

The plans have continued to change. At first we were informed that there would be no three bedroom homes built and instead we were to get 104 two bedroom homes and 120 senior / over 55s units. That changed too – the two bedroom stand-alone houses were not viable, so now three bedroom cottages are being built on the remaining lots. The small units have generated issues, which are caused by living so closely together without the necessary government or community supports. You can’t just throw people together – especially when some have complex needs – and expect a community to form.

What was the impact of the redevelopment on the community and on you?

We were devastated and watched in awe at the speed that the first lot of residents were moved out. People were wandering around bewildered. The lack of information and understanding led to fear and stress and if I am honest, led me to take early retirement. Some people took the opportunity to move to coastal areas and we were all told we could come back. Those who wished could put their names on a return to Minto list.

Apart from our own individual stories there was the bigger picture. Due to dislocation and the population dropping the schools in our area lost services – they have picked up again now – and our shopping mall went downhill badly. At times it was like living on a building site, and many friends moved away. It was hard to believe that 800 people were going to be dislocated and no social impact study was going to be undertaken. Gradually things have improved again.

During the difficult times community members met together, and did their best to keep each other informed and supported. Not long after the announcement the Minto Residents Action Group (RAG) formed. We worked alongside non-government organisations (NGOs) like St. Vincent de Paul Animation Project, South Western Regional Tenants Association, Shelter NSW and too many more to name individually. Along with these NGOs, residents and the wonderful Franciscan Friars who lived within our community, the Macarthur Housing Coalition was formed and we were successful in lobbying Housing NSW for an independent Tenant Advocate. Together these groups and Housing NSW came up with guidelines that have been used in a lot of the estates that are undergoing renewal.

RonynquoteWhat advice would you give to decision-makers who are embarking on new redevelopment projects?

COMMUNICATION – Talk to the people it mostly impacts on. Don’t be afraid of them or their ideas and concerns.

SHOW COMPASSION – How would you feel if you were uprooted from your home with no real control over the time to move and where to move to?

Some practical things to think about:

  • Have alternative accommodation ready for the elderly so people do not have to move twice.
  • Ask who wants to move and start with them first.
  • Keep residents informed and updated on plans.
  • Come up with a different solution for single unit complexes. Without the right supports young people with mental health issues and the elderly do not mix.
  • Make sure there are community facilities such as parks, community centres and meeting rooms available in unit complexes.
  • Try not to move the elderly as most have lived in their places for years and raised families there, so it is the family home. When implementing a redevelopment project try to understand that when older, long-term tenants were originally allocated their house they were told it was for life to “treat it like your own”. They put in their own floor coverings, blinds, fans and air conditioners. Some even put up side fences and sowed the seed for their lawns. Their heart and soul has gone into their family home.

What tips would you give tenants about to go through something similar?

My tips for anyone that may experience the trauma of moving within the public housing system.

  • Do not talk to relocation officers on your own.
  • Look around you – what do you have that you would like in your new place? Things like screen doors and window security locks are not always guaranteed.
  • Make a list – NEGOTIATE.
  • Have you purchased your own ceiling fans or air conditioner – did you have permission to install them? Even if you haven’t – do you have receipts from an authorised installer? These can be relocated with you or you may get new ones.
  • These days Housing try to match your needs to a house so make sure they know your needs – doctors, hospital, public transport, shopping and family.
  • Get medical certificates from your doctors to confirm your needs.
  • When you go to look at a new place, take someone with you – check each room for adequate power points – negotiate.
  • Write a list of everyone who needs to be updated with your new address (this can be a very big job).
  • Remember you are not alone; seek support from organisations and your community. Ask questions and negotiate.
  • Be warned a lot of people get letters of termination and rental arrears when they are relocated. These need to be dealt with straight away and most are human error – like a relocation officer not pressing a button to finish off your account at the address you moved out of.
  • Remember you are entitled to two weeks rent credited to your new account while you are moving.

Julie Foreman is the Executive Officer of the Tenants’ Union NSW. This is an edited version of the interview that appeared in Tenants News in March 2016. The full article can be seen here