Estate renewal and housing mix is portrayed by government as a fix-all for public housing estates. Geoff Turnbull asks can new buildings alone really address the problems created when government places people with higher and higher needs into public housing without the wrap around human services necessary for them to keep their tenancies and address their issues.


Public housing started out as workers’ housing. Early public tenants had to prove their house keeping skills were good enough to look after public housing and that they had a steady job to pay the rent. While some now elderly tenants came in to public housing on this basis, those entering public / social housing now do so on a very different basis.

When public housing construction did not keep up with demand, it started being allocated on the basis of need. While once everyone worked, this is now the exception. The waiting list of eligible people blows out as those with greatest need get priority access to scarce public housing.

Today’s public tenants now have greater need for human services. Issues of aging and failing health face older public tenants. The issues for many of the new priority tenants are often complex and multifaceted. Alcohol and other drugs, mental health, domestic violence, homelessness, disability, trauma and institutionalisation in the prison system.

The human service needs of both groups require an integrated / wrap around approach that Redfern, Waterloo and Glebe groups have been requesting for a long time. Without a holistic approach for example, people with drug and psychiatric issues are pushed back and forwards between specialised drug, psychiatric and family agencies.

The failure of governments to adopt all the 1983 Richmond Report recommendations to provide de-institutionalised alternatives for the “psychiatrically ill and developmentally disabled”; the lack of resources for mental health; alcohol and other drugs support; and the lack of rehabilitation in prisons, all leave public housing bearing the externalised consequences of policy decisions in other parts of government, without the resources to address the issues that impact on those they are expected to house.

The 2016 FACS Housing NSW Future Directions policy proposes “’wrap-around’ services to support tenants build their capabilities and take advantage of the economic opportunities”. Hopefully it will produce better results at a local level than previous human service government agreements. Crucial to the success of “wrap-around” services, be it one stop shops or other ways of delivering services, are mechanisms for front line workers and NGOs to identify and report the lack of integration being experienced by their clients and to have those problems addressed. Local services have proposed a mechanism for this.

The Future Directions suggestion to place a referral role in the new community housing approach will be no more successful than current referrals unless there is funding to increase delivery capacity for services when they are required.

As someone dies or exits public housing when they gain employment they will likely be replaced by a person or family with similar or higher needs, so it has the effect of further concentrating the disadvantage in public housing rather than addressing it.

One of the concerns for agency workers is that while tenants must establish evidence of high need to be allocated priority housing, there is no follow through to ensure that ongoing support is being accessed or that complex diagnoses are being case managed.

So some tenants create problems for their neighbours by exhibiting anti-social behaviour and have difficulty keeping their tenancy. Neighbours have an entitlement to “quiet enjoyment” of their homes which may not be possible if their neighbour is going through an episode of psychiatric illness or drug, alcohol or violence issues.

The problematic behaviour that governments are seeking to address by estate redevelopment is a consequence of the housing and allocation policies of successive governments and the failure to fund sufficient human service support to the tenants they allocate to, and concentrate in, public housing.

Given all of the above, what happens in human service delivery becomes crucial, both for those with human service needs and their neighbours. In private complexes like Meriton, residents also experience anti-social behaviour. Tenure mix will bring additional issues and service needs. Without the human services aspects being addressed we will not only see the current problems being carried over into new buildings, but due to the higher density housing, the consequences of any psychiatric or drug or alcohol event is likely to impact on far more people. Even if they have experience of bad behaviour in private developments, it is unlikely that private owners or renters will tolerate the level of behaviour FACS Housing have expected its tenants to tolerate.

A mixed tenure redevelopment with all those high income private owners and renters in the same area as public housing tenants with high needs will mean on average that the statistics will appear greatly improved. On the flip side it will be much more difficult for agencies to make the case to fund services for the less statistically visible part of the community with high needs that remains. Less land owned by government may also mean it is more difficult to find space to provide new services as they become needed.

The success of any redevelopment will be dependent on significant human service improvements for the public tenants. Agencies argue that if support systems for public tenants worked properly a lot of the pressure to renew public housing to “fix the problems” would not exist. Rolling out robust human services support in both Redfern and Waterloo estates prior to, during and after the Waterloo redevelopment would provide an opportunity to compare how human service improvements alone compare with estate renewal to address estate and tenants’ issues.

The final part of the human service – development picture is that redevelopment creates new human service problems and brings to light issues that are hidden from services.

Currently, for example, local community centres are not funded to deal with most of the public housing community who walk through their doors. They are funded by the state for families with children, but not to deal with older tenants or those with high needs where funding has moved to individualised federal packages that do not contribute to such local community wide services. The Waterloo announcement has already created an increase of walk-ins to community centres by anxious tenants. This will significantly ramp up as people see plans for areas where their homes currently sit and as they face their relocations.

As FACS starts to knock on doors it will begin to uncover issues that it was not aware of, like tenants with restricted sight being able to operate around their own home but not being able to cope with a new environment, or people with dementia who have reverted to their birth language and cope only because their existing neighbours come from the same language group.

The Millers Point relocations highlighted that many people survived outside the formal health system because of social networks which were fractured during relocation. At the centre of the human services re-development issue is that redevelopments break community cohesion and support networks. The informal supports people have relied on are often no longer accessible, resulting in an increased demand for government funded services. This is the reason why minimising the disruption of communities during redevelopment should be a priority for government and service providers.

Usually the increased human service demands around redevelopment are only handled short term when people are relocated during building. Long term issues of providing support for people dislocated from their community, re-establishing supportive communities and supporting people with high needs in new public / community housing, are challenges the government often does not address. However, without such human service support constructing new buildings will not lead to the promised improvements for tenants and their neighbours.

Geoff Turnbull is Co-Editor of Inner Sydney Voice Magazine and the Treasurer of Counterpoint Community Services.