Activists cease Glebe public housing occupation, citing success

Activists cease Glebe public housing occupation, citing success
Image: Activists out the front of 82 Wentworth Park Road, Glebe. Image: Wendy Bacon/supplied.


Residents and activists suspended yesterday their occupation of Glebe public housing, slated for demolition, following five consecutive nights of peaceful protest. Activists have now vacated the premises.

Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Kristin O’Connell said that the protest was “far more successful” than public housing advocates even expected.

The occupation has received significant media attention with mainstream media outlets such as Channel 10 and covering the protest.

While it was “a bit difficult at times” to engage the office of Housing Minister Rose Jackson, residents and activists received direct contact from the Housing Minister’s office and a pledge to not sell off and privatise the plot in question at 82 Wentworth Park Road, Glebe, despite early signs of Twitter diplomacy.

In the aftermath of the initial occupation, Housing Minister Rose Jackon posted on Twitter a screenshot from a Notes application outlining her expectations for 82 Wentworth Park Road. One activist labelled this process “crazy” online and “notes app policy”. Minister Jackon’s Twitter pledge indicated there will be “no privatisation” and “100% owned and managed public housing.”

In a statement to City Hub, the Housing Minister declared “the NSW Government is considering all options to deliver an increase of 100% government owned and operated public housing and will announce our path forward soon.”

The statement suggests the current building at 82 Wentworth Park Road will not be demolished.

“Our priority is to minimise disruption for the current few residents… If any redevelopment does proceed, no resident will be evicted.”

Public housing advocates have welcomed the pledge with cautious optimism. “It looks like there is the possibility of change,” O’Connell said.

“We want the minister to continue working with people and listening and responding and to abandon this plan [for demolition and redevelopment]. If we don’t see that change, we will be back.”

Protester demands 

At a press conference and public speak-out yesterday, Carolyn Ienna, a 30-year resident and Wiradjuri person at 82 Wentworth Park Road, stated that affordable and community housing, which is distinct from public housing, is a “privatisation monster”.

Ienna emphasised the overall structural integrity of the building, stating that demolition is not necessary.

Resident Irma Cortez, one of the three remaining tenants alongside Ienna, also expressed confusion over the reasoning behind the proposed demolition in the development application. “This building is safe enough to be here for at least another 30 years if they were to do the proper maintenance that a building requires to be in good condition for people to live in”, she said.

“When you’re moving elderly people around like jigsaw puzzles, not knowing what’s waiting for them in the new homes, it’s all confronting.”

Refurbishment – a cheaper alternative – and the construction of extra homes in available space on the property such as the under-utilised car park appears to be the preference among activists and residents.

“But that doesn’t have to be the only way forward for this,” O’Connell said. “There are so many options.”

The activist groups involved in the occupation – Action for Public Housing, the Antipoverty Centre and the Wentworth Park Occupation Committee – not only want the empty dwellings at 82 Wentworth Park Road filled immediately and end to evictions for current tenants.

They want public housing to be included in the redevelopment application for the nearby Sydney Fish Market site, the construction of new public homes on government-owned land and further government acquisition of land for public housing amid Sydney’s housing crisis.

According to The Guardian’s recently-released gentrification index, which is based on data from the Australian Urban Observatory, both Glebe and Forest Lodge fall into the most severe category for gentrification – “advanced exclusive”. This ranking means that the neighbouring suburbs are “largely exclusive to high income households.”

Activist groups including Hands Off Glebe have supported the occupation. Image: Hands Off Glebe/Facebook.

Police interactions

Interactions with police and security personnel were “neutral or positive” throughout the occupation, O’Connell explained, stating that the minimisation of aggression “heartened” the squatters who expected violence. “We were expecting to get physically dragged out of there pretty quickly.”

“We were very careful. We had clear protocols in place to make sure we were pleasant and polite and de-escalating at all times.”

Protestors did not damage the property. But, according to O’Connell, they endured “a large amount of surveillance”.

“The Land and Housing Corporation and the Department of Communities and Justice sent people through multiple times,” O’Connell said.

And according to O’Connell, staff from a private security firm contracted to government visited the premises “fairly regularly”, disrupting sleep.

“For several nights in a row they would come through at 8 PM, 1 AM, 3 AM, 8 AM, really constant, even though we were there to protect and defend the building and not damage it.”

O’Connell said, “they were sending maintenance people on site which the department is usually not great at doing when people actually want maintenance.”

While Ienna and Cortez both believe that the building is in good condition, Ienna stated in the press conference yesterday that maintenance usually only occurred when she took the Department of Communities and Justice to a tribunal. Ienna cited the gutters as an example.

““The gutters were only cleaned three times in 30 years,” Ienna said to cries of “shame” from the crowd.

“They replaced the gutters 2 years ago and they [the gutters] haven’t been cleaned since then so there are trees growing out of them again.”

According to O’Connell, constant police supervision meant tension was ever-present, “the cops made a couple of direct visits but we observed on multiple occasions plain vehicle cops across the road sitting there and monitoring the situation. That does give you a feeling of tension.”

Community backs the occupation

The occupation received widespread community support. Deputy Mayor for the City of Sydney and Greens Councillor Sylvie Ellsmore, who has spoken at Wentworth Park press conferences during the occupation, told City Hub there was “such a strong response from everybody to this occupation.”

“I don’t know if that would have happened five or ten years ago. But community attitudes to public housing have shifted,” she said.

Throughout the campaign, rank-and-file union members, locals, students and members of resident actions groups have partook in the occupation, delivered food, donated household items and spoken at press conferences.

Both Ienna and Cortez have expressed gratitude for the solidarity and sense of community the direct action fostered in an otherwise fractured space, O’Connell stating “all of us were really surprised how quickly we all formed such strong bonds and friendships.”

In Ienna’s words: “I’m already missing everyone who was here for the occupation. I got so used to the conversation and ability for everybody to question the system, not accept what’s dished out to us… It’s like it was replacing a community I had lost because of all the people that have died or left the building. People coming here, and people that cared, it’s made a lot of difference.”

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