‘They’ll have to carry me out’: The residents fighting to save their public housing estate

‘They’ll have to carry me out’: The residents fighting to save their public housing estate

March 19, 2023

Three months before bulldozers move in to demolish her home, 68-year-old Margaret Kelly is digging in.

“They’ll have to carry me out,” she said on Friday.

Margaret Kelly (right), with friend and supporter Lyn Dixon, says she won’t leave her home.Credit:Wayne Taylor

For the past 25 years, Kelly’s home has been Barak Beacon Estate, a sprawling housing estate within spitting distance of Port Melbourne’s New Beach, where Kelly lives with budgerigar Jack and pomeranian-cross Patchett. Now, she’s fighting for the estate’s very survival.

Barak Beacon is one of dozens of sites slated for redevelopment as part of the Andrews government’s $5.3 billion Big Housing Build. The building program – billed as the largest in the state’s history – is in the process of replacing public housing estates with a mixture of social, affordable and private housing.

More than 12,000 new homes will be constructed across Victoria, boosting supply of social housing by 10 per cent over the next four years.

But the question of what exactly will replace Barak Beacon, an 89-dwelling estate nestled among modern multi-storey apartment blocks in a gentrified neighbourhood, remains a mystery.

Part of the sprawling Barak Beacon estate in Port Melbourne.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The majority of units in this estate are now empty, and demolition is due to start in June. But it could be months before plans for the site are released by Homes Victoria, the government agency overseeing the Big Housing Build.

A Homes Victoria spokesman could not say what proportion of the expected 300 new dwellings would be social and affordable homes or how many would be privately owned.

Some locals are suspicious of Home Victoria’s motivations. Lyn Dixon, a public housing advocate who lives in a nearby estate, said public housing residents were getting a raw deal from the Big Housing Build.

“This is all stemming from the [housing] department’s lack of maintenance of all of these properties,” Dixon said.

“It’s a lovely piece of land; it’s quiet, and they’re lovely buildings, but if they’d upkept them, there would be no need to demolish.

“Obviously, it’s just a money grab. And you can bet your bottom dollar that no public housing will be on the beach side [when the redevelopment is complete].”

Homes Victoria said the new development would “better integrate” into the surrounding suburb than the existing low-rise buildings.

“The existing 89 homes at the Barak Beacon site are being replaced with more than 300 modern, energy-efficient, and environmentally sustainable homes for more Victorians to help tackle the growing problem of housing affordability,” the spokesman said.

“We have been working with renters to provide a range of relocation options, and we are making best efforts to relocate renters nearby, so children can remain at their existing schools and renters can remain close to their communities.”

At every site being redeveloped, public housing tenants are offered temporary or permanent housing and get a right of return on the same conditions they had before.

Not-for-profit architecture and research firm OFFICE released a study last year arguing the government could save $88 million – and the incalculable distress of vulnerable residents – by refurbishing the estate and building “infill” units between existing buildings, rather than razing and rebuilding.

Simon Robinson, one of the managing directors of OFFICE, said none of the estates identified for redevelopment under the Big Housing Build in Victoria had undergone a study to assess whether they could simply be refurbished.

“The biggest issue in the demolition-rebuild model is the relocation of residents,” he said.

“To relocate these vulnerable residents who’ve lived in their homes for 20 years comes with a cost as well.”

In a hint of what is to come, Homes Victoria said refurbishing existing properties on the site and building apartments between them would not address “the problem of under utilisation of land at Barak Beacon”.

None of this is of much comfort to Margaret Kelly and her neighbours, most of whom have relocated against their will.

Since early last year, Homes Victoria has been steadily moving people out of the estate, which used to be home to about 250 people.

Only about 20 households remain.

One man, who asked not to be named because he feared reprisals, had moved back to the estate to help his elderly mother, who is in hospital, navigate the stress of relocation.

“They’re saying they want everyone out by Easter, but they’re not giving us any other options,” he said. “The residents who are left all have special needs; they’re old. They’ve been here for years.”

A petition being lodged in state parliament on Monday calls on the government to consider refurbishing Barak Beacon instead of razing public housing to replace it with a peppercorn mix of social, low-cost and private housing.

“I don’t feel like public housing is safe anymore,” Kelly said. “They’re playing with it like a great big Monopoly board.”

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