Fight for Proper Maintenance of Public Housing! Stop the Neglect, Stop the Sell-Offs!
The Suffering of a Public Housing Tenant
April 30 – How would you feel if the children you are caring for had to live in a house where the leaks are so bad that not only does the kitchen and dining room flood when it rains but the penetrating water causes short circuits that present a potentially fatal electrical hazard to occupants? Unfortunately, this is just a part of what one tenant and the children she cares for had to go through as a result of the wilful neglect of her landlord. However, her landlord is not just any landlord. Her landlord happens to be the government as she is a public housing tenant.
The tenant, sixty year-old Virginia Hickey, wants her story told as she knows that many others living in public housing are going through similar experiences. Ms Hickey (known affectionately as “Aunty Bowie”) has lived in her house in Douglas Street in the inner city Sydney suburb of Waterloo for many years. She is the primary carer for two of her grandchildren and, additionally, two younger grandchildren, one with a serious diabetic condition, stay with her on weekends.
The family’s ordeal actually began several years ago. Maintenance on the home was so neglected by the housing authorities that the whole place was falling apart: the stove was not working, the taps were faulty and everything from the roof to the walls to the flooring were in a terrible condition. Eventually, after pressing the authorities for years they seemingly acquiesced to her requests. In March 2010, Spotless, the company which has the contract with the Department of Housing for the maintenance of her home, finally organised for the renovation to begin. Yet, this so-called “renovation” was done in a half-baked, reckless and arrogant manner. Thus, when Spotless asked Ms Hickey and the children to vacate the premises during the renovation, they did not provide any alternate accommodation. Instead, the Hickeys had to find accommodation for themselves. Virginia Hickey was initially told that the renovation would take six weeks. Instead, it took 11 months! They were forced to live away from their home for eleven months! You might think that after this 11 months that at least the quality of the renovation would be of a high standard. However, the very opposite was the case. Half the roofing had not been fixed, a door was loose and the toilet and the shower were still not repaired. Furthermore, Spotless performed the maintenance in such a reckless manner that they contaminated most of the furniture and goods in the home. Thus, the family’s furniture and beds and much of their clothes, shoes and personal items were marked as “contaminated” and were subsequently taken away to be dumped. Virginia Hickey was only offered an insulting amount of compensation for the loss of the family’s goods which she, understandably, rejected.
The Spotless company that failed Ms Hickey and her grandchildren so badly is, actually, one of the main companies that has a contract to maintain public housing dwellings in NSW. Their owners and executives are profit-obsessed corporate thugs notorious for exploiting and bullying their workers. From 2010 onwards, Spotless sought to force cleaners employed by them to sign individual contracts called Individual Flexibility Agreements (IFAs) which left the cleaners worse off. Workers who refused to accept the new anti-worker “Agreements” had shifts taken off them - in other words, they were given a huge pay cut. As Ms Hickey and her grandchildren found out, Spotless not only make huge profits by exploiting its employees but also by saving costs through doing a worse than half-baked job on maintaining public housing dwellings. The way it often works is that Spotless hires subcontractors (it prefers them to direct employees as it is easier for actual employees to unite and organise into unions to fight for their rights) and then rides roughshod over these “subbies” by paying them for particular maintenance jobs based on a gross underestimation of the real time it takes to complete the jobs. The subcontractors, in turn, in order to make decent returns, then frantically rush the jobs and thus often do them in a shoddy and careless manner. However, while public housing tenants are suffering, the owners of Spotless - the ruthless private equity millionaires running Pacific Equity Partners (PEP) - are absolutely raking it in. Indeed, the profits of Spotless are so promising that after the company was bought by PEP for $723 million in August 2012, now - less than two years later - PEP expects to sell just half of the company for $1 billion! Now you know where much of the budget for public housing is ending up! Not in the provision of more public housing dwellings and quality maintenance but in the pockets of filthy rich private sector bosses.
With the Department of Housing and its Spotless contractor having overseen such a shoddy “renovation” of Virginia Hickey’s home in Waterloo, it was only a matter of time before the house crumbled further. This occurred around February 20 when the water started flooding into the dining room and kitchen of Ms Hickey’s residence during rainfall. The leak was so bad that it caused short circuits that sent the power zapping on and off and endangered the lives of Virginia Hickey and her grandchildren. A check of the house by the family found that the roof was in terrible condition and the guttering and drainage pipes were rusted and full of holes. And all this just three years after a renovation that was supposedly so “thorough” that Spotless had to make the family vacate the house for 11 months!
That, unfortunately, was only the start of the family’s latest housing ordeal. For, instead of immediately fixing the leak, the housing authorities disgustingly stalled on fixing the problem. An electrician did arrive to terminate power leads in the dining room with insulation which did reduce the chances of electrocution. However, this also meant that the family were without lighting and power in part of their house and with the floor flooding it wasn’t safe to use extension cables from other parts of the house. Meanwhile, the water kept on gushing in – especially during the days of very heavy rain in Waterloo on March 6, March 25 and March 27 and the long periods of rain from February 27 to March 2, March 24 to March 28 and April 11 to April 16. Desperate, Virginia Hickey not only pressed the housing authorities but contacted the ombudsman and politicians. All made slimy promises of immediate relief but nothing was fixed. It was only on April 17, a full eight weeks after Ms Hickey’s dining room and kitchen first started flooding, that the housing authorities fixed the leaks.
However, with the authorities having so neglected genuine maintenance of the house, just one week later the gas supply in the house went out. This has left the family without hot water or a working stove. Six days later, at the time this article was written, the authorities have still not fixed the problem. It never ends!
What Virginia Hickey and her grandchildren are going through is similar to what many other public housing tenants are experiencing. Why is this happening? One reason is that the private sector businesses given the maintenance contracts, like Spotless, are greedy profit-driven entities and, thus, seek to cut costs in their maintenance work at the great expense of public housing tenants. The reality is that with private sector corporations given the construction and maintenance work, public housing in Australia is far from fully “public.”
The housing authorities are fully aware that the likes of Spotless are doing a shoddy job. This situation is, actually, to their liking because they want tenants to feel uncomfortable in their homes. Over the last twenty years, governments of all stripes have been trying to slash the amount of public housing dwellings and one of their favourite ways of doing this is to make tenants so unhappy with the state of their dwellings that they move out “voluntarily.” In the last few years, the government campaign against public housing has intensified. Over the last four years, governments have demolished, sold off or announced their intention to sell-off large numbers of public housing dwellings from Glebe, Millers Point and the Rocks in inner city Sydney to Auburn, Bonyrigg and Claymore in western and south-western Sydney and to Bellambi, Woonona and Wollongong in the Illawara. As this privatisation campaign intensifies, the authorities deliberately neglect maintenance even more in order to squeeze out tenants faster.
Governments are especially keen on selling off public housing dwellings in inner city areas like Waterloo and scenic areas like the Rocks and Bellambi because they know that they can get a big revenue hit from it while their developer mates in pole position to buyout such dwellings can make a quick killing. The interests of public housing tenants does not even figure here. The needs of working class tenants are expendable as far as Australian governments are concerned. Whether it’s the right-wing Liberals in government, the social-democratic ALP or even an ALP-Greens coalition, governments administering the capitalist state only serve the interests of the obscenely rich big business owners. And those interests demand taking more and more from working class people especially as the capitalist economies of the world still swirl in the vortex of the 2008-2009 Great Recession. That is why not only are governments slashing public housing but the last ALP/Greens government cruelly slashed payments to low-income single parents (mainly mothers) and the Abbott Liberal-National Coalition governments is planning to make us pay for doctor visits.
If the situation that Virginia Hickey faces is a bit more extreme than some other public housing tenants it is in part because she is an Aboriginal woman. It is people from especially oppressed sectors of society – Aboriginal people, working class people from African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Islander communities, women, the very poor and the disabled – who often cop the harshest treatment from state institutions. Furthermore, Virginia Hickey is a special target for the authorities because she happens to be the aunt of TJ Hickey, the 17 year-old boy riding his bicycle who was murdered by racist police in Redfern in February 2004. Virginia Hickey has been outspoken in fighting for justice for TJ and has been active in many other social justice causes. As a result the state authorities have targeted her. One way they seek to distract her and wear her down is by ensuring that her housing situation remains unbearable.
All this makes a mockery of the claims that “we live in a democracy in Australia.” We all may have the right to vote but not only are elections shaped by the rich capitalist’s class stranglehold over the media and financial resources for such things as political advertising (just think of the meteoric rise of Clive Palmer’s party) but the state organs themselves – from the police to the courts to the housing authority bureaucrats to the ombudsman’s office – are tied to the interests of the wealthy exploiting class. So, whoever wins government simply takes over administering all these anti-working class institutions. That is why justice for working class people or any of the other downtrodden sectors of society is not going to come through the parliaments, the courts, various tribunals or the ombudsman’s office.
What is needed is to unleash the industrial muscle of the working class in a common fight to smash all the many sided attacks on working class people. We must unite the struggle to turn back all the attacks on public housing and its tenants with the fight for truly free and truly public healthcare, with the demand for free 24 hour childcare, with the struggle to force greedy bosses to increase hiring at the expense of their profits and with the fight to defeat the escalating attacks on our trade unions. To promote this perspective in the struggle for public housing, a rally has been called in the multi-racial Sydney working class suburb of Auburn to demand: “STOP THE SELL-OFF OF PUBLIC HOUSING. SMASH THE ATTACKS ON SERVICES WORKING CLASS PEOPLE NEED THE MOST. Massively Increase Public Housing – Just Like What China is Doing.” The demonstration will take place at 12 noon on June 28 at the corner of Rawson St and Northumberland Rd, near the Northern exit of Auburn Railway Station.
In the course of struggling to build the working class fightback that we need, we must push out the influence of the treacherous Labor Party within the workers movement and struggle to build a new, consistently anti-capitalist workers party. Such a party would unite the working class, teach it to only trust in its own power and make the workers movement the champion of the rights of Aboriginal people, women, vilified “ethnic” communities and the poor. When the working class, united with its allies, becomes the ruling class then maintenance in public housing will no longer be conducted by companies owned by greedy exploiters. No longer will public housing be overseen by arrogant bureaucrats who are contemptuous of working class people. Instead, maintenance will be conducted by socialist enterprises collectively owned by all the people. Indeed, housing will be administered by a brand new state built to serve the interests of the working class masses. Only then will Public Housing truly be public housing.