‘Sorry Yarra, you had your chance’: Social housing stoush exposes Labor-Greens tensions
The chance to build social housing next to Collingwood Town Hall is all but lost, after Housing Minister Richard Wynne said he would no longer work with the Greens-dominated local council in a fight that foreshadows the 2022 state election in his marginal seat.
Yarra Council – which covers inner-Melbourne suburbs such as Fitzroy and Richmond – this week knocked back a plan to build 100 new social and affordable housing units on council land, a plan the state government had made clear would attract significant funding under its $5.3 billion “big build” social housing program.
Eddy Court Reserve was part of the area being considered for the affordable housing development.Credit:Justin McManus
Another 100 private units in the development would have offset the costs.
Instead, councillors plan to build a community hub with a library and maternal and child health centre. Council officers say cleaning and rebuilding the site will cost about $21 million, money the council will struggle to find.
The Greens-majority council said leasing council land for the development would be handing over public land to private developers for profit.
Councillors suggested the state government instead provide an undisclosed number of social housing units on a smaller parcel of land, in place of a public housing duplex and private home, that Yarra has no control of.
But Mr Wynne this week rejected that suggestion.
“I am drowning in [housing] proposals from local governments, from some of the smallest local governments in the state of Victoria, through to some of the biggest who want to work with us. So we just move on. We move on. And sorry Yarra, you had your chance,” he told The Age.
“We’ve got many other projects that we’ll be working on in the City of Yarra that do not include a partnership with the City of Yarra.”
The Housing Minister said he was “bitterly disappointed” the newly installed council dropped the development.
Greens councillors from the City of Yarra inside the heritage and dilapidated Sailors and Soldiers Hall, which has been identified as the potential site for a new community hub.
“[This is] a council that talks a big game in their progressive policies and at their first opportunity they fail. This project will not be proceeding. And that’s three years’ worth of good work that has been done between the Office of Housing and the City of Yarra [that] goes down the drain.”
The stoush is the first conflict between the Greens-led local council and the Labor state government.
Mr Wynne has held off concerted attempts by the Greens to take his inner-city seat of Richmond for years. The Greens, which hold the state and federal seats of Melbourne, have also been eyeing off Northcote (held in 2017-18 by now-Senator Lidia Thorpe), having claimed Brunswick in 2018.
Victoria’s Greens leader, Samantha Ratnam, told The Age the party would pursue the government on the issue.
The Sailors and Soldiers Hall on Hoddle Street would have formed part of the redevelopment.Credit:Justin McManus
“How we use public land – whether it is sold for private profit or kept for community benefit – is a statewide concern and should be an election issue,” she said.
The Greens argue the government’s focus on social and affordable housing, rather than public housing, in its Big Housing Build program is a missed opportunity.
Stephen Jolly was the only candidate to clear the quota to be elected without preferences in Yarra.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
“For the state government and Richard Wynne to intervene like this tells you a lot more about how worried he is about his own seat at the next election and wanting to take a cheap shot at the Greens than it tells you about his commitment to public and community housing, because he’s continuing to ask this council to embrace this privatisation model that has failed over and over again,” Ms Ratnam said.
Socialist and long-time councillor Stephen Jolly, who attracted the largest first-preference vote in Yarra at last year’s local election, was pushing for the development. He tried, but failed this week to get the council to rescind its vote against the proposal.
Cr Jolly preferred public housing, too, but said, because of the COVID-19 housing stimulus and Mr Wynne’s marginal seat, this was a one-off opportunity to build homes for low-income workers in an increasingly unaffordable area that Yarra should not throw away.
“Show me if there is an alternative way to do it. I would be signing up to it tomorrow morning, but this is the only way to get this over the line,” he said.
Cr Jolly said he wouldn’t run for Richmond in the state election unless he expected to win, which he did not. He also ruled out running in the Legislative Council.
The housing development would have set aside 1000 square metres for community facilities in the heritage Sailors and Soldiers Hall, which is sitting dilapidated, and Cr Jolly argued councillors did not need to choose between facilities and housing under this model.
Yarra’s main contribution would have been the land, while other properties, including a state government-owned public housing duplex and a private home, would have to be acquired.
The development would have cost $91.5 million and required an extra $28.1 million in funding from the state government to secure a developer.
Leasing the land long-term, as required by its supporters, would have been more costly.
Yarra mayor Gabrielle de Vietri said residents, including tenants of the public housing tower across Hoddle Street, were desperate for community facilities.
“The state government has failed public housing residents and Minister Wynne is trying to pin that on the council.”
The Greens proposal will now go to public consultations, which was never done for the housing plan.
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