With the last residents being evicted from public housing in the Rocks’ Sirius building, Sydney is one step close to being a city reserved for the rich. This story, published in April 2014 under the heading ‘Ready for a Fight,’ remains as a reminder of a community that’s been erased.
Chris Ryan talks to two Millers Point residents facing eviction who don’t plan to go quietly.
The NSW government is planning to evict over 400 people from government housing in Millers Point and the Rocks. Judging by the cold-hearted comments on news websites and talkback radio most people think it’s about bloody time.
Resident Flo Seckold has even heard it from her own son. “He said, ‘Mum, the writing is on the wall. People don’t care, you’ve had it good enough for so long.’” Her voice rises and it’s easy to imagine her scolding him: “I said, ‘Gary, I don’t care whether they care or not. Ask them, did they ever have a tin bath where you chopped the wood up and carried the water down eight stairs when you lit the copper?’
“When the Japanese got in the harbour my mother said they left in droves around here. She stayed ’cos she said, ‘Whatever’s going to be is going to be.’ There was a strong community that we had.”
Eighty-year-old Flo has invited me into her home to talk about the planned eviction and asked her next-door neighbour Bev Sutton, 73, to join us. The two have lived in the area all their lives.
Flo lived the last 28 years in the same terrace with her husband Teddy, who passed away the same week she received her eviction notice. Bunches of flowers sit on a side table by the telephone, next to a Ventolin puffer Flo needs for her emphysema.
Bev tells me she and Flo look out for each other. Years ago they took out a piece of tin in the backyard fence so Chippy, a dog, could walk back and forth. “Now I walk in between the fence and come in and see Flo of a morning and we have our cup of tea,” Bev says. “I can make sure she’s been eating her greens when she gives me her scraps to put in my compost bin.”
Talking with the two you quickly see their deep ties with the area. You realise how shallow and grubby most conversations about real estate are: “What’s the rent?” “What did you pay for it?” “Will you renovate?”
Bev remembers living in Windmill Street when only one person could afford a car. “Jackie Ford, I think he was, and he had a car simply because he used to have to travel to the country to sell cameras.”
Bev and Flo fondly recall the time when the Maritime Services Board controlled the public housing. There was a philosophy at the time – almost unthinkable in Joe Hockey’s post-entitlement age – that working men and women should have affordable housing near where they were employed.
“They were very good, and if there were people doing it really tough, they’d say, ‘That’s okay, we’ll catch up with you next week,'” says Bev.
“No, they didn’t hound you for it.”
“And I think it’s incredible Flo, they came to every house in this area collecting rent, all cash, and they used to tote it around and they never got hit on the head, robbed or anything. There’d be a few of them and they’d meet up and take it all back to the Harbour Trust.”
Flo talks about her first job. “In Joyce Shoes, up near Grace Brothers at Broadway, I was learning to be a machinist and a needle went in my finger or something, so I went to work in Bushells instead – plus it was down the end of the street so I didn’t have to pay fare. I put my age up, because for the work I was doing the senior girls were getting more money.”
“Flo’s pretty fly, she can catch on quickly,” says Bev.
It was at Bushells packing boxes of tea that Flo met Teddy 63-years-ago. “Teddy wasn’t a boy from Millers Point. He was born in Lakemba and they moved over to Brookvale,” Flo says. She points to a framed poster of the 2007 NRL Champions celebrating, “And they’re his pride and joy, Manly-Warringah.”
The precious memories these women have for the area are considered worthless compared to the cash millionaires can fork out to live in Millers Point, and the living history these women embody means nothing to the NSW Community Services Minister Pru Goward, who scuttled plans for 140 long term residents to be rehoused in the area.
Both women know that plenty of the public think they should be kicked out of their homes. Flo made the mistake of listening to talkback. “I’d been listening to Alan Jones, and I heard him ranting and raving, no sympathy, ‘been down there generations,’ and that chap Fordham, ‘Don’t you think we taxpayers are supporting you?’ We’ve all worked down here, we supported ourselves. These houses were all paid for.”
Bev continues: “Sixty-seven per cent of the people in this area, they’ve worked all their life, they’ve qualified for their pension, and now they’re being called bludgers and a drain on society. They’ve actually contributed to society. I’m 73 and I still pay tax ’cos I do a little bit of bookkeeping. I don’t get a pension from the government, I’ve got superannuation. I have not had concessional rent, I pay market rent.”
The two have battled the government and developers before and are ready to battle again. Days after the announcement they joined hundreds of residents at a rally protesting the move. “It reminded of the Jack Mundey days,” says Bev, evoking the Green Bans that saved the Rocks in the 70s. “Ted, Flo’s husband, he got carted off to jail. We were down there with the BLF at the barricades.”
“Those fellas were great,” Flo smiles at the memory. “We were classed as communists – ‘the whole bloody lot, you’re reds.’ I’d be black, pink and white, as long as we can stay here.”
The phone rings. As Flo takes the call Bev talks about what the loss of public housing in Millers Point will mean for Sydney. “They might have about 470 people they have to rehouse, but all those inner-ring suburbs, they’ll all go: Woolloomooloo’s next, Redfern’s on the list. You’ve got Ultimo that’ll be on the list, and then Glebe, all of that. They’ve got to house those people, so where are they going to put them?”
Flo rejoins us, talking rapidly. “Well, there you are – they’ve had their first victim. A woman up in Sirius collapsed, worried about losing her house. She’s up in Saint Vincent’s.”
“Do we know her name?” asks Bev, concern in her voice.
“Lena, she’s a German lady, a very strong ninety-something-year old woman. That’s the first victim. They just told Ron Jennings and said to spread it around.”
“Well, the first victim,” says Bev. “You know, there will be some of this.” She sounds sombre but resilient, ready for a long campaign.