Tuesday, 20 March 2018
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:37): Housing acquisition is a big issue for many communities who feel done over when it comes to having their homes taken off them. Many acquisitions are plain wrong, like the WestConnex project and Millers Point, both of which are in Sydney. Others, like the Prince of Wales Hospital expansion, are a necessity. In this case the issue is not the acquisition; the problem is how it's done. The Prince of Wales project involved several hundred people living in 89 properties. These are the words prepared by some of the Randwick residents who are losing their homes: 'We have a lot of older people in our neighbourhood. We have seven households that have been in their homes in our communities for over 50 years, 25 per cent of households have been there for more than 40 years and over 50 per cent have been in their homes for 20 years or more. More than half the homes being acquired by the government have had children grow up in them, parents die, and lifetime friends live next door and across the road. This is just one small microcosm of what makes up a community, a community that looks after each other. Four homes have been in the family for generations.'
What is happening to this community? Residents were offered compensation of 10 per cent to 30 per cent below the market value and were given only a few months notification before eviction. This is a longstanding Randwick community, and it's being destroyed—with all the implications that we should take seriously. Alternative housing in this area is scarce and expensive, and, until recently, little or no assistance was given to residents to find alternative housing. In New South Wales some 400 people are affected in this way every year. In some cases the infrastructure projects are necessary, but the process by which the acquisition occurs must be driven by human considerations, not legal, financial or bureaucratic processes—which is what is currently happening.
Loss of community is serious. A growing body of evidence identifies the importance of community for maintaining social capital, increasing health and education outcomes, decreasing crime and suicide rates, and maintaining overall health and wellbeing among residents. To lose these things is a real cost not just in health and wellbeing but in money as well. Loss of community creates increased costs in services for the government, costs that it conveniently regards as externalities in its current cost estimates. These costs are not externalities but real costs incurred by government action for all concerned.
The state government in New South Wales should increase the level of compensation to at least cover the real costs of moving but, more importantly, appoint at government expense a buyer's agent for each resident to assist the residents in relocating and purchasing their new property. That agent must be independent of the purchasing institution. And there is a role for the federal government. They can help harmonise all state provisions for compensation of land acquisition and, in particular, call a national review of land acquisition procedures. Under the New South Wales land acquisition act there are a number of statements in principle to ensure fair compensation and to recognise loss to residents beyond market value of the home. However, in practice, what we find is that the act is applied in a narrow, legalistic way.
Here is a letter from a resident. These are some of the problems they have confronted. They said:
I would like you to hear the effects this forced acquisition has had on me and many others in my community. Firstly, the manner of notification was appalling. The impact has been damaging, lasting and has created an atmosphere of mistrust.
… … …
Residents being told they would need to present their homes as if for a 'prudent buyer' is absurd. Doing up our homes to have them bull dozed is a further absurdity. For many this has involved spending thousands of dollars, time and effort in an attempt to achieve a higher valuation. How unethical, ridiculous, immoral and wasteful is this? Surely there must be a more sensible way! The anger and shock of losing my home is still being processed. It is my home not a dwelling, building or structure.
Houses are people's homes. They are not a commodity. Acquisitions may be necessary—the Greens recognise that—when infrastructure projects are required for the public good, but they must be done in a way that recognises that we are dealing with people, not simply a process, and people who are part of a community. If they lose their homes and their community, the pain and distress may be so extreme that they may not recover. That is deeply wrong when the public good should always come first in government policy.