An uneasy truce prevails in Welfare Street, Homebush.
Long term residents are still fighting for recognition that they have a right to stay in their homes.
Up until late last year, the land on which the houses stand was owned by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA) . After SOPA decided it didn't need the land, the NSW LNP government agreed to sell the block of 12 houses to Lance Rosenberg's Centennial Property Group ( CPG). Just a few weeks later, CPG make a quick $5 million by auctioning it to individual buyers a few weeks. But the sale of the publicly owned single block cannot be completed until the single title has been subdivided into 12 allottments.
CPG's application to Strathfield Council for subdivision approval was only lodged several days before it auctioned the homes on December 19, 2014. The successful buyers paid deposits but have not been able to complete the purchase of the properties as no individual titles to them exist.
CPG's agents Strathfield Partners initially tried to evict the tenants but have now told media that they are not doing so.
On behalf of the residents, Marrickville Legal Centre lodged an objection to the subdivision on several grounds, including the loss of affordable housing and social impact on the neighbourhood and its residents.
Last week, I visited Bruce and Lyn Begnell and their neighbour John Higgins to get a better understanding of what the homes mean to them.
The first thing I noticed was that Welfare Street is very different from the glossy real estate photos that were used to advertise the site.
The block lies on a narrow strip of land between the M4 and Parramatta Rd. If Stage one of the Westconnex goes ahead, the adjacent land could soon become a noisy construction site.
But for the residents I spoke to, the solid brick Welfare street homes are compact, comfortable and secure. In a city in which there is a crisis in affordable housing, they are highly prized.
Bruce Begnell who has lived in Homebush West for his whole life, moved into his Welfare Street home 49 years ago. He is now legally blind and in very poor health. His wife Lyn is his carer and is currently supporting him through the ordeal of fighting for what he regarded as a secure home. He certainly does not have the means to buy another or to pay market rents in Sydney.
Along with John Higgins who lives next door, Bruce can remember when Parramatta Road traffic gave way to cattle crossing to the saleyards. On hot days, the children swam in the sheep dip ponds.
John's father and Bruce both paid monthly payments for possession of their homes. Today, it sounds like an unusual arrangement but it was a way for the publicly owned abattoir to provide secure homes for valued workers.
The walls are adorned with family photos including a black and white one of a fit strong Bruce in his twenties working in the old abattoir.
The homes and the memories of those who live in them are heritage listed and an important part of the industrial history of Homebush. They form a tight knit unfenced community in which relationships between neighbours were similar to family ones.
The sale yards closed in the 1960s, followed by the abattoirs in the 1980s. The land became the site for Flemington Markets through which John loves to walk on quieter days catching up with old friends.
While skilled in many ways, Bruce had very little formal education. His wife Lyn assisted him to write a personal objection to the subdivision application.
The objection letter explains that the couple currently have a combined income of $600 a week, of which they have been paying $127.35 or 23% to the SOPA for rent. If they were to relinquish possession of the property, they would be forced to pay market rent. According to recent advertisements for similar properties, this would be about $500 for a 2 -3 bedroom property or more than 80% of their total income. Bruce and Lyn Begnell would only be left with $100 a week for living expenses.
This would make it extremely difficult to find and maintain a tenancy to an alternative property....I also do not have any children or other family members who would be able to provide me with alternative accommodation.
Bruce also provides details of 10 other serious ailments from which he is suffering, apart from his legal blindness.
He then lists the improvements he has made to the house over half a century.
When I moved into the property, it was a 2 bedroom property with one electric power point.. it is now a 3 bedroom property with 18 power points.... I have also installed a new kitchen, I painted the property every couple of years and I have put in carpet before but have now replaced it with polish floorboards.
Bruce concludes that the subdivision,
would result in the loss of affordable housing options for myself and other neighbours... we face serious risk of homelessness as we do not have any other accommodation options available to us. Beyond this, I would not only be losing my home but friends who I think of as family and companions. I was an abattoir worker before retirement. I have no capacity to gain alternative employment. Due to macular degeneration, I am legally blind and moving out of this property to adopt to another environment would be detrimental to my mental health. I have lived most of my life in this property and I cannot imagine how I would live elsewhere.
Objectors have also raised other points including unapproved high fences made to the only two properties that CPG has taken over that are out of character with the heritage homes.
Other submissions have argued that CPG's application uses 'generalities ..in place of facts' and is inconsistent with the Local Environment Plan which does not allow for residential development beyond existing use. The subdivided allotments would be considerably below the minimise size allowed.
The proposal for residential subdivision is not for the benefit of the locality, residents, or heritage but simple to enable a developer to optimise sale and profit from the subdivision.
When I visited last week, the residents were still waiting to hear when the subdivision would be dealt with by Council.
So I asked Strathfield Council if and when the subdivision application would be debated at a council meeting.
On Monday, Strathfield Council spokesperson Bronwyn Hager sent me this reply:
At this stage, it is unlikely that the DA will go to a formal Planning Committee meeting. The applicant has however lodged an Appeal with the Land and Environment Court of NSW against Council’s deemed refusal of the application. At this stage, Council is considering its legal position in relation to the matter.
Unless you are experienced in development matters, you may be asking what is a 'deemed refusal'.
Under NSW Planning Act an applicant can appeal if Council does not decide the application in 40 days. This provision was introduced to satisfy developers who complained about delays. Some Council on the other hand have argued that more time may be needed when issues such as heritage or pollution concerns are raised.
The appeal could be a clever move by the CPG. The key question is whether objectors will have 'standing' or the right to argue their case against subdivision in the court case in which the main parties will be CPG and Strathfield Council.
Marrickville Legal Centre, who is acting for the residents, will also seek legal advice.
After meeting with some of the residents, Jodi McKay, ALP candidate for Strathfield in the March NSW State election and Shadow Minister for Planning, offered them her full support She called for an independent investigation and for all documents dealing with the sale to be made public.
In January, McKay sent her concerns to the Minister for Sports and Recreation Stuart Ayres, who is responsible for the Sydney Park Olympic Authority. Ayres has not replied to her.
Ayres also declined to answer my questions.
This story symbolises NSW governments' long record of favouring property developers at the expense of ordinary citizens.
At the same time as it was selling Welfare Street, the NSW Baird government was evicting tenants from inner city Miller's Point on the grounds that it wanted to provide more affordable housing in other suburbs.
Like Bruce, John and Lyn, Vo is facing eviction at Miller's Point. As with the Welfare residents, I have heard no convincing reason why she cannot age peacefully in her home.
When I asked SOPA communications manager Mike James why the homes couldn't have been kept in public ownership, he told me his understanding was that the Government Property Office always asks other government departments if they want the land before selling it. In this case, no department was interested.
So do we conclude that NSW government decision makers are comfortable with secret investors making quick profits out of publicly owned property while Bruce, his neighbours and many thousands of other NSW citizens live with constant anxiety that they may end up homeless?