It is now ten years since the legendary last tenant departed The Block, the famous heart of Aboriginal Redfern. Her house at 78 Eveleigh Street stood alone buttressed by the half-demolished shells of adjacent terraces. All Aunty Joyce Ingram’s neighbours had gone, their houses levelled to the ground. Her role as the unacknowledged Mayor of Eveleigh Street was now redundant. It was her turn to go.

The manner of her going was testament to the trouble she caused the authorities, black and white, during her 30 years living on Louis and Eveleigh Streets. The wiry, old black lady in big headlight spectacles did not lack for helpers to load her meagre belongings into the removalist van standing outside her missing front gate. But as they loaded, a bulldozer sat revving up outside her backdoor. No sooner had she closed her front door for the final time – “even before the van had left the kerb,” said one witness – than the ’dozer began to plough her house into rubble and dust.

One can imagine Mick Mundine, the chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Company, the owner of The Block, looking down on the scene from his office overlooking Eveleigh Street with some quiet satisfaction. Only seven years previously Aunty Joyce had tried to organise a coup inside the AHC to stop the clearances on The Block.

Flagging: Renewed unity and action is needed to bring back affordable housing to The Block in Redfern. [Photo Jack Carnegie]

Flagging: Renewed unity and action is needed to bring back affordable housing to The Block in Redfern. [Photo Jack Carnegie]

“Aunty Joyce Ingram was the final holdout,” says Ray Jackson, secretary of the Indigenous Social Justice Association. “She lived with her grandchildren in the last house standing. But in the end, with the toilet blocked and no repairs being done, she agreed to move.”

Now The Block is the most valuable vacant lot in Sydney. Ten thousand square metres of prime real estate located right in the heart of gentrifying Redfern and less than two kilometres from the CBD. It was once home to as many as 100 Aboriginal households, the Mecca for Aborigines from all over NSW. It was the place, in Elizabeth Farrelly’s memorable phrase, “where the songlines met”.

Everyone still calls it The Block despite the fact that all the dilapidated terrace houses that once stood there have now been razed to the ground – and their Aboriginal tenants resettled elsewhere. Only two buildings still stand on The Block – Tony Mundine’s gym and the offices of the Aboriginal Housing Company, run by Mick Mundine, Tony’s brother.

The land belongs to the Aboriginal Housing Company, an Aboriginal-owned company which also possesses 41 houses elsewhere. For the past 30 years the company has devised grand plans – five at least at last count – to rebuild The Block as a modern affordable housing precinct for Aborigines. It was this dream that justified the clearances between 1996 and 2011.

The dream is now known as the Pemulwuy Project, an ambitious $70 million commercial and residential development badged with name of the Aboriginal warrior who led the futile resistance to the first white settlers in Sydney.

The project is dividing the local indigenous community. It is now ten years since then NSW planning minister Frank Sartor announced his intention to clear The Block of its affordable housing. Then the Aboriginal community united behind the AHC to stymie Sartor. However, the latest version of the AHC’s plan has shattered that unity with opponents claiming if it goes ahead it will have the same result as Sartor’s plans.

What concerns them is the commercial half of the Pemulwuy project, which is to take precedence in the planned redevelopment. Its centrepiece is seven storeys (and possibly 14) of student housing – Sydney University is nearby. As the AHC’s latest financial report says, its strategy is “to prioritise the requirements of the student accommodation development”.

AHC expects to have bank finance for this part of the development within weeks but the funding for the other half of the project – affordable housing – is as far away as ever.

“In ten years The Block will belong to developers, that’s my sad prediction,” says Jenny Munro, one of the founders of the AHC and a sceptic of the current management’s ability to deliver affordable housing for Aboriginal people on the Block.

Her view is shared by others in the Aboriginal community. For Sol Bellear, another founder of the AHC and currently chair of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, the current Pemulwuy project smacks of “over-reach” and a departure from the AHC’s primary mission to look after the housing needs of less well-off Aborigines. “There are homeless Aborigines who urgently need housing and too many other Aborigines living in overcrowded conditions,” he says. “Providing housing for them should be the priority.”

There are already signs that the AHC is acting more like a commercial enterprise and less like a housing company. In the past two financial years the company has sold assets to the value of $2.4 million, which has boosted its reserves to nearly $3 million. Included in this sell-off were five terrace houses across the road from The Block. “They were dead assets,” says Mick Mundine, chief executive of the AHC for the past 30 years. Yet the houses have since been renovated and are part of a row where landlords are asking as much as $1100 per week in rent. Mundine says that one of the houses is still rented by an Aboriginal woman.

Three years ago the Aboriginal Housing Company signed a contract for design and construction with Deicorp which is currently the biggest developer in Redfern. It has completed one 19-storey residential tower and is currently building another, both approximately 100 metres from The Block. “The partnership with Deicorp is a good thing,” says Geoff Turnbull a local planning activist, “because having a developer on board brings some commercial realism to the table.” Deicorp is responsible for the current emphasis on building student accommodation which Turnbull sees as a sure-fire bet commercially.

The arrival of Deicorp on the scene saved the AHC. “We owed $786,000 in rates and had just $125 in the bank,” AHC chief executive Mick Mundine says of the company’s financial position four years ago. This was when Greg Colbran, Deicorp’s development and planning manager, crossed the railway tracks to introduce himself to Mundine and ask how he could help. A loan of $500,000 from Deicorp’s owner Fouad Deiri followed and the AHC engaged the developer as the new project designer and construction manager. Mundine hastens to add that after then Premier Kristina Keneally advanced a grant of $2 million to the AHC in the dying months of her Labor government, the loan was paid back “the next day”.

It is Deicorp who have shaped the new – and fifth – plan for The Block. In December 2012 their plan received development approval from the state government. “We have absolutely no commercial gain in the project whatsoever,” says Colbran of Deicorp’s involvement. “We work under a fee, that’s all.”

There is a touch of the messianic about Colbran when he talks of Pemulwuy. “This project is changing history. It’s setting an example of how Aboriginal companies set themselves up in business. The AHC will become a catalyst for other Aboriginal companies.”

The future: The vacant Block today - and the crane and tower block on the horizon are Deicorp's [Photo Jack Carnegie]

The future: The vacant Block today – and the crane and tower block on the horizon are Deicorp’s [Photo Jack Carnegie]

The Pemulwuy plan is not just shovel-ready but business ready, according to Colbran. “Two years ago we called in the major lenders to ask them what was required. We’ve got that together now and we’re off to the banks in two weeks.” He expects to start building as early as June.

The banks will be asked for finance for the commercial stage only. But Colbran expects to start the housing before the commercial section is finished. “The commercial will be an 18-month build but within 12 months of starting we will get going on the affordable housing.”

He expects the state and federal governments to pony up the $30 million for the affordable housing. It is a complete gamble – governments have given no indication of agreeing – but one he’s confident will come off. “We know that governments have funding available for Aboriginal projects but people are concerned about where the money goes. Here we have a project that is feasible, where all the business planning has been done, where the banks will have lent the money, where everything is transparent, where the first stage is self-funding and will work commercially. Everything stacks up. Everything the government is asking for from Aboriginal organisations is done.”

The housing is not the only as yet unfinanced part of the project. A central element of the design is the widening of the Redfern station railway bridge to provide a grander entry into the precinct. That is costed at $10 million and Colbran is vague about who will finance it.

Even supporters of the project worry about the arrangement with Deicorp. “Everyone’s worried, what do they [Deicorp] want out of it?” says Shane Phillips, who grew up on The Block and whose parents Richard and Yvonne were third generation Redfern residents. “I’m as paranoid as anyone but I’m trusting – and hopeful.

“I know I’m going back. Definitely.”

His boyhood friend, lawyer Joe Corrie is neither so trusting nor so hopeful. “Government funding [for the housing] is an unreal expectation. The current logic of governments is that land this valuable cannot be for affordable housing. If houses had been left on The Block there would at least have been some moral leverage.”

If this analysis is right and affordable housing just an illusion, it would represent a second – and probably permanent – dispossession for indigenous people. It would also represent a final defeat for what was a shining example of the Aboriginal renaissance of the 1970s.

***

Aborigines began to return in numbers to Redfern in the 1930s. They came for a bundle of reasons, attracted to the jobs and bright lights of Sydney. Many obtained employment in the railway yards in Redfern or in the factories dotted through the suburb. Others were escaping from the prejudice of redneck country towns or the stifling unfreedom of the upcountry missions or threats of child removal. “Redfern was partly a refugee camp,” says Sol Bellear.

The Block did not become the heart of this Return until the early 1970s. The properties then belonged to a (white) developer and were vacant and falling into disrepair prior to demolition and redevelopment. Being empty and mostly dry, they were spontaneously squatted by “goomies”, as Aboriginal metho drinkers were called. But as quickly as the goomies occupied the houses, the police would evict them.

Into this skirmishing stepped the late Bob Bellear, Sol’s brother, who eventually became a district court judge. He organised support for the squatters from local Catholic radicals like the Redfern parish priest Father Ted Kennedy and Bob’s wife Kaye, and from assorted lefties from the Communist and Labor parties, among whom Bob Pringle, the president of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation, was conspicuous. The goomies now had allies determined to make their squatting permanent.

The occupations rapidly spread through The Block and teams of volunteers began making the derelict houses liveable once more. This all coincided with the arrival in Canberra of the Whitlam government. On the advice of his Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gordon Bryant, Gough Whitlam stepped in to buy the first 40 houses on The Block and came to Sydney to hand over the deeds to the nascent Aboriginal Housing Company.

It was the first, the largest and the most successful urban land rights claim of modern times.

The story of the descent from those heady, utopian early days is well known. In the 1980s the rail yards and the factories closed and the drug trade driven by cheap heroin arrived. Tumbledown houses were turned into shooting galleries. The streets and laneways host to cash-and-carry drug bazaars. Death by overdose became a familiar visitor. Petty crime flourished to fund the new industry. Motorists detoured around The Block out of fear they would be bailed up and robbed in their cars. The Block became a no-go area for whites from outside Redfern – except for those selling pharmaceuticals.

Naturally the relations between Aborigines and police, never good to begin with, deteriorated further as police raided, invaded and arrested Aboriginal drug users and dealers. Street fighting erupted from time to time. The Block was more like a location for an episode of The Wire than a set for Redfern Now.

Meanwhile the condition of the housing went from bad to worse as the Aboriginal Housing Company and its tenants began a long-running standoff of no rent on one side and no repairs on the other. (Aborigines, do not like paying rent to other Aborigines, Mick Mundine tells me on more than one occasion. It goes against the grain of their sharing culture. It is why the AHC now employs white real estate agents to manage their remaining properties. On the other hand, Mundine’s critics claim he stopped repairs in order to encourage people to move out. )

“We had to hit rock bottom in order to bounce back up,” says Mundine. His bounce has been a series of bounces. In the past 15 years there have been four plans for the regeneration of The Block. In 2001 a plan devised by lecturers and students of architecture from Sydney University was rejected by the AHC because it feared the layout would not reduce crime. In 2004 a scheme designed by the Government Architect was sunk because of disputes between the state Labor government and the AHC over funding and control.

Then in the wake of the street fighting over the death of a young Aboriginal TJ Hickey during a police chase, and the intervention of then planning minister Frank Sartor, a master plan for the redevelopment was devised by architects Peter Lonergan and Julie Cracknell and social planner Angela Pitts. In 2009 the Keneally government approved their concept plan. At this stage as many as 20 houses were still standing on The Block.

It was this master plan or concept plan that Deicorp inherited – and drastically changed. The current plan increases the maximum height from five to seven storeys, doubles the residential floor space (mostly devoted to additional student housing), adds a 60-place childcare centre and redesigns the affordable housing as modern terraces and a six-storey apartment block.

There have been “cultural” changes too. The elders’ centre and the four apartments meant for them have been eliminated as “doubling up” on the indigenous aged care already available in Redfern. So much for “living the dream of an Aboriginal life in a white man’s world”.

The dream of Aboriginal enterprise – central to the 2009 scheme – was also abandoned with projected retail space reduced from 7250m2 to 2655. The income stream is now to come from the student housing and the childcare centre. In the 2009 scheme the intention was to sell over half the 62 dwellings to socially mobile Aboriginal families. “We’re not going to do this now because people with drug money might find a way to buy properties on The Block and we’d be back where we started,” says Mundine.

***

Just how realistic is the gamble that Coalition governments in Sydney and Canberra will finance the affordable housing component of Pemulwuy?

A spokesman for the NSW Housing Department, which is investing $49 million in Aboriginal housing projects this year, says it has no current interest in the Pemulwuy project. The federal Minister for indigenous Affairs, according to Mundine himself, turned down a request for funding earlier this year. “He said there was no money. I said where is all the money that’s supposed to be for Aboriginal people? Where is it?”

In 2011 the Gillard Labor government did announce – with some fanfare – that it was investing in the Pemulwuy project via its National Rental Affordability Scheme. When Mundine and his office manager Lani Tuitavake went to the briefing on the funding they found they weren’t being offered the capital investment they sought but rental subsidies. This amounted to $8.4 million but it was to be paid over ten years and only after the project was built.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t the deal-breaker. “At the briefing we found out that under the conditions of NRAS grants, the government could put in an administrator to take over our company if the government wasn’t satisfied,” says Tuitavake. “When we heard that we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

“Mickey is caught in a Catch 22,” says planning lawyer John Mant who was involved in the 2009 plan. “He’ll get no government money until he jumps though all the bureaucratic hoops that have been set up to register community housing associations, and if he does, then he stands to lose the whole lot.”

Tanya Plibersek, the minister for housing at the time and within whose electorate the Block falls, regrets the “misunderstandings”. “NRAS moneys from the federal government were always in the form of continuing subsidies, not lump sum payments,” she explains. “Unfortunately I could not vary the rules that don’t allow the federal subsidy to be cashed out upfront and I certainly couldn’t make an exception for a body in my own electorate.”

This is the second time Mick Mundine and the company have rejected government funding over the issue of control. Ten years ago the Carr Labor government offered to finance rebuilding the Block on condition that the Housing Department would manage the completed project for 20 years. After that it would revert to the AHC. “Mick was worried that it would not come back or that the Aboriginal community would certainly see it like that,” says Turnbull.

***

The future of the Block is entangled in Aboriginal politics. Mundine belongs one of the most powerful clans in NSW Aboriginal politics – his brother is Tony Mundine, an ex-world boxing champion; Anthony Mundine is his nephew. Warren Mundine, former national president of the ALP and now Tony Abbott’s key adviser on indigenous issues, is a cousin and close friend – Mick was best man at Warren’s wedding.  Demonstrating that the clan has all bases covered, the radical Gary Foley is also a Mundine.

Mundine has his critics. “The Aboriginal Housing Company is a byword for incompetence,” say Jenny Munro. Like Kaye Bellear, Munro complains of the closed membership of the AHC, claiming she and her husband Lyall Munro Jnr, both founding members, are now denied membership.

Ray Jackson objects to Mundine’s dictatorial ways, instancing Mundine’s declaration that he will choose who moves back into the Block. “It all depends on the tenant’s history,” says Mundine. “If you’ve been selling drugs on the premises, then there’s no chance of you coming back.”

“Mickey doesn’t seen to understand that he doesn’t own The Block,” says Jackson. “People were moved out on the promise that they could move back in when The Block was rebuilt. Now there is no guarantee this will happen.”

The politics is important because while the AHC hasn’t got the kind of money needed for the Pemulwuy project, other indigenous bodies like the NSW Aboriginal Land Council do. The NSWALC has over $600 million in its investment account but when Mundine approached it for $2 million in seed money to advance the Pemulwuy project the Council refused. “They did it by email,” says Mundine indignantly. “By email!”

The NSW Aboriginal Lands Council is reluctant to comment. “We had concerns that AHC’s intention to repay the loan – via the sale of assets – had the possibility to not eventuate,” says acting CEO Lesley Turner. “The result could see NSWALC being a mortgagee in possession of assets it simply couldn’t dispose of.” While Turner says it was purely a commercial decision “we wished Mr Mundine every success with the Pemulwuy Project”.

Despite this rejection, Sol Bellear believes that black finance is the only way to save the Block for Aboriginal housing. Bellear and Mick Mundine go back a long way – in the 70s Sol was the foreman on the repair teams on The Block and Mick was a painter on his crew. Bellear now believes the realisation of the Block’s redevelopment is beyond the AHC acting by itself.

“I’ve suggested to Mick that we convene a meeting of all the chairs and CEOs of the major Aboriginal organisations to get Pemulwuy off the ground. Look, if 60 of the richest 120 Land Councils in NSW each put up the money for one of the dwellings, it could be done. But Mick has rejected the idea. He thinks it’s all a plan to undermine him.”

Shane Phillips, who is the director of Tribal Warrior, a maritime training company for young Aborigines, agrees with Bellear. “It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “I don’t see why the state land council doesn’t do it. It’s a duty of theirs to maintain this history of ours.”

When I put it to Mundine that 30 years is a long time for a project to be in gestation, he replies, “I believe in the Lord and I believe He meant us” – he makes a wide sweeping gesture encompassing himself, the office of the AHC where we’re sitting and the Block beyond – “to be here. Have faith, brother.” While Mundine’s supporters may keep the faith, others would prefer the earthly pleasures of decent bricks and mortar for their people.

See video of Mick Mundine interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alxwepele1w

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