Edwina Lloyd reckons the rapid gentrification of inner Sydney means the loss of its je ne sais quoi, however, there may be a French solution…if only the State would say oui oui…
Gentrification, rejuvenation, revitalisation, urban renewal.
Whatever you call it, it’s hard to ignore the profound changes taking place in inner-city Sydney neighbourhoods.
Balmain, for example, used to be a place where boys didn’t cry. Now Balmain boys drive BMWs, and the old Ship, Painters and Dockers Union Hall has become a fashionable “warehouse conversion”.
Gentrification by Decree
The latest Sydney suburb to face the onslaught of gentrification is Millers Point.
Unlike the process that has affected other parts of Sydney, however, the gentrification of Millers Point is not being driven by the inexorable hand of market forces, but by design. It is gentrification by official decree.
The Baird Liberal Government has come to the conclusion that the historic working class neighborhoods of Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks would be much better if they didn’t contain any actual working class residents.
Around 300 public housing tenants are thus being shipped off to less fashionable parts of Greater Sydney and beyond.
The rationale is simple: we only have so much money that we’re willing to spend on social housing and we need to get the best bang for our buck, so that means concentrating social housing in areas where land is cheaper.
So as long as inner city real estate is in demand, public housing tenants will simply have to get used to being forcibly separated from their friends, neighbours and support networks.
To the Community Services Minister Gabrielle Upton, the logic of this argument is apparently irrefutable.
What sort of city does Ms Upton want Sydney to become? A gated community? An extension of Vaucluse?
The Sydney I love is an eclectic, challenging, beautiful, intimate and crazy place. Its beauty comes not only from the Harbour and the Opera House, but from the spectacular diversity of its people.
Gentrification, however, has no respect for diversity. It judges people purely by their financial capacity to pay high rents or to buy expensive property. Sanitised, segregated and polarised, a gentrified city loses its soul, and loses its social cohesion.
How Gentrification Works
Researchers have discovered that gentrification happens when a shabby, run-down, inner city working class area comes into contact with a coffee machine from a neighbouring suburb.*
The coffee machine lodges into the suburb’s spinal cord, and like a virus, the gentrification starts to spread – slowly, house by house, street by street.
The aroma of roasted coffee beans then starts to attract bargain hunting home renovators.
At first it’s a trickle, then suddenly an army of cashed up 30-somethings is swarming over the place like locusts, and the median house price increases exponentially.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good episode of Grand Designs as much as the next person.
I, too, dream of buying a small abandoned weatherboard church, adding a suspended mezzanine and turning it into a funky entertainer.
Basic physics tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As home renovators colonise one innocent working class suburb after the next, the reaction lies in the displacement of families who can no longer afford to live in the suburb they have called home for generations.
The Parisian Solution
It doesn’t have to be this way. Paris, for example, is fighting back against the forces of gentrification. It is inoculating itself against homogeneity and protecting its precious social mix.
The Conseil de Paris (Council of Paris) has initiated a radical plan to buy properties in inner city areas to ensure they remain available for social housing.
(It’s worth noting that the Conseil de Paris operates under a rare hybrid model of government – it is effectively a city state, with the equivalent powers of both an Australian state government and a city council.)
Not only has money been set aside (some €850 million), but the Conseil De Paris has targeted around 8,000 apartments at 257 addresses as potential purchases.
The most controversial aspect of the plan is that Paris has given itself the power of first right of refusal over those properties should they become available for sale.
The apartments have to be sold at market price, but owners cannot sell to another purchaser if the Conseil de Paris chooses to exercise its option over the property.
This bold strategy will ensure that some subsidised social housing will remain in gentrified areas of Paris like Menilmontant, Montmartre and the Bastille.
Save Our Social Mix
Our political leaders in NSW should take note. Paris understands that retaining a social mix in the inner city is a desirable thing.
Segregating people according to their socio-economic status not only destroys diversity, it undermines social cohesion.
The Baird Liberal Government, however, clearly doesn’t get it. It wants to see social housing tenants moved out of the city and away from their much-vaunted and much-resented “harbour views”.
It wants to make sure the gentrified inner city becomes an exclusive enclave for the wealthy.
Meanwhile, Lord Mayor Clover Moore says the City of Sydney values diversity and social mix, but the Council needs to walk the walk – not just talk the talk.
The City of Sydney could, and should, purchase at least some of the Millers Point properties, or the Sirius building, so they can continue to be part of the city’s affordable housing assets.
The Paris model shows exactly what can be done when governments – be they regional or municipal – make social housing a priority.
All Gabrielle Upton and Clover Moore have to do is say oui oui.
*Not really, I’m making this bit up