Lidia Thorpe grew up in public housing towers. Now she wants to save them

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Key points

  • MP Harriet Shing is now the responsible Minister for overseeing a major redevelopment project for 44 high-rise towers across Melbourne.
  • The first public rally against the plan will be fronted by Independent federal senator Lidia Thorpe who lived in two of the estates slated for redevelopment.
  • The Greens, the opposition, public housing advocates and some housing experts and economists have criticised the move to rebuild the estates with the private sector and the target of a 10 per cent increase in social housing.
  • Many of the towers sit in Greens-held electorates, including Richmond which was lost by Labor last election.

Senator and former public housing tenant Lidia Thorpe is throwing her weight behind a campaign against the state government’s plan to redevelop 44 public housing towers, labelling former premier Daniel Andrews’ announcement of the plan just before his resignation a “dog act”.

Thorpe’s intervention came as Labor MP Harriet Shing was announced on Monday as the new state housing minister, overseeing the Big Housing Build, which includes what the government has dubbed Australia’s largest urban renewal project.

Independent senator Lidia Thorpe on Tuesday at the Hoddle Street housing towers in Collingwood where she lived during her early years.Credit: Wayne Taylor

The opposition by Thorpe and a public rally this month will reignite a long-running inner-city fight between the Greens and Labor over the future of public housing, which critics say has been handed over to developers without a promise to significantly increase public or community housing stock.

Andrews revealed the state’s Housing Statement six days before his surprise resignation. The high-rise redevelopment plan will lead to 10,000 current public housing tenants being progressively moved elsewhere, demolition of the towers and the building of mixed social and private housing precincts in partnership with the private sector. The new precincts are intended to house a total of 30,000 people.

The government has promised a 10 per cent increase in social housing (an umbrella term that includes public housing and non-government community housing) across the sites as a result of the rebuilds, meaning about 11,000 community or public residents will eventually live at the sites, along with 19,000 private residents (some in so-called affordable units).

“It’s basically a dog act what [Daniel Andrews has] done in quitting after displacing thousands and thousands of people, poor people who rely on public housing,” Thorpe said.

She is to be the keynote speaker at an October 21 rally at the Collingwood flats alongside Greens Yarra councillor Anab Mohamud, who lives in the Fitzroy towers.

Andrews and Shing have been approached for comment.

Thorpe, now 50, was brought home from hospital as a baby to the Carlton towers – among the first three estates due to be redeveloped by 2031 – and spent her adolescence living on and off at the Collingwood towers in Hoddle Street.

While visiting the Collingwood flats with The Age on Monday, Thorpe pointed out her old home at No. 56 on the fifth floor of one of the towers, and to the next door Collingwood College, where she went to school with other children in the towers.

“What I got from living in public housing, I got a hand up,” she said.

“It was like someone grabbed my hand and said, ‘Righto, here’s a safe place for you for a little while. You can go to that school, and you can be connected to this community,’ and if I didn’t have that, then I wouldn’t be a senator today.”

Thorpe rejected a key justification for the redevelopment program, that the flats – built after World War II – were “reaching the end of their useful lives and no longer fit for modern living”. She said that when she lived in the flats, they were comfortable but they had suffered from a lack of investment over time.

The government says refurbishment is not an option, due to the design and age of the towers, most of which have no balconies and small windows. It argues there is ample space for more people to live on the conveniently located sites.

In her previous role as a Victorian Greens MP, Thorpe and the Greens unsuccessfully advocated that public land sales be frozen until a treaty had been signed off with Victoria’s First People’s Assembly, a position Thorpe still believes has merit.

“This is where treaty, if done right, could come into effect but also [be a] benefit for people like people in public housing,” she said.

She said she was most concerned about the “ripple effect” on the elderly and multicultural young people who would be relocated as part of the plan and their connections to local schools and medical services.

Andrews had said Homes Victoria would do its best to keep people close to their current communities.

Although Thorpe is no longer part of the Greens, her position on the towers echoes that of her former party, which laments the slow conversion of public housing over time to community housing run by non-government organisations.

Premier Jacinta Allan yesterday with Harriet Shing, Victoria’s new housing minister.Credit: NCA NewsWire

Many of the 44 towers fall within Greens electorates Melbourne, Prahran, Brunswick and Richmond.

Independent Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly, who has organised the rally, said that unlike previous redevelopments, the plan to knock down the towers had touched a nerve beyond people who live in public housing.

The Victorian Greens will introduce a motion to parliament on Tuesday demanding the government produce all documents relating to the project, party leader Samantha Ratnam said.

“Our new premier [Jacinta Allan] has an opportunity now to come clean on this project, and commit to building the public housing our state desperately needs,” she said. “And that means 100 per cent of housing rebuilt should be public housing.”

State opposition housing spokesman Richard Riordan also called for transparency on the project on Monday, including on the number of bedrooms in social housing units that would be created under the project and how the developments would be funded.

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