On the ground

by Natasha Cica

GLENN MACGREGOR'S HOUSE has stunning river and mountain views, neatly netted fig trees in the garden, and a collection of cars including a Volvo and a Mercedes parked in the driveway. What do you assume about Glenn? What if I also mention he's a long-term resident of Bridgewater, a satellite suburb on the far north-eastern edge of Hobart that was built as a public housing broad-acre estate in the 1970s?

That mixed bag of facts won't gel for readers in Hobart. With its neighbouring estate, Gagebrook, Bridgewater has long been on the far wrong side of the tracks. These suburbs are notorious for scoring low on qualifications, skills, literacy, employment and income, and high on welfare dependency, substance abuse, crime, teenage pregnancy and family breakdown. In a state which has lagged behind the nation on many of these indicators, these estates have lagged behind the state.

The area's outgoing Labor federal member Harry Quick recalls that, when he started teaching in the local high school in 1990, it was "blackboard jungle stuff". By 1997, Bridgewater was considered to have Australia's lowest level of wellbeing. Whole streets of public housing stood vacant, houses smashed and torched. Housing Tasmania administrators remember people writing on their applications that they wouldn't live in Bridgewater or Gagebrook – no matter how desperate they were.

A decade later, these stereotypes persist. A few months back, The Mercury gave front-page coverage to a stone-throwing campaign by local kids against Metro bus drivers, and published a flame-licked arson map evoking last year's riots in the Paris projects. Locals maintain that the stories were sensationalised, that these were the actions of a smaller than ever handful of troublemakers, that Bridgewater and Gagebrook have changed. But I'm apprehensive as well as curious when I drive the twenty kilometres from inner-city Hobart.

"Are you sure you're a journalist?" asks Tony Foster, half joking, when I tell him I want to write a different kind of story. The mayor of Brighton – a municipality taking in Bridgewater and Gagebrook as well as more genteel neighbouring rural-residential areas – since the early 1990s, Foster spent his own childhood in public housing across the river. He's well known for throwing the arms and heart of Brighton open to the Kosovar Albanian refugees dumped there by Canberra in 1999. "I like having goals and bringing them to fruition," he says. In recent years, these have included a radical plan for total local water reuse that has let opium poppies, canola seed, market gardens and orchards bloom on Brighton's dry agricultural land, and a still-evolving blueprint for his municipality to become a hub for rail transport, and to attract industry and enterprise.

Foster's biggest challenge has been the bad reputation of Bridgewater and Gagebrook. "Thirty years on, we still haven't been able to remove the stigma. It will happen, but it didn't take that long in other disadvantaged areas of Hobart with high levels of public housing built in the 1950s and 1960s," he says.

Like everyone else I talk to, Foster identifies the lack of basic infrastructure – transport, shops, services, sporting and recreational facilities – as a central, ongoing problem. A single visit reinforces this truth. Despite the postcard views of the Derwent River and Mount Wellington, the built landscape is bleak. The East Derwent highway slices the sprawling estates of purpose-built, grey-block houses into four awkward sectors dotted with lonely Metro bus stops, splotched with vandal-proof paint jobs. Bridgewater's shabby shopping centre is marooned on top of a hill, which heavy young mums with cheap prams and older pensioners struggle to reach on foot. There is a bargain store called Chickenfeed, a supermarket and a charity shop, its windows covered with metal grilles. In Gagebrook, homeboys on bikes cluster around the graffiti-smeared front of a fish-and-chip shop. Bigger blokes hot-rod around suburban cul de sacs, or fold their arms with attitude as I drive past front yards cluttered with car wrecks. I suspect they're up to no good. Druggies and dropouts for sure.

 

HANG ON A minute. Exactly who has the attitude problem here? What do I think I'm doing, cruising like a tourist in my prissy Barina? On the edge of a children's playground, I pull over and get out, photographer in tow.

It's a good place to stop. The kids stare, then ask us what we're up to, then pose like Britney Spears or James Dean, and ask us to write down their names, or run away giggling, the same open/closed blend of honesty and shyness you'll find in any playground in Tasmania. We notice this playground's named in honour of someone determined to help Bridgewater and Gagebrook shift gears.

Domestic violence drove Chris Fitzpatrick and her young children from "normal" Hobart suburbia to these estates in the early 1990s. By 1996, she was running the Bridgewater/Gagebrook Urban Renewal Project (BURP), an organisation established with one-off funding from federal minister Brian Howe's "Building Better Cities" program, whose management team also included representatives of the local police, high school, businesses, council and housing. Fitzpatrick saw a direct connection between social and economic exclusion and low self-esteem. Determined to build that esteem, Fitzpatrick mobilised her community through BURP to communicate and collaborate in a remarkable exercise of DIY civil society.

An early Fitzpatrick target was a gang of teenage boys who were living in unsupervised groups in public housing units and wreaking havoc in the neighbourhood. Fitzpatrick sent a message to the gang leader, "Billy", saying she wanted to do a deal. His return message said he'd be at her house at seven o'clock the next night. Exactly on time, he knocked on her door and asked what she wanted. She said she wanted to talk.

Billy said he thought he'd come for a drug deal, and she answered that no, she needed him to talk to young people about what they wanted. "I'll pay you – this is called consultation," she said.

The next morning, Billy left a piece of paper for her under a rock. On it he'd written: "We'd like to play sport ... we'd like a place to go where no one will move us on." Fitzpatrick acted on these suggestions and Billy and his gang came on board. The bottom line, says Harry Quick, was: "If you're part of the community, you shouldn't stuff the community up, and we'll exclude you if you won't be part of the process."

By the late 1990s, BURP had set up sports teams and facilities, adult literacy classes, computer training, women's self defence lessons, mural painting, tree planting, a needle exchange program, a community festival, house painting, gardening, landscaping and fence painting schemes. It employed young people to look after their schools and vacant housing in the holidays, orchestrated winning entries in the Hobart Christmas Pageant, Rock Eisteddfod, Southern Men's Basketball tournament and Tidy Towns competition, and supported a home purchase assistance program for public housing tenants. Vandalism and property crime dropped dramatically, as did housing vacancy rates. The Mercury started running good news stories about Bridgewater and Gagebrook. For the first time, residents took real pride in themselves and their neighbourhood.

Tragically, Fitzpatrick died three years ago of cancer. (Local lore has it that, shortly before her death, a former member of Billy's gang called her from East Timor, telling her three of them had made it into the Australian army, thanking her for saving them from jail, and saying boot camp was bad but no harder than growing up in Bridgewater.)

Fitzpatrick's partner Gary Nasers now runs BURP. Today the organisation is mainly self-funded, with some support from Brighton Council and Housing Tasmania. Nasers is the first to admit Fitzpatrick's death left a big hole, and that despite the sense of community she undoubtedly engendered, Bridgewater and Gagebrook still score disturbingly high on most measures of socio-economic exclusion. But Nasers is positive about the future. He thinks BURP should now focus on developing education, training and employment opportunities, especially for young people. "It's very hard, labour intensive work," says Nasers. "You need a true comprehension of what damage is done by three generations of poverty and welfare dependence. You have to ask how you can break into that cycle. So we've paused a bit to explore how to do that. I'd like to see this community develop a pilot scheme for a broader, whole person, case management approach."

Nasers wants to set up a youth leadership program, and to develop a local plant nursery into a horticultural and agricultural skills training centre. More modest projects include the Turn Right program supplying a car, petrol and a mature volunteer adult to help young people clock up the fifty hours' supervised driving practice they need to get their P-plates, a model since copied elsewhere. A Hobart woman donated the first car, a local caryard supplied two more, then a battered Volvo appeared.

 

THESE ARE THE vehicles in Glenn MacGregor's driveway – but the old Mercedes is his own. So is his house, situated across an empty paddock from BURP, where the former log truck driver now works as a volunteer. This puts him on the right side of a very new dividing line in Bridgewater and Gagebrook – between the approximately one-third of estate residents who bought their houses before Tasmania's property boom between 1999 and 2003[i], when median house prices doubled across the state and more than trebled in Bridgewater, so that a house that sold pre-boom for around $40,000 can today easily fetch $150,000 – and those who did not.

The stability of this prosperity shift for the "new haves" in Bridgewater and Gagebrook remains to be seen. Mortgagors and even established home owners in these suburbs – and indeed wider Tasmania – could prove unexpectedly vulnerable when the real estate bubble deflates and the economy stalls or slides. As University of Tasmania housing policy experts Michelle Gabriel and Keith Jacobs have observed, "structural economic downturns across Australia tend to be deeper and last longer in Tasmania" because of its "relatively marginal and isolated nature"[ii]. And, as ANZ chief economist Saul Eslake argued in 2005, even in this economic boom time Tasmanians still rank relatively poorly on key indicators like income (20 per cent less than mainlanders), net household worth (31 per cent less), employment (57 per cent compared with 62 per cent nationally), long-term unemployment (onethird of total unemployed, compared with one-fifth nationally), children in sole-parent households (29.5 per cent compared with 23.3 per cent nationally) or households where no parent is employed (one-fifth of all Tasmanian children) and – critically for Eslake – educational attainment (44.1 per cent of working-age Tasmanians have not completed year 12, compared with 32.3 per cent nationally)[iii].

The "new have nots" are already feeing the pinch, not least of windfall envy. This boom has placed home ownership out of the reach of many Tasmanians, including the majority of Bridgewater and Gagebrook locals who missed out when prices were lower. House prices of $150,000 might seem like peanuts today in mainland or even mainstream Hobart terms, but unemployment in these suburbs remains far above national and Tasmanian averages, and household income, educational attainment and earning potential fall far below. Today, too, demand far outstrips the supply of public housing in these estates and elsewhere. Private rents across greater Hobart and Tasmania have soared, private sector vacancy rates are tight, and the state government has sold off substantial housing stock without (yet) delivering adequate replacement.[iv] Having traditionally enjoyed less "housing stress"[v] than all other Australians with the exception of residents of the Australian Capital Territory, market forces have put Tasmanians on an uncomfortable and unfamiliar par with mainlanders in relation to housing costs and homelessness. Hobart housing recently became the second least affordable of any capital city after Sydney, and there are three thousand families and individuals on Tasmania's public housing waiting list – a locally unprecedented number – many of whom sleep in tents or cars or depend on emergency shelter.

Some assert Bridgewater and Gagebrook were built thirty years ago to put some of the poorest of Australia's poorest state out of sight and mind. Maybe so, but no policy wonk or service provider crafting socio-economic solutions for analogous problems today – anywhere in Australia – can afford to ignore the unfolding lessons of this remote experiment in broad-acre housing. Estates like Bridgewater and Gagebrook were dreamed up at a moment of supreme optimism in the public sphere and faith in the welfare state. And they were doomed to fail, according to Keith Jacobs – not because that sentiment was necessarily misplaced, but because of the "tenure bias" in Australian housing policy, so that generous tax subsidies have favoured private home ownership, entrenching public housing as the tenancy of last resort, increasingly a ghetto for high-needs residents and without adequate resources to meet those needs.

There is a clear and growing need for more balanced and sustainable housing policy across the state and the nation, avoiding both neo-liberal and welfarist excesses and extremes. But the main message I took out of Bridgewater and Gagebrook is that top-down solutions must be complemented by community-driven initiatives. In turn, this demands more of Fitzpatrick's kind of attitude, working from the bottom up to bring out the best in what looks – to most – like the worst.


[i] Based on ABS data from the 2001 census. Note that the rate of public housing tenancy is substantially higher in Gagebrook (69.7 per cent of all dwellings, according to 2001 census) than Bridgewater (45.8 per cent).

[ii] Michelle Gabriel and Keith Jacobs, "Opportunities and constraints in state housing policy: the example of Tasmania's 'Affordable Housing Strategy', Urban Policy and Research, forthcoming.

[iii] Saul Eslake, "Poverty in Tasmania: an economist's perspective", Dorothy Pearce address to the Tasmanian Council of Social Service, 29 October 2005, p. 4.

[iv] For discussion of Tasmania's affordable housing strategy, including the role of private sector investment and the Tasmanian government's aborted relationship with Macquarie Community Partnerships (part of Macquarie Bank), see Gabriel and Jacobs, "Opportunities and constraints in state housing policy". See further Premier Paul Lennon, "State of the State Address to the Tasmanian Parliament", 26 September 2006, available at , announcing public-private housing partnerships with OneCare and STEPS. For some illustration of potential (although arguably not inevitable) problems associated with private development of affordable housing, see the recent decision of Tasmania's Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal inTasmania Properties, ICR Property & Investment Group vs Brighton Council, J99/2006.

[v] Defined as people with incomes between the bottom 10 per cent and bottom 40 per cent of the distribution of equivalised household income, and living in households where housing costs are more than 30 per cent of the household's gross income: see Eslake, "Poverty in Tasmania", note 19.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 15: Divided Nation © Copyright Griffith University & the author.