In this week of Rootyhillard, I will be writing five posts on this site about 5 different aspects of the Western Sydney experience. Hopefully it will add some insight into a week where there will be a lot of superficial Western Sydney coverage. My fellow Western Sydney resident, Bluntshovels, will also be contributing to this project. Her first cracking post about employment is already done. My first is about housing.
When the 2010 Federal Election was on, I was living in an apartment building in a pretty high density area in South Penrith. In the letterbox of that apartment building, deep inside the seat of Lindsay, came this leaflet, authorised by the Liberal Party’s Mark Neeham:
The 2010 campaign didn’t feature a lot of conversations about population – and certainly no numbers like this. It did speak, however, about the Liberal Party’s strategy designed to appeal to the residents of Penrith. That the ALP was all about bringing more people into Western Sydney, which will make housing more expensive, living more expensive, health care less accessible, transport under more pressure. When you hear the likes of Scott Morrison and others talk about asylum seekers, part of their message is that “asylum seekers will come into your suburbs and place more pressure on your services” – even though these asylum seekers make up a fraction of actual new residents of the area. A more than significant percentage of people in Western Sydney don’t care too much where people come from, but what does concern them is “where will they live?” Western Sydney has a serious housing availability and cost problem. It is important, therefore, to see what type of issues affect housing in the region.
I have lived in both Penrith and Campbelltown, which both provide some useful lessons as to what issues are present in the amorphous “western suburbs”. The most maligned type of housing – and the one often provided to new refugees – is public housing. The type like this in Ambarvale, south of Campbelltown, that we see regularly on TV – and lampooned in that dreadful step backwards into narrow mindedness, the TV show Housos.
Public housing tenants aren’t given the best treatment in our media. Nor are many of the children brought up in such areas provided with the best chances to get good schooling and job opportunities. It is difficult, also, for many to leave public housing to go to the next step, becoming a private tenant. To give some perspective to the cost of rental property in Western Sydney, the flat I lived in during the 2010 election – the one I jokingly call Preston Towers – was 5 minutes bus ride from Penrith Station – which in itself is some 50 kilometres from Sydney. The train ride on a train with seats (i.e. not the Mountains train) was an hour or so. Driving into Sydney in peak hour was madness. The rather modest 2 bedroom flat was at that time, would have been $230 per week to rent. That has risen to, on average, $300 per week at current market rates. It was a nice flat – aside from the occasional sound of shouting, partying and rugby league matches from the nearby stadium, it was a pleasant place to live. In that world of two story apartment buildings that was Preston St, there was a mix of many cultures and stories. In that street, there were also public housing tenants housed under a scheme whereby the government paid the rent to landlords. With the result, in at least one case, of no discernible desire from the landlord to upgrade anything inside the flat. That isn’t an unusual story for tenants, however. When I was a tenant in Rosemeadow, near Campbelltown, it was next to impossible to get things fixed. The powerlessness of tenants – especially public housing ones – is one untold story of the suburbs.
When I was placed in the unusual position of becoming a landlord, there were a number of applicants for the flat, all vetted by the property manager. On the no-go list were 17 year olds who had just moved out of home and had their first job – apparently Werrington was more suitable for that kind of tenant. Also on the list was a couple, expecting a child, who had to downsize due to that reason. They had great references too. I was asked, however, whether “it was ok that they are Indians” by the property manager. After being momentarily floored by the question, I said “of course”. That communicated to me that maybe some landlords aren’t as happy to rent out to people of various cultural background. It made me think that perhaps the landlords of the Penrith area are part of the problem in a society that still doesn’t quite understand multiculturalism. It also gave me pause to think how tough it would be for some people to obtain private housing in the area.
It is little wonder, therefore, the “aspiration” for many people in the Western Suburbs is to rise from being tenants in a suburb to becoming an owner – no matter the size of the mortgage. Anything that threatens that dream is therefore of great interest to people in the west. The way the suburbs are structured in places like Campbelltown and Penrith, public housing regularly sits near luxury housing. In that way, the luxury home is a regularly visualised dream for people from all walks of life. Two minutes away by car from the Ambarvale public housing shown in the photo above is Glen Alpine, briefly famous for once containing the home of Mark Latham.
These are the “McMansions” of legend, though that’s a pretty unfair title, in that each family makes it into their home – and there is a variety of design. As with 1990s designed suburbs, however, energy efficiency isn’t their strongest aspect. They shine as a way of showing tenants and owners of homes down the road in Rosemeadow and Ambarvale of what they should aspire to have. It is also brutally unfair, however, to characterise the West of consisting just of these types of homes. Just two more minutes down the road towards Campbelltown Hospital, there is a new set of more contemporary medium density housing.
A pretty pleasant place to live – and medium density near established centres should have swiftly become the norm for the middle class in Western Sydney. It isn’t however, as the NSW O’Farrell Government prefers the 90s style urban sprawl, which will see various greenfield sites taken, with little done to improve transport links – rather, again private transportation will be favoured. A model for this type of development is Oran Park Town, some 20 minutes west of Campbelltown Station – it is 65 ks South West of Sydney. Two of the main roads that service the area – Camden Valley Way and the Northern Road – are two lane roads, already placed under great stress each day. Only now is work starting on widening Camden Valley Way. The houses there cost between $450,000 and $500,000 – a sizeable investment. The houses sit on smaller blocks than the 90s homes – with the backyard largely replaced with the “indoor outdoor” area, which to the buyers of these new homes is an acceptable compromise.
It is for these reasons that available housing, the cost of housing, the cost of travelling from the house to work, the cost of heating and cooling one’s house – are all crucial issues to many people in Western Sydney. There are many with large mortgages to service – much larger than comparable suburbs in Melbourne and Brisbane. This is why scare campaigns designed to raise the spectre of population growth – whether that be asylum seekers or just generally new immigrants or about new taxes can have an audience.
As for a solution to the housing supply and value problem in NSW, it is hardly likely the Liberal Party will provide any better solution to voters. The O’Farrell Government’s commitment to urban sprawl over medium density high rise development in existing suburbs shows that in fact the Liberal Party is committed to taking up more land and increasing stress on existing infrastructure – already O’Farrell has flagged a new development in Catherine Field, a few kilometres north of Oran Park, next to Camden Valley Way. It’s decisions like these which make Tony Abbott’s support for the Wesconnex Motorway rather meaningless in terms of helping members of households move about. Incidentally, These developments aren’t all that far from Badgery’s Creek – another important element in the region.
When it comes to issues in Western Sydney, it doesn’t come much bigger than housing for a lot of voters in the region. Glib statements and plans is what the residents will most likely hear – and it won’t be of much assistance to them.
Preston Towers is the nickname given to an apartment building on Preston St, South Penrith. It’s also the pseudonym of a teacher who used to live in that apartment building. He tweets under the name @prestontowers, has a blog called The Preston Institute, which is a tribute to the King of Institutes, Gerard Henderson.