by Tahlia Phillips
The final application for the redevelopment of The Block in Redfern has been approved, and the bulldozers are set to roll in any day. After a decade-long debate, the incoming Pemulwuy Project will include 42 affordable houses for Indigenous residents, student housing for 400, and retail, commercial and cultural spaces.
The area has been used as Aboriginal-managed affordable housing since the Whitlam Government gave the land to the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) in the 1970s. But as crime, alcohol and drugs increasingly plagued the area the Commission decided it was time to clean it up.
“This Block was becoming a blackfellas’ graveyard. They’d come here to die, to use,” says Mick Mundine, Chief Executive of the AHC.
The Commission triggered controversy in 2000 when they evicted The Block’s tenants and demolished their houses. “There were some noses out of joint about that whole thing,” says Taon Thorne, who grew up in Redfern’s Indigenous community.
Mr Mundine has long promised to invite those tenants back to the area when the project is completed. However, he says this will be contingent on their tenancy history, pointing out that it would be “hypocritical” of the Commission to offer placements to people who were known to sell or use drugs.
The AHC says that many of the former residents were engaged in illegal activity and estimate almost all had not paid their rent at some point. So it seems unlikely that any of the 300 former residents will be allowed back into the redeveloped Block.
Despite the media focus on the controversial evictions, few formal complaints were made when the proposal was on public exhibition earlier this year. “We received only 10 public submissions, which is a relatively small number for a project of this size,” says Laurel-Lee Roderick, of the Department of Planning and Infrastructure.
Efforts are being made to maintain a strong Indigenous presence, including the relocation of the Aboriginal flag mural to the front of the new site. However some former residents feel that the retail spaces and student accommodation will not be relevant to the affordable housing tenants.
The project will however turn a profit of around $4 million a year, which will go back into Aboriginal housing in Redfern and elsewhere. So Mick Mundine wants the public to adjust their expectations and consider that the Pemulwuy Project will likely create a more vibrant, safe and sustainable community.
“I don’t believe that we should dwell on the past. If we don’t start paving the way and building a good, strong platform for our next generation of children, we shouldn’t be working in this position,” he says.