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Tower outbreak fears spark call to tackle public housing overcrowding

Residents would hopefully join the rest of the city under stage three restrictions this week, after five days of hard lockdown.

Melbourne City Council has asked its management to urgently prepare pandemic plans for public housing estates in Carlton and Kensington.

It noted there were other high-rise buildings in the City of Melbourne and surrounding municipalities where residents were vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The force-first support-last approach the state imposed on North Melbourne and Flemington communities is a failure and must never happen again,” Cr Rohan Leppert said.

Yarra City Council voted to ask the state government to ensure immediate testing for all tenants in its 12 public housing towers, ensure sanitiser was made available in every laundry, foyer and lift, and instruct security to assist with social distancing in communal laundries, foyers and lifts.

Tenants in other high-rise estates throughout the city fear they could also be subjected to hard lockdowns if there is an outbreak of COVID-19.

Acting Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly on Sunday described the towers as “vertical cruise ships” with a large concentration of people in tight confines, and said particular attention was needed to ensure the spread was minimised.

Tenants say they have been lobbying the government to increase the amounts of hand sanitiser available, improve cleaning and address perennially broken lifts.

Blessing Nelson, who lives in a Fitzroy high-rise tower, said some families with five or six children were crammed into three-bedroom flats.

She said they often had to wait for years on public housing waiting lists to get larger homes.

“I’ve been a bit worried it [a hard lockdown] will happen to us next, because we have a lot of aged people and kids in the building,” she said.

A message of support placed opposite the locked-down towers in North Melbourne on Tuesday.

A message of support placed opposite the locked-down towers in North Melbourne on Tuesday.Credit:Jason South

Ms Nelson called for precautionary measures including spot temperature checks in the foyer, a ban on visitors and hand sanitiser to be distributed to all tenants.

She also called for a lift upgrade, saying one lift was often out of service, which meant the foyer was crowded with people waiting, especially given there were now restrictions of two people per lift.


The Victorian Greens wrote to Housing Minister Richard Wynne in June warning many families were desperately waiting for transfers to ease their overcrowded living conditions.

The letter said these conditions had become even more stark during COVID-19 restrictions, with children attempting to learn from home while parents worked in tiny apartments.

“We have raised the woeful, overcrowded conditions in public housing many times with this government and received very little action,” said acting leader of the Victorian Greens Ellen Sandell.

Opposition housing spokesman Tim Smith said the towers were unfit for purpose.


“Stories of eight people from one family in a two- or three-bedroom apartment are clearly unacceptable,” he said.

Mr Smith called for compulsory testing of all public housing tenants, rostered communal laundry times and deep cleaning of all communal spaces. He said any tenants who became sick with COVID-19 should be transferred to hospital or put in quarantine outside the towers.

The Victorian Public Tenants Association said, according to the Productivity Commission’s report on government service, about 4.3 per cent of public housing in the state was overcrowded, compared to a national average of 3.8 per cent.

“Anecdotally, we know that much of the overcrowding occurs in high-density situations like the high-rise towers,” Mr Feenane said. “The solution to overcrowding is to build more homes so that multiple households do not have to live under one roof.

“When considering what to construct, government should be looking at demand on the wait list and also the number of large families currently living in overcrowded conditions, to ensure stock is matched to need.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said hand sanitiser had been available at all high-rises since the pandemic began and cleaning of touch points had increased to five times a day.

“These services have been ramped up with a schedule of complete deep-sanitation cleans at all 44 high-rise sites, three additional pandemic cleaning crews and updated coronavirus infection control protocol for cleaners.”

The spokesperson said information was available in various languages in common areas across all towers, and translators were on the ground at the towers in Flemington and North Melbourne.

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