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Social housing? Not in my backyard, in fact, not even in my suburb

This week’s dog-bites-man headline surely has to be: “residents push back on state’s social housing blitz”. Ah, the more things change. But who knows, just as few of us could have predicted our current dystopian reality, maybe one day I’ll open The Age to behold, “Mayors in Camberwell and Malvern welcome sprawling new public housing in tree-lined streets despite the king-hit to surrounding property values” — which, for a headline, is admittedly hideously bulky.

Bulk being an oft-cited problem in this perennial struggle between housing equity and local democracy in Melbourne’s established suburbs. A routine objection to proposed new developments is that they’re “too bulky”, and likely to cause traffic chaos.

A bigger story would be if upmarket eastern suburbs welcomed public housing in their areas.

A bigger story would be if upmarket eastern suburbs welcomed public housing in their areas.Credit:Joe Armao

Or— ghetto alert!— too near to existing public housing, in the case of a proposal to use student accommodation for social housing in fast-gentrifying Seddon. Maribyrnong councillors initially blocked the proposal and then relented after the not-for-profit housing provider, Unison, agreed to employ on-site security three days a week.

But as I said, freak things do happen— a pandemic, for instance, which, like the global financial crisis of more than a decade ago, calls for urgent stimulus measures. Hence, the Andrews Government’s $5.3 billion Even Bigger Build, or whatever the justified superlative for an unprecedented plan to build 12,000 social and affordable homes, revivify the construction sector and shrink Victoria’s ever-inflating public housing waiting list. To achieve this goal, the government introduced a fast-track approvals process that limits the scope for local councils to stymie the developments.

And stymie the developments, the local governments would: Boroondara and Stonnington councillors decry the new process as an attack on residents’ rights.

In Bills Street Hawthorn an existing public housing complex of 53 units will be replaced with 206 units in buildings of up to seven storeys. Some neighbouring residents say the government’s consultation process with them was “farcical”. They say they would accept three to four storeys and no more than 300 people, which as a counter offer is intriguingly precise.

An artist’s impression of the Bills Street project with 206 units.

An artist’s impression of the Bills Street project with 206 units.Credit:Homes Victoria

I do sympathise with locals who suddenly learn their tranquil backyards are to be blitzed with more shadow and noise, and their streets shaved of green. I mean this sincerely— just when it seemed Australians couldn’t be more emotionally invested in their patch, and the machinations of the property market, along comes the plague, the HomeBuilder grant and the deeper retreat behind the contemporary equivalent of the white picket fence.

And in theory I accept there’s a happy medium to be found between the Chinese Communist Party-style approach to community consultation on urban affairs and an army of consultants running endless community hackathons on every aspect of a proposed development until everyone— and the project— falls over with exhaustion.

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