Successive state governments have struggled to manage The Rocks.
The streets are steeped in history and so is the way the community has operated. There are mythologies about The Rocks that are tied together in interesting ways and the community which has withstood everything from the Plague to greedy developers has learned how to stand together.
The value of the area for potential development seemed to suddenly dawn on the state government in around 1968 when they proposed demolishing most of the historical buildings and developing modern tower blocks. Buoyed by the success of a Green Ban in saving Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill, residents approached Jack Mundey and the Builders and Labourers Federation and requested they implement a Green Ban in The Rocks. They agreed and refused to work on the project on the grounds of the historical significance of the area. These were the days when construction was all but a ‘closed shop’ and without the support of the unionised workforce no work could go ahead. Along with The Rocks they also saved the Royal Botanic Gardens from being redeveloped into a car park for the Sydney Opera House.
This action galvanised the local community. They knew they could fight for their area and they now knew they could win.
Up until the 1980s almost all of the buildings in the area, especially residential, were owned by the Maritime Services Board (MSB). This was a hangover from the time when Sydney Harbour was a working harbour and the ports were run by the MSB, which provided accommodation at reduced rates for the port workers and their families. The residential properties were roughly divided into two areas and run in two distinct ways.
The Observatory Hill Resumed Area was made of single family dwellings which were let as family homes to the families to wharf workers and to low income earners and pensioners. They let directly from the MSB.
The area referred to as the West Rocks was made up of large terraces divided into ‘rooming houses’. These buildings were also owned by the MSB and managed by head tenants who would pay a weekly rent to the Board, then let out the rooms and apartments at a small profit. This is where my grandparents fitted in. They spent their life savings buying the leases on three of these properties as a place to live and draw a modest income from in their retirement, and to pass the leases to their children in their estates.
In 1979 the Minister for Housing, Mr Syd Einfeld no less, realised that there were residential properties in The Rocks and he wanted them for the Housing Commission. There’s a degree to which the transfer of the properties from the MSB to the Housing Commission makes sense. The purpose of the Housing Commission was to provide housing, where the purpose of the MSB was to manage the ports. It was an accident for the MSB to be managing these properties.
The transfer of ownership for the Observatory Hill Resumed Area was simple enough, the title was signed over to the Housing Commission and the tenants became Housing Commission tenants. Their position has been relatively stable until Minster Goward’s recent announcement these properties would be sold.
The West Rocks area was far more complicated. The MSB had always recognised the head tenant system as a legitimate business. In correspondence from the time they stated that ‘in the circumstances, it is considered that the present system works satisfactorily, catering for the needs of pensioners and low income sub-tenants without apparent undue profits being made at the Board’s expense.’
The Housing Commission refused to recognise the legitimate businesses of the head tenants. They proposed to put the head tenants and their sub tenants onto individual leases, ignoring the investments made by the head tenants in purchasing leases and maintaining and improving the buildings. The battle over this situation left head tenants and their sub tenants in limbo for seven years as solicitors and the Crown battled out an agreement for much reduced 20 year leases. For seven years the threat of eviction on one week’s notice hung over the tenants of 43 rooming houses. My grandfather died halfway through that seven year period.
This sort of uncertainty has been part of life in The Rocks for a long time. It’s a niggling anxiety that roars to the front of mind when the government once again sets its sights on your home. It’s an anxiety that is now overwhelming a community.
Elly Michelle Clough is a publicist and writer.