Forty years ago, being Aboriginal meant being discriminated against in the private rental market. When conflicts arose between Aboriginal squatters in Redfern and the local authorities, Aboriginal activists were inspired to set up the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) in 1973. The AHC began purchasing land at The Block using a $500,000 grant from the Whitlam government.
The next 40 years were marked by highs and lows, struggles and disappointments, roadblocks and accomplishments.
In the 1970s and ’80s, The Block became a new urban home where Aboriginal people could belong. CEO of the AHC, Mick Mundine, recalls a “very caring and sharing” time. Music would fill the air and kids would play on the streets.
But the good times did not last.
In the 1990s, the Redfern community was slammed with drugs and alcohol, which preyed on deeper mental issues. “A lot of people get onto drugs because they’ve got no life for them,” Mr Mundine said. “[They wonder] where else to go? That’s when they turn to grog and they turn to drugs.”
A “vicious cycle” was begun and the AHC’s land was transformed into a safe environment for criminal habits, he said.
Mr Mundine blamed the government for perpetuating a “welfare mentality” amongst Aboriginal people. But he also emphasised the need for Aboriginal people to take responsibility for their actions.
The community was deteriorating and the AHC had to face the hard decision of whether or not to demolish the beloved Block. The 2004 Redfern riots sealed the deal: “Enough’s enough,” Mr Mundine said. Tenants would be relocated, The Block would be demolished and, ultimately, redeveloped.
Over the years, the AHC has had to fight hard to keep the Redfern land. Disagreements with the state government meant that it took ten years to gain Concept Approval for the $70 million Pemulwuy Project. Mr Mundine said the state government had tried to “crucify” the AHC because they wanted the land. “That land is prime real estate,” he said, pointing towards The Block.
Today, The Block remains in the hands of the AHC. A business plan is currently being written up by KPMG and the DA approval in December last year gives the AHC five years to complete the Pemulwuy Project. Outside Redfern, the company owns 41 houses across metropolitan and country areas, which will continue to be leased to Aboriginal people after The Block’s completion.
It has been a 40-year struggle but the passion of Mr Mundine and the AHC has not waned. More than simply providing affordable housing for Aboriginal people, its redevelopment projects are about self-determination and building a new community. Mr Mundine’s hope for the future envisions a brand new community with good housing, good parents, healthy kids going to school and tenants that work to make sure the vicious cycle of the past does not return.
Many non-Aboriginal people have also shown their support for creating a better Redfern. Not only was Mr Mundine thankful to his own company, but also to the several non-Indigenous supporters such as the City of Sydney, REDWatch, Superintendent Luke Freudenstein and the recently passed Col James. “I think it boils down to respect. We’re all working together, all want to achieve that one goal,” he said. Mr Mundine paid tribute to Col James, calling him a “legend” and a “brother”. “He had a good heart, he was strong in what he believed in. He was a man that looked after disadvantaged people in housing, especially Aboriginal people.”
Published in the South Sydney Herald, front page, August 2013.