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‘Partial privatisation’: Waterloo South public housing tenants say NSW Labor misled residents

After the Minns government won the New South Wales election, Norrie May-Welby finally invested in a mod con to her home that would seem humdrum to most: she bought new fly screens.

This, she thought, was the end of seven years spent waiting for the day she would be relocated from her home at Waterloo South public housing estate.

But now, May-Welby is one of more than 3,000 residents awaiting answers after a string of conflicting Labor messages has left them confused about the future of the estate.

“They told us they would protect our homes,” she said, from her home on Cope Street, where the redevelopment was earmarked to start. “I thought OK I can breathe a sigh of relief; I can throw out my packing boxes; I spent $500 on new fly screens for the side of my house.

“What a waste of money that’s turned out to be.”

Residents say they feel misled by Labor ahead of the election, and in limbo as they await news of the estate’s future.

The government has confirmed a redevelopment will go ahead, with the state’s housing minister, Rose Jackson, telling Guardian Australia the details would be available after a tender to choose the developer was decided in the next two to three months.

Jackson has assured residents the redeveloped estate will remain in government hands, with a higher proportion of social and affordable housing than the previous Coalition’ government’s privatisation plan.

But tenants say they are frustrated and confused because Labor’s pre-election commitments led them to believe that ending privatisation meant the site would no longer be redeveloped. It is also unclear what the mix of public and private housing will be.

Norrie May-Welby only learned the estate would be redeveloped after seeing the premier speak in parliament. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/NY Today News

May-Welby said she felt duped by a letter and texts tenants got from Ron Hoenig, the state MP for Heffron, in the lead-up to the election urging tenants to send the Liberal party a message – “Hands off Waterloo” – by voting Labor.

She only realised the redevelopment was going ahead after she saw the premier, Chris Minns, respond to a question in parliament by saying it would proceed with “improvements” to the previous government’s plan. This involved selling public housing estates to build new residences split into 30% social housing, and 70% privately owned properties.

May-Welby felt Minns’ position was at odds with a tweet he sent days earlier saying Labor would freeze the privatisation of public housing. Minns has maintained the government’s plan to push ahead with the redevelopment is not privatisation and in line with its election policies.

“They seem to be trying to say it is not privatisation because it’s only partial privatisation,” May-Welby said. “For them to equivocate and say that’s not privatisation, that’s outrageous.”

In March, the City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott posted “a huge announcement” to her Facebook account: that Labor would end the sale of public housing.

“If you live in public housing, Labor will protect your home,” Scott, a Labor party councillor, wrote.

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“Your home will not be sold, and you will not be relocated.”

But in May after the election, the NSW Land Housing Corporation confirmed to a portion of tenants during consultation with the Indigenous community that residents would be temporarily relocated in stages while the redevelopment occurred.

Earlier this month, Jackson told Guardian Australia residents would be rehoused within the suburb and offered spots back in the complex when the development is completed.

Geoff Turnbull, the spokesperson for community group REDWatch, said the problem was the government was “putting out these one liners” to tenants without explanation.

“I think what happened is they were quite happy to be ambiguous and for people to make from that messaging what they wanted to,” Turnbull said.

“Understandably those who read those pre-election messages are pissed off and in part because there’s all of a sudden this wiggle room around when it is a sale and when it is not.”

He said the government’s plan also seemed at odds with the spirit of a policy adopted at Labor’s conference last year that included legislating a moratorium on the future privatisation of public housing.

“They’ve got to try and square with what the conference voted for,” he said.

In response to questions from Guardian Australia, Jackson said: “I totally understand the frustration and confusion surrounding Waterloo South for residents – there are timeframes that are out of our control but we are working hard to resolve our plan as quickly as possible.”

Jenny Leong, the member for Newtown and the Greens housing and homelessness spokesperson, said the communication with tenants needed to improve.

“If the government isn’t sure about what the future of Waterloo is then the community deserves to know this – rather than being forced to decipher social media squares and unpick answers in question time about the demolition of their homes,” she said.

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