By Wendy Bacon: Michael West Media
Why is there more homeless today, per capita, but fewer squatters? Fifty years on, Wendy Bacon looks back on the landmark protests of Victoria Street, Kings Cross.
Fifty years ago this month, hundreds of people gathered in Victoria Street, Kings Cross, to support a group of squatters who had been evicted by truckloads of Kings Cross bouncers hired by a property developer Frank Theeman.
At dawn on January 3, scores of NSW police reported for work at Darlinghurst police station, then notorious for its culture of violence and corruption. They accompanied the hired enforcers, many of whom worked in clubs owned by organised crime boss Abe Saffron. The police stood by while the men used sledgehammers to smash through barricades that squatters and NSW Builders’ Labourers had constructed to protect the large terraces. Once the doors were forced open, the police entered and arrested anyone who refused to leave.
I was one of forty people arrested that day. Others included Liz Fell, Ian Milliss, Val Hodgson, Anne Summers, Darcy Waters, George Molnar, Lauren Frost, Teresa Brennan, Elvis Kippman and Roelof Smilde.
I’d been living at 115 Victoria Street since June 1973. The sparsely furnished but spacious apartment that I shared with friends Sasha Soldatow and ‘Mrs Troy’ overlooked the working-class suburb of Woolloomooloo, which at that time, like Victoria Street, was threatened with demolition. Many of its private tenants had already been pushed out by other property developers. 115 was one of about 25 subdivided mansions and low-rise apartments left almost empty after Theeman had evicted three hundred or so tenants.
Some of the tenants who had lived there for decades were older single people who were literally picked up by Theeman’s agents and moved into nearby rooms -bedrooms with a kitchenette. This tactic broke their protected tenancies which would have enabled them to legally resist eviction in the courts. Over a fortnight, they were moved on to other tiny rooms, some of them mouldy ones behind restaurants and other businesses in Kings Cross.
There were also many other younger tenants, amongst them Arthur King, who began the Victoria Street Resident Action (Vic. St. RAG) group. Arthur was a member of the Sydney Push, and through him, some of us who lived around the Kings Cross area joined the group.
Arthur was harassed by cops from Darlinghurst Police Station and then kidnapped and held for several days by men who were also associated with Kings Cross clubs owned by Abe Saffron. He returned, but under the threat of being killed, he understandably moved out. The group continued.
Sasha and I were members of the Victoria Street Resident Action Group (Vic. St. RAG), which decided to occupy the houses in mid-1973. Our purpose was to protect the few remaining tenants who felt unsafe in the nearly empty buildings, which were being stripped of their marble fireplaces and destroyed from the inside by fires lit during the night. Security guards with crowbars patrolled the street. We’d met Mrs Troy, who was homeless, on the train on our way home from a meeting of the Combined Resident Actions Groups, a Sydneywide group. On the spot, she took up our invitation to join the squat and stayed until a few days before the end of 1973.
I don’t think that Mrs Troy ever told us her first name, but she did tell us that she used to dress as Queen Victoria for the annual Sydney artists’ balls. She used to cook the squatter’s plates of morning scones. (You can read much more about Sasha, who died in 2006 in Inez Baranay’s recently published Drink against Drunkenness – the life and times of Sasha Soldatow.)
After we were carted away in police vans and spent several hours in the cells, we returned to find that three members of our group were still on the chimneys of 115. Con, Keith and Elvis stayed there for hours while a crowd of supporters chanted and sang in the street below. Our belongings were strewn over the street.
Eventually, all squatters had been removed from the properties. By the morning of January 4, 115 Victoria Street was empty save for a sole, brave remaining legal tenant, seaman and musician Mick Fowler. He had spent the first of what would be hundreds of nights surrounded by a small remaining crew of Theeman’s hired men who saw it as part of their job to threaten and taunt him.
The Vic. St. RAG aimed to protect not just the buildings but also to ensure the street would continue to provide homes for a community of workers, artists, students, pensioners and other low-income residents. Theeman’s plan was to build a for-profit development of hundreds of apartments. Originally, he planned to demolish all the nineteenth-century terraces and replace them with three huge towers.
When the National Trust recommended that the terraces should not be demolished due to their heritage value, he developed a new plan that would protect the terrace facades but remove everything else, including other heritage buildings, a small block of apartments, and scores of other tiny apartments.
At the request of the Vic. St. RAG, the NSW Builders Labourers Union and the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen Association (FEDFA) (heavy machinery drivers) had imposed a green ban, which meant no union member would demolish or build on the site.
Theeman’s development was stalled. He was advised that he needed to go through the courts to evict the squatters. His test case against one squatter John Cox, who had moved into Victoria Street with his partner and their children, took months to finalise. There were appeals. Finally, in December 1973, the case was over. Cox was found to be occupying 59 Victoria Street ‘without reasonable cause’. Theeman quietly met with NSW Askin government Ministers, the NSW police and corrupt ex-police to plan for the eviction of the rest of the squatters. We knew that our time as squatters in Victoria Street was coming to an end.
Vibrant but short-lived community
The squat was more than a defensive action. It was also an opportunity to build a cooperative community where key decisions were made at community meetings. An inspiring radical activist and member of the Communist Party, Hal Alexander, connected the electricity, friendly plumbers turned on the gas and water and phone lines were connected. Fences were knocked down, gardens planted, meals shared and street parties organised.
There was a roster of people who took responsibility for minding children living with their parents in the squat. We called it a childcare co-op. It was far from perfect, but many people who were there remembered the period as inspiring and formative. The artist Ian Millis wrote on his Facebook page a few days ago:
The area was under a green ban by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation at our instigation but had become quite literally an urban battleground, notoriously the most extreme, most violent, most hard-fought green ban in Sydney. There is so much that can be said about this but for me, it is the personal, the people I met there and the experiences that changed the course of my life completely, leading to my many years working with the trade union movement and an entirely different understanding of what it was to be an artist and what art is, what culture is.
Our ideas were influenced by theories of organisation derived from social anarchism. Some of us were Sydney Libertarians of the Sydney Push who believed in direct action and were sometimes called ‘pessimistic anarchists’. Others like Sasha Soldatov, who grew up in Melbourne also described themselves as anarchists and had radical ideas about community grassroots planning. Ian Milliss was living with a group of progressive artists very close by. He was already challenging the conservative art scene in Sydney and was the person who introduced us to ideas about permaculture. We were also influenced by notions of counter-culture, workers’ control and the New Left.
Some of us were also attracted to radical feminism, which promoted non-hierarchical ideas of collective organising. We were inspired by the NSW BLF, a militant union who were prepared to take action to defend workers’ and community rights.
In the days following our eviction, I wrote a long article for the weekly newspaper Living Daylights. Edited by Richard Neville, it was a companion publication of the better-known Nation Review.
The full article can be found in the University of Wollongong archives. (For those interested in the 1970s, this site contains the full archives of this and other radical publications of the time.)
My story began:
Last week in Sydney, a private army of thugs accompanied by the NSW police force evicted the Victoria Street squatters – a frightening experience for those who were there. However, to exaggerate the importance of the use of thugs is to miss the importance of what is happening in Sydney today.
Against the interests of profit and speculation, the resident action groups, backed by some unions, are fighting to retain the city as a place where ordinary people, not just a select few, can live. Against them, the developers and the state have a whole range of weapons – the law, the courts, the police, thugs, the media (at times), the PR men and experts ( town planners and establishment architects). Less successfully than most, Theeman of Victoria Point Pty Ltd has used all of them. With the squatters now on the street, it remains to be seen if he is any better off than he was when they were in his buildings.
At the time I wrote these words, we were ourselves unsure of what would come next. The squatting was over in Victoria Street but continued in other places in Sydney, including in areas of Glebe threatened by a planned expressway. The Victoria Street squatters scattered across Sydney. Years later, some of us bought homes in Inner Sydney, something that would be impossible for people like us today. Others moved out of Sydney including to alternative communities in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.
One of the issues we discussed at the time was how to make sure that everyone found at least a temporary home. We were keenly aware that there was a difference between those who had been homeless when they joined the squat and others who could at least rent another group house. Increasingly, people were moving into the Inner West. The group did continue to have meetings but energy and focus waned.
A co-operative housing plan
Before the evictions, we had developed a plan for the street to become a community-owned cooperative housing community. There were various versions of the plan, but they involved the then Whitlam government buying the site off Theeman (who by then had stated he would be relieved to sell it to avoid the heavy interest payments that he complained were bleeding him dry) and his finance company CAGA. The cooperate members would then pay ‘rent’, slowly paying it off until ‘the tenants’ collectively owned it.
Remnants of the Vic. St. RAG pursued this cooperative dream until 1975 when the Federal and State governments announced that they would save the public housing in Woolloomooloo. By then, the local journalist Juanita Nielsen was also actively campaigning for the Victoria Street part of Kings Cross to be included in the plan to save Woolloomooloo for low-income earners. But when the plans were announced, it was clear that Victoria Street would not be included. The real estate was regarded as too valuable.
But still, Theeman faced obstacles. Juanita Nielsen and her newspaper NOW, a Water Board Union ban and Mick Fowler remained. Juanita was present at a Federal, state and local government event to announce the Woolloomooloo plan but was murdered shortly afterwards in July 1975. A NSW Coroner later found that although her murderers had not been identified, she had been killed because of her opposition to development.
Juanita and the then President of the NSW FEDFA, Vic Fitzgerald (he had been a pioneer and leader in the Green Ban movement from the very first ban in Kelly’s Bush), visited Mick Fowler on the evening before she was murdered. They were discussing whether there was still any way forward to save the street. Juanita was still hopeful. Mick had stood firm despite being offered bribes to move.
When Juanita was ‘disappeared’, those of us still involved were shocked to the core and frightened. It certainly seemed that Mick Fowler’s life was in danger. When Mick finally moved later in 1975, many of the Victoria Street squatters returned for a mock funeral for the street. (There is some footage of this is Pat Fiske’s famous documentary Rocking the Foundations.)
Fifty years on – housing is still a crisis
In 1973, we were experiencing what we regarded as a housing crisis. In 1969, the tenancy laws had been loosened to allow owners to raise the rents as much as they liked and for ‘no fault’ evictions to occur. Public housing waiting lists grew. By the time we squatted in Victoria Street, many private tenants had been forced out of inner Sydney towards the far Western suburbs of Sydney. Strong communities had lived in these areas for generations, but new suburbs were not provided with public transport, infrastructure or community facilities for an expanding population.
In 1973, the planning laws were undeveloped and weak. Property developers were running the show until the community, backed by the extraordinary Green Bans, altered the balance of power for a period of three years. In 1979, the Wran government passed the Environmental and Planning Assessment Act that provided for more community rights in planning but almost as soon as it was passed, developers began to lobby to undermine it.
The Green Bans and the resident action movement contributed to saving the physical fabric of areas such as The Rocks, Glebe, Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Woollomooloo and Redfern. But the battle to save them as communities, where people on low incomes could be securely housed, proved to be far tougher and continues today. The pressures of gentrification transformed inner Sydney. Today, mansions in Victoria Street are sub-divided into small apartments which can be sold for well over 1.5 million. Even a one-bedroom can be rented for as much as $900 a week.
Public housing in Woolloomooloo survives, but the Rocks has become an area mostly for the rich. The Sirius building in the Rocks was designed for the publicly owned Housing Commission in the late 1970s for the specific purpose of housing lower income tenants already being pushed out of the area. It was a shining example of what could be possible. But it too was sold off by the previous NSW LNP Berejiklian government for $150 million for luxury private apartments.
Overall, public housing declined as a percentage of housing stock – and has been under continual threat. The Labor Minister for Housing, Rose Jackson, has promised that the situation will improve, but the Minns government is still proposing to demolish public housing in Waterloo and replace it only partly with social housing. The rest will be private housing sold at market rates. Vulnerable tenants are promised they will be moved into alternative housing, but many would prefer to stay and question why the poorly maintained buildings cannot be updated.
The NSW Public Works department that used to build on public land was abolished. The publicly owned old Fish Markets site could have been a site for much more public housing, but that will be handed over to private developers. The then Greens member for Balmain Jamie Parker told the SMH in 2022 that the proposed project “exemplified this ( LNP) government’s focus on using public land to make windfall real estate deals rather than seeing it as an opportunity for inclusive and strategic city building.”
The community campaigns never stopped.
Hal Alexander, who lived in a small apartment in the Erksineville Housing estate until he died in 2014, was involved in several campaigns to defend his public housing community and also one to save the Erskineville Post Office, a solid brick publicly-owned building that was eventually also sold. It became commercial premises, but thanks to Hal and others, there is still a small shop front post office opposite.
Despite the Green’s strong campaign for a rent freeze and a system designed to maintain rents at a sustainable (for tenants) level, rents are uncontrolled and have spiralled. There is an extreme crisis that is forcing people into vans, cars, tents or the streets. Pensioners in private housing spend 75% of their income on rent. Many housing experts recognise that tax breaks (negative gearing) for property investors is a poor policy but the Albanese Labor government is committed to retaining investor incentives.
In 1973, there were plenty of homeless people, but there are far more per capita today. Until 1970, you could be charged with ‘vagrancy’ if you were homeless and sent to prison. Today, women over fifty are a fast-growing homeless group – there are many more Mrs Troys.
Property developers still have huge sway over state and local government. These days those who favour maintaining heritage buildings in NSW are more likely to be labelled NIMBYs than protectors of the public interest. YIMBY(YES IN MY BACKYARD) campaigners accuse resident action campaigners of frustrating plans for denser housing. While denser housing around public transport hubs is a good idea, the role of developers in these campaigns needs far more scrutiny.
No more squatting
As for squatting, it’s more difficult than it was in the seventies. With so many people homeless and so many houses empty, I often wondered why there wasn’t more squatting. When I was involved in two campaigns, one to defend women’s refuges and one to protect hundreds of homes being demolished for Westconnex tollways, I did some research. These days if you move into an empty building with the intention of staying until it is needed (rather than perhaps just taking shelter for a night or two), you are more likely to be confronted by security guards and violently evicted on the spot. This tactic might not be legal – but as far as I am aware, it hasn’t been contested.
On a more optimistic note, in June last year, public housing campaigners occupied a block of public housing in Glebe in inner Sydney that is slated for demolition. It’s a solid attractive block of apartments. Greens Councillor Sylvie Ellsmore supported the squatters. The squat lasted for two weeks until the squatters agreed to move, but they continued to campaign to not only save the block but renovate it and add a few more apartments. The outcome is still unclear, but the block is almost empty because public tenants have been moved elsewhere.
Wendy Bacon is an investigative journalist who was the Professor of Journalism at UTS. She worked for Fairfax, Channel Nine and SBS and has published in The Guardian, New Matilda, City Hub and Overland. She has a long history in promoting independent and alternative journalism.