Griffith complex an urban ghetto
Affluent and prosperous though it is, Canberra is not without its enclaves of disadvantage. One of the more infamous is the Stuart Flats, a medium-density public housing estate in Griffith that has been the scene of numerous serious incidents in past decades, including drug use, violence and gunplay. ACT Policing has been called out to the Stuart Flats once every two days on average in the past six months - most recently on Wednesday when a gun was unlawfully discharged at a unit. Some residents claim it is next to impossible to live a normal life at the Stuart Flats, and that the best, and perhaps only, solution is for Housing ACT to knock it down and build low-density mixed housing in its place.
That is probably what the the ACT government has in mind for the Stuart Flats, but inquiries by this newspaper have revealed that it will be ''10 years, at least'' before renewal begins. Doubtless the government could offer sound reasons for the delay, but many of the law-abiding residents of Stuart Flats (and those who live nearby) will have difficulty accepting them. Having determined that a complex of this size has degenerated into a virtual urban slum, the government should not be taking 10 years to rectify matters.
The story of the Stuart Flats has many parallels, both in Canberra and other Australian cities. Faced with growing populations and a need to increase stocks of public housing, postwar governments began erecting multi-unit complexes ranging in height from four storeys to 40 or more. Though they were commissioned and designed with the best of intentions, many of those complexes proved to be unmanageable, unwieldy and maintenance-intensive. The high-rise flats proved to be the worst performers.
For the first decade or so of their lives, these complexes worked tolerably well from a social aspect, populated as they were by people from different socio-economic backgrounds. However, a tightening of eligibility requirements for public housing in the 1970s and '80s triggered a gradual exodus of working families and individuals. They were often replaced by tenants with drug and alcohol problems or those who were plain antisocial. The inevitable physical deterioration of these complexes hastened their transformation to ghettos for the disadvantaged and dysfunctional. Tougher, more proactive management by public housing authorities, together with improved services and maintenance, might have halted this downward spiral, but in many instances governments seemed content to let these complexes moulder until they were virtually uninhabitable before acting.
Complexes in the ACT that followed this narrative included Fraser Court in Kingston, Burnie Court in Lyons, and the Allawah, Bega and Currong Flats in Braddon, known as the ABC flats. Fraser Court and Burnie Court are no more. The Fraser Court site, close to the Kingston shops, was sold to private developers who knocked down the old flats and erected several upmarket medium-density apartment complexes in their place. Burnie Court was also demolished, and is now in an advanced stage of redevelopment by the government in partnership with a private developer. Unlike Fraser Court, the Lyons redevelopment is retaining some elements of public housing. Most, however, will be sold off to private buyers.
The next cab off the redevelopment rank will be the ABC flats, where, in line with the ACT government's urban infill policy, 440 apartments housing about 550 people will become 1160 apartments housing 2300 people. Only 120 of these apartments will be reserved for public housing tenants, however. Diluting the concentration of public housing is undoubtedly the answer to the problem of ghettoisation, although there is an argument that moving tenants away from the town centres to the suburbs - where support services, transport and employment opportunities are fewer - could potentially create other social problems.
So desirable is Griffith that the government could reasonably expect to reap millions of dollars if it sold the flats there to developers; money that would enable it to add significantly to the territory's stock of public housing. It could insist on developers retaining some public housing in any redevelopment, but that would reduce its windfall. Whatever the possible permutations demanded by the government, there would be no shortage of developers willing to buy and redevelop the Griffith Flats. For the sake and safety of existing tenants - and for the amenity of the entire area - the government should deal with this urban disaster now.