Making way for progress: Eveleigh Street in 1996. Photo: Ben Rushton

No room for Aboriginal residents

It is now 10 years since the last tenant departed the Block, the famous heart of Aboriginal Redfern. Her house at 78 Eveleigh Street stood alone buttressed by the half-demolished shells of adjacent terraces. All Aunty Joyce Ingram's neighbours had gone, their houses destroyed. Her role as the unacknowledged Mayor of Eveleigh Street was now redundant. It was her turn to go.

The manner of her going was testament to the trouble she caused the authorities, black and white, during her 30 years living on Louis and Eveleigh Streets. The wiry old black lady in big headlight spectacles did not lack for helpers to load her meagre belongings into the removalist van standing outside her missing front gate. But as they loaded, a bulldozer sat revving up outside her backdoor. No sooner had she closed her front door for the final time than the 'dozer began to plough her house into rubble and dust.

One can imagine Mick Mundine, the chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Company, the owner of the Block, looking down on the scene from his office overlooking Eveleigh Street with some quiet satisfaction. Only seven years previously Aunty Joyce had tried to organise a coup in the AHC to stop the clearances on the Block.

"Aunty Joyce Ingram was the final holdout," says Ray Jackson, secretary of the Indigenous Social Justice Association. "But in the end, with the toilet blocked and no repairs being done, she agreed to move." In fact, a small pod of houses remained in the north-west corner of the Block, occupied by the extended family of Richard and Yvonne Phillips, before they, too, reluctantly moved in 2011.

Now the Block is the most valuable vacant lot in Sydney. Ten thousand square metres of prime real estate right in the heart of gentrifying Redfern and less than two kilometres from the CBD. It was once home to as many as 100 Aboriginal households, a magnet for Aborigines from all over NSW.

Only two buildings still stand on the Block - Tony Mundine's gym and the offices of the Aboriginal Housing Company, run by Mick, Tony's brother.

For the past 30 years the AHC has devised grand plans - five at least - to rebuild the Block as a modern, affordable housing precinct for Aborigines. The dream is now known as the Pemulwuy Project, an ambitious $70 million commercial and residential development badged with name of the Aboriginal warrior who led the resistance to the first white settlers in Sydney.

The project is dividing the local indigenous community. What concerns them is the commercial half of the Pemulwuy project, which is to take precedence in the planned redevelopment. Its centrepiece is seven storeys (and possibly 14) of student housing.

The AHC expects to have bank finance for this part of the development within weeks but the funding for the other half of the project - affordable housing - is as far away as ever.

"In 10 years the Block will belong to developers, that's my sad prediction," says Jenny Munro, one of the founders of the AHC and a sceptic of the current management's ability to deliver affordable housing on the Block.

For Sol Bellear, another founder of the AHC and chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, the Pemulwuy project smacks of "overreach" and a departure from the AHC's primary mission to look after the housing needs of less welloff Aborigines.

The AHC is already acting more like a commercial enterprise . In the past two financial years the company has sold assets to the value of $2.4 million which has boosted its reserves to nearly $3 million. Included in this selloff were five terrace houses across the road from the Block. "They were dead assets," says Mick Mundine, chief executive of the AHC for the past 30 years. Yet the houses have since been renovated and are part of a row where landlords are asking up to $1100 a week in rent.

Three years ago the AHC signed a contract for design and construction with Deicorp which is the biggest developer in Redfern. "The partnership with Deicorp is a good thing," says Geoff Turnbull, a local planning activist. "Having a developer on board brings some commercial realism to the table." Deicorp is responsible for the emphasis on building student accommodation which Turnbull sees as a sure-fire bet commercially.

The arrival of Deicorp on the scene saved the AHC. "We owed $786,000 in rates and had just $125 in the bank," Mundine says of the company's financial position four years ago. This was when Greg Colbran, Deicorp's development and planning manager, crossed the railway tracks to introduce himself to Mundine

A loan of $500,000 (since repaid) from Deicorp's owner Fouad Deiri followed and the AHC engaged the developer as the new project designer and construction manager.

In December 2012 the Pemulwuy project received development approval from the state government. The plan is not just shovel-ready but business ready, according to Colbran. He expects to start building as early as June.

The banks will be asked to finance the commercial stage only. Colbran is betting on the state and federal governments providing the $30 million for the affordable housing. It is a complete gamble - governments have given no indication of agreeing - but one he's confident will come off. "Here we have a project that is feasible, where all the business planning has been done, where the banks will have lent the money, where everything is transparent, where the first stage is self-funding and will work commercially. Everything the government is asking for from Aboriginal organisations is done."

Even supporters of the project worry about the arrangement with Deicorp. "Everyone's worried, what do they [Deicorp] want out of it?" says Shane Phillips, who grew up on the Block. "I'm as paranoid as anyone but I'm trusting - and hopeful."

Local lawyer Joe Corrie is neither so trusting nor so hopeful. "Government funding [for the housing] is an unreal expectation. The current logic of governments is that land this valuable cannot be used for affordable housing. If houses had been left on the Block, there would at least have been some moral leverage."

If this analysis is right and affordable housing just an illusion, it would represent a second - and probably permanent - dispossession for indigenous people.

It would also represent a final defeat for what was a shining example of the Aboriginal renaissance of the 1970s. Back then the tumbledown terraces were squatted by local Aborigines and their white allies before they were bought by the Whitlam government. The prime minister himself came to Redfern to hand over the deeds to what was the first and largest urban land rights victory in Australia's history.

"We had to hit rock bottom in order to bounce back up," says Mundine.

The latest plan is unsentimentally commercial. The elders' centre and the four elders' apartments of earlier plans have been eliminated. The dream of Aboriginal enterprise - also central to a 2009 scheme - has been abandoned with projected retail space reduced from 7250 square metres to 2655.

Likewise the intention to sell over half the 62 dwellings to socially mobile Aboriginal families has been dropped. "People with drug money might find a way to buy properties and we'd be back where we started," says Mundine.

But just how realistic is the gamble that Coalition governments in Sydney and Canberra will finance the affordable housing component of Pemulwuy?

A spokesman for the NSW Housing Department, which is investing $49 million in Aboriginal housing projects this year, says it has no current interest in the Pemulwuy project. The federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, according to Mundine himself, turned down a request for funding earlier this year.

The future of the Block is deeply entangled in Aboriginal politics. Mundine belongs to one of the most powerful clans in NSW Aboriginal politics. Warren Mundine, for instance, a former national president of the ALP and now Tony Abbott's key adviser on indigenous issues, is a cousin and close friend.

The politics is important because while the AHC hasn't got the kind of money needed for the Pemulwuy project, other indigenous bodies like the NSW Aboriginal Land Council do. The NSWALC has more than $600 million in its investment account but when Mundine approached it for $2 million in seed money to advance the Pemulwuy project the council refused.

The NSW Aboriginal Lands Council is reluctant to comment. "We had concerns that AHC's intention to repay the loan … had the possibility to not eventuate," says acting CEO Lesley Turner.

When it's put it to Mundine that 30 years is a long time for a project to be in gestation, he replies, "I believe in the Lord and I believe He meant us" - he makes a wide sweeping gesture encompassing himself, the office of the AHC where we're sitting and the Block beyond - "to be here. Have faith, brother." While Mundine's supporters may keep the faith, others would prefer the earthly pleasures of decent bricks and mortar for their people.

Hall Greenland was the Greens candidate for Grayndler in the 2013 federal election and is the current convenor of the NSW Greens.