Across a verdant footy oval, some residents of Flemington’s social housing towers can look out to a gleaming residential tower complex complete with a rooftop ‘sky garden’ designed by Jamie Durie.
The ALT-Sienna tower complex — designed by the same architecture firm behind Hobart’s MONA Museum — is about an eight-minute walk from Flemington’s public housing estate, now subject to an unprecedented lockdown to prevent coronavirus spreading among residents.
A similarly severe lockdown has been imposed on public housing towers in North Melbourne, some of which stand across the street from another luxury tower complex named Arden Gardens.
“Arden Gardens is a new landmark development for North Melbourne — an iconic address boasting the location of the inner-city along with the luxury of a park-side location, private landscaped plaza, cinemas, ground floor Woolworths and stunning city views,” the complex’s website reads.
Those in the nine public housing blocks in Flemington and North Melbourne are entering their fifth day of a total “hard lockdown” which forbids residents from leaving the property at all.
As of Wednesday morning, 75 total cases of coronavirus have been detected across the towers, though Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has previously said the true number of infections may be much higher.
Under the “detention directions” governing the nine towers, the lockdown can last for up to 14 days — ending at 3:30pm on Saturday July 18 — and those who refuse coronavirus tests can be detained for another 10 days.
As he announced the sudden lockdown, Premier Daniel Andrews said it would last at least five days.
Their neighbours in private apartment blocks, who have not had any documented coronavirus cases, can still leave the house for the four main reasons allowed under the state’s stage three restrictions: shopping for food, exercise, work or education and medical care or caregiving.
Close confines and shared community spaces a risk
Some 3,000 people are spread across nine towers in two separate estates in Flemington and North Melbourne in the city’s inner north-west.
Authorities have warned of the “explosive” potential for the virus to spread within the public housing towers.
Airflow, proximity, ventilation and plumbing have all been considered as contributing factors to the way the virus has spread within the walls of the high-rise towers.
Tenants in these apartment blocks often share facilities like lifts, corridors, rubbish facilities and laundry rooms.
Some residents have told the ABC about broken lifts making it “impossible” to safely distance.
It’s understood many of the tenants work public-facing essential jobs, making it more likely they will come into contact with the virus.
A spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) told the ABC that the nine-tower lockdown was based on “expert public health advice”.
By contrast, both the ALT-Sienna and Arden Gardens have European-style laundries built into individual apartments.
They also have communal gyms and rooftop gardens (the ALT-Sienna complex adds a private sauna and conference room, while Arden Gardens provides residents with a private cinema and a private entertaining space).
Both towers have closed these communal spaces during this stage of the pandemic.
Chris McLay, a North Melbourne resident in a private apartment near some of the towers, told the ABC “it was immediately obvious” that the public housing residents were going to face difficulties when the lockdown was announced.
“Living in an apartment building during the pandemic, it’s so obvious how easily a building’s residents can share the virus with each other,” he said.
But he added the lockdown “was a huge burden for the people in the towers to take on”.
Voices from the Block (VFTB), a group advocating for some of the residents, said there had been concerns about health and safety long before the first cases were detected.
“There have been concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 in these towers, with residents raising numerous concerns to DHHS and community groups about the lack of support to protect themselves in these buildings.
“The lack of hand sanitiser on each floor, and when provided, rarely if at all being refilled, has been a major concern for all residents within the towers.”
The DHHS did not respond to the ABC’s query about these allegations.
Public housing estates have tense history with police
Since the estate lockdown began, some residents of these public housing towers have criticised the sudden restrictions, which some said made them feel like criminals and may exacerbate existing tensions between some residents and police.
Kerren Clark, a neighbour of the Flemington estate residents in a private dwelling, has been helping out families in lockdown since the measures were announced.
While the long-time Kensington resident told the ABC she accepted that expert opinion drove the decision, she was nonetheless “shocked” when she first heard about the nine-tower lockdown.
She added she observed differing responses to the lockdown among residents, with some “resigned and grateful” while others were more agitated because of the police presence.
The nearby Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Service has previously claimed that many of the towers’ residents of African descent are subject to over-policing and racial discrimination.
‘If you live in public housing, it’s easier to shut you up’
To qualify for public housing, dwellings are usually reserved for those from low socio-economic or migrant backgrounds, as well as those fleeing from domestic violence.
The need for public housing in Victoria has been particularly acute for years, as it has the lowest proportion of social housing per capita of all Australian states.
This has seen the Victorian waiting list for public housing balloon, with up to 100,000 people estimated to be waiting this year, according to the Victorian Public Tenants Association (VPTA).
The Andrews Government has also been criticised for its Public Housing Renewal Program, which aims to convert a number of public housing estates into new developments with a mix of social, affordable and private dwellings, which includes one estate in North Melbourne.
In total, the Government has pledged that the scheme will develop up to 2,500 public housing properties, along with a 10 per cent increase in the number of total social housing dwellings around Melbourne and regional sites.
A 2018 parliamentary report into the scheme found that “continuous under-investment in public housing has failed to maintain public housing properties to an adequate level and has led to increasing, unmet demand for public housing”.
The VFTB said the lockdown was already further stigmatising “vulnerable” public housing residents.
“We have already started to see the blurring of facts and fiction,” the spokesperson said.
Yuqub Hashi, a resident of one of the North Melbourne towers still under lockdown, told the ABC on Sunday the cumulative effect of the past week had made him feel as though he was living in a two-tiered city.
“[Private residents] can go outside whenever they want to but we can’t,” Mr Hashi said.
Residents in towers who need access to support and assistance can call the Government’s Housing Call Centre on 1800 961 054.
The health department’s coronavirus hotline can be called by anyone in Victoria on 1800 675 398.
Additional reporting by Sarah Jaensch.