WCP: Working-Class Public Housing in the COVID Spotlight

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The coronavirus pandemic has caused significant harm to working-class people in so many ways. In Working-Class Perspectives (new window) this week, Sarah Attfield explains how low-income residents of Australian public housing towers have struggled with lockdowns and policing. At the same time, she notes, these stories have brought new media attention to working-class life and offered valuable opportunities for working-class people to tell their own stories and challenge classist stereotypes.

The Covid19 pandemic has highlighted many inequalities experienced by working-class people — insecure work, unsafe work places, access to health care, housing conditions and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of colour. Mainstream media has also covered many of these issues, often demonstrating surprise that such inequalities exist. When (presumably middle-class) journalists and opinion writers present these inequities as if they were new discoveries, this has the effect of dismissing the work of activists and community leaders who have been trying for years to show how inequality and injustice operate and to bring positive change, but have been largely ignored.

Nonetheless, the stories appearing in the mainstream media not only highlight some of the issues affecting working-class people but may also challenge some stereotypes and preconceptions about the working class. This new focus on working-class lives is welcome.

We see it in some recent reporting on people living in public housing in Australia, which we call ‘housing commission.’ People living in housing commissions — sometimes referred to as ‘housos’ — are often stigmatised as ‘dole bludgers’ – unemployed, unwilling to work, and incapable of taking care of their homes. Some housing commission areas have an (unwarranted) reputation as being dangerous and crime ridden. This is especially true for the relatively few high-rise apartment blocks found in cities, whose residents face the greatest stigma and discrimination. High-rise private apartment blocks are sought after, but not these buildings.  Clearly, it isn’t the structure of the buildings that creates the negative stereotypes. It is the class and racial makeup of the residents that seems to bother people on the outside.

The high-rise housing commission blocks in cities like Melbourne and Sydney are home to people from many different cultural backgrounds. This diversity has not been celebrated by the wider community, though. Instead, residents have experienced racism and been targeted by police conducting ‘random’ searches of residents who are Indigenous or of African descent. This racist profiling has created suspicion and mistrust of police.

During a spike of Covid19 cases in Melbourne, several housing commission towers were forced into immediate lockdown after some residents tested positive. Residents were not permitted to leave their homes, and the towers were guarded by police, who were even stationed on each floor of the blocks. Many residents found themselves effectively trapped overnight, with no access to supplies or to their usual support networks. Parents were unable to take their children outside to play. They were confined in their small apartments, sometimes with many young children to care for. The authorities responsible for maintaining the lockdown were very slow to provide the essential supplies required by the residents. When they did send food into the blocks, they supplied food that was inappropriate for religious or health reasons, ignoring the needs of the multicultural communities. When residents ordered food or asked friends and family to bring better options, those delivering the food were not permitted to enter.

The extreme nature of the lockdown in the housing blocks did attract mainstream media coverage, though, thrusting residents into the limelight. And the tone began to change. Reporters displayed some sympathy with the residents. They interviewed people who were unable to leave their apartments, and they quoted residents expressing their frustration with the heavy-handed response of the authorities. Some papers also published full-length pieces written by residents who described the lockdown and the subsequent hardship. Residents also explained why they were upset to have stationing police on each storey. Many residents had been targeted by police without reason in the past, and some were refugees who had escaped imprisonment. The police presence during the lockdown triggered painful memories and created anxiety.

As the stories about the lockdown unfolded, the online version of the Guardian in Australia published a special series on life in high-rise housing commission, Lives in the Sky.  The series included stories on the police targeting of young men of African descent, on life growing up in the towers, positive stories of the resilience and community spirit of the blocks, and the experiences of migrants starting their lives in Australia. Although some pieces took a slightly patronising tone, most were sympathetic, demonstrating the diversity and richness of the high-rise community. I grew up in very similar public housing towers (albeit in London, UK), and reading about working-class people who built their communities and helped each other out reminded me of my own estate. High-rise estate life is very different from the inside, but residents are all too aware of the stigma that follows them.

It was unusual and very welcome to hear the voices of housing commission residents – voices that are rarely heard in a positive manner. It was even better to see pieces published in the mainstream media written by working-class people of diverse cultural backgrounds.  But it is a pity that it took a pandemic and an uneven and authoritarian response to an outbreak in a working-class community for the voices of the residents to be heard.

Representation matters, and this more positive portrayal of working-class people should help to shift the negative language and challenge stereotypes. The Covid19 pandemic has hit housing commission residents hard, but maybe the sympathetic interest in the lives of residents will make it just a little easier for them to feel proud of where they live and not be afraid to list their address. Better yet, I hope we will continue to hear powerful stories told by the residents themselves. We need to hear those strong voices in the post-Covid19 society.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies

Read other Working-Class Perspectives on our website.

The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-20 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 94,000 times by readers in 176 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.