Auckland public housing activists fight to save the multiracial community of Glen Innes

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As the Auckland summer warms up, the battle lines are being redrawn in the struggle for public housing in the eastern suburb of Glen Innes. Public housing tenants and supporters are fighting plans by Housing NZ—the central government’s public housing corporation—to gentrify Glen Innes. Housing NZ is removing many of its free-standing houses from Glen Innes to clear out land for private housing developments. The Auckland Council is also collaborating in this corporate redevelopment project. Larger families will be moved to more remote suburbs and older people to smaller apartment units. Locals have told me that around 80 houses have been removed in the last year alone.

Glen Innes is bordered by wealthy beachfront suburbs and also has views of the Tamaki Estuary. Private developers have long been eyeing up the real estate in Glen Innes but have been held back by the large numbers of Housing NZ properties in the area. Local housing activists point out that “ethnic cleansing” is a major aim of the redevelopment project. Wealthier purchasers of real estate prefer to live in predominately white neighbourhoods This is something the redevelopment project aims to create in Glen Innes by moving out Housing NZ tenants, many of whom are Maori and Pacifikan.

This struggle has been compared with the successful late-1970s struggle to occupy nearby Bastion Point, a confiscated Maori settlement earmarked for development but later returned to the local iwi (tribe). The attack on the Glen Innes community is a continuation of colonialism, in which Indigenous people are dispossessed and relocated to suit the needs of the colonising capitalists. The links are being made. When public housing activists from Auckland protested outside Parliament in Wellington in November, they stayed at Wainuiomata Marae, a Maori communal meeting place.

Bodies on the line. Opposition to the redevelopment is being spearheaded by the Tamaki Housing Action Group, a group of residents and supporters formed last summer. There has been strong support from the student activist group, We Are The University, from the Unite union for low-paid workers, as well as from the Freedom Socialist Party, Socialist Aotearoa and the Mana Movement, the leftwing Maori nationalist party.

The Glen Innes protests received their greatest media coverage after Mana leader and parliamentarian, Hone Harawira, was arrested for blocking a house-removal truck with his car late one night in October. Police smashed the car window and dragged Hone out of the driver’s seat. The same night, police also roughed up and arrested several female protestors who had been sitting on the roof of the house and knocked over another young woman, leaving her concussed on the ground.

These police tactics typify what occurs each Thursday evening, the time when houses have been removed from Glen Innes over the last few months. I have been a regular participant in the weekly demonstrations against the house removals. Protestors attempt to block the removal trucks before being pushed away by heavy-handed police contingents. Police often out-number protestors and bring several paddy wagons to carry away arrestees. Protestors are pushed off the road and arrested if they show even the slightest resistance. Police even move protestors on for standing on the footpath. It is actually hard work most nights to avoid being arrested. On 1 November there were 13 arrests—half those in attendance. The front line of the protests is often made up of a dedicated group of student activists from We Are The University, many of whom have also been active in anti-austerity and anti-poverty campaigns over the last year. Police always target students for arrest, especially the young women. Officers typically push protestors down on to the road before carrying them away, and a number of arrestees have received injured wrists and hands.

Building to win. The protest movement is tenacious and determined, but one of the weaknesses is that the number of local residents involved is limited. This is partly due to the deterrent effect of the heavy-handed policing, although the police generally try to avoid antagonising the locals. Another reason is that much of the redevelopment plan has been prepared well in advance. Housing NZ has left many homes in northern Glen Innes vacant for a long time, until they have become run-down. The result of this tactic is that there are no tenants to fight the removals. There is also a greater level of private home ownership in northern Glen Innes, and some of these home owners support the gentrification process.

The scope for successful direct actions is greater in southern Glen Innes, where public housing density is greater and where there is stronger community resistance. Last summer and autumn, there were several occupations of Housing NZ properties in southern Glen Innes. This summer, housing activists aim to repeat these tactics by defending a house which still has residents—it is more effective to defend a home rather than a vacant house. In late December, campaigners also tried a new tactic by planting a community garden on the site of one of the vacant Housing NZ properties where a house had recently been removed.

A welcome development is that the Tamaki Housing Action Group is branching out to organise public housing tenants in neighbouring suburbs, such as Point England and Panmure. Before Christmas, a picket was organised against a Housing NZ eviction in Panmure. A challenge is that campaigners are stretched thin on the ground and many protest actions need to be called at short notice. The priority must be to organise support groups in neighbouring public housing communities as well as other working class neighbourhoods and to strengthen coordination between the community organising and the direct action demonstrations.

The mainstream media has been a barrier to broadening the resistance. Aside from the Hone Harawira arrest, there has been little coverage, not only on television but even in the suburban newspapers. As with many working class struggles, spreading the word through independent, community and anti-capitalist media—including the Freedom Socialist Organiser—is essential to explain what is at stake and draw more people into the housing movement. Working class communities need to be alerted to the steady destruction of public housing communities. It is crucial to understand that the profit motive is underpinning the attack and that the state is playing a central role in enforcing private property relations. But perhaps most important of all, the inspiring news that there is collective resistance needs to be circulated widely. If Glenn Innes public housing tenants and their allies across Auckland win the broader support required to escalate the struggle, this multiracial working class community can be saved from gentrification.

If you’d like to collaborate with the Freedom Socialist Party in this campaign, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at:

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