Margaret Kelly is sitting at a Port Melbourne cafe talking politics and housing when a woman - who we’ll call Dot - appears from around a corner. She is exasperated and angry and demands to know if Kelly is “still talking about it”.

Dot raises her voice and starts screaming obscenities at Kelly.

The source of their dispute is the redevelopment of Port Phillip’s Barak Beacon public housing site, where they both live.

Tenants are being farmed out to new accommodations around the city, and a community is dissolving before Kelly’s eyes.

Many residents accept what is happening, and some are happy with their new digs. Others, such as Kelly, do not accept the need for the redevelopment, and say favourites are being played in terms of who gets what as the tenants are relocated.  

Dot blames Kelly for the project being stalled. She says indignantly: “You’re holding it up because you won’t leave.”

*PS Port Phillip is sitting at the cafe with Kelly, Jeannie Erceg - a former tenant at Barak Beacon - and one of their friends.

Dot and Kelly go back and forth as if in a tennis match, as Erceg and the friend sit in silence, too astonished to say anything.

Just when it appears to be over, Dot returns and continues yelling at Kelly, who remains relatively calm throughout.

Apparently Dot is not shy in airing her opinion, but has never been this aggressive. 

Kelly says she worries about Dot. 

According to the state government the $5.3 billion Big Housing Build, delivered by Homes Victoria, is the largest ever investment into social and affordable housing, and will create 9,300 new social homes, 2,900 affordable homes, and 40,000 jobs over four years.

The Victorian government states that Barak Beacon will be redeveloped via a model known as a “ground lease”.

“We will lease land at the sites to a project group,” it said. “The project group will design, build, manage and maintain the housing for the next 40 years, enabling the land to remain in public ownership.”

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Jeannie and Margaret at the cafe. Photo: Petula Bowa.

The government says the 89 homes at Barak Beacon will be replaced by “modern, energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable” properties.

“These will include a mix of social, affordable and market rental homes. The redevelopment will achieve a 10% increase in social housing and provide more housing options for people on low and medium incomes.”

The redeveloped Barak Beacon will include 1, 2, 3 and 4-bedroom homes, and there will be “flexible design features that enable the mix of bedrooms in homes across the development to be adapted over time to accommodate changes in housing demand”.

Margaret Kelly has lived at Barak Beacon for 25 years. It is where she raised her son as a single mother.

She is nostalgic about the site. It has given them safety and stability, a place where they could put down roots.

“That was the first time we had a home we didn’t have to move out of,” she said. “People tend to stay.”

Tokyo is home now for Kelly’s son, but she says he is upset by the looming redevelopment.

Kelly says there have been some difficult neighbours at the estate, “but they generally move out”.

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A sign on the back of Margaret Kelly's mobility scooter. Photo: Petula Bowa.

One of the last remaining tenants at Barak Beacon, Kelly says she received a letter at the beginning of the year with an offer of relocation.

Kelly lives with chronic illness and said moving is more challenging for people who are older and those who live with a disability or illness.

“This has made me feel terribly unsafe,” she said. She says there are others who are too “frail” or “anxious” to speak up.

The state government says new homes at Barak Beacon will include specialist disability accommodation.

Kelly says some tenants have been offered tiny new apartments, but that others have been moved to larger properties. She says the discrepancies are a source of tension among residents.

In her fight against the redevelopment, Kelly has done all she can: promoting her cause via the media, politicians, social and petitions. She’s even created protest signs that hang on her mobility scooter.

A feasibility study on Barak Beacon by Not-For-Profit design and research group Office found the buildings at the site could be refurbished and retained and still achieve the targets the state government had set, without displacing tenants, and saving $88 million in the process.

The study was presented to the government.

Jeannie Erceg is one of the former tenants of the estate who has relocated. She previously lived with her family in public housing in Prahran for 24 years, and was relocated to Port Melbourne as her home in Prahran was facing demolition. 

After only a couple years at Barak Beacon Estate, Erceg was told the site would face the same fate.

She says she felt upset and duped, telling *PS Port Phillip: “When I relocated, they didn’t say in words, but it was implied it could be my forever home.”

She says compared to her previous home in Prahran, Barak was like “heaven” and the neighbours were friendly.

Erceg, who has a daughter with special needs, says the department has offered her unsuitable accommodation that wouldn’t meet the needs of her child.

She says they asked: “Couldn’t [you] train her?”

There’s a silence.

“That was gobsmacking really,” said Kelly.

I talk to another former tenant Brooke (not her real name) who has been relocated from Barak Beacon.

Brooke migrated to Australia at a young age and lived at the estate for around 30 years.

She says living at Barak Beacon wasn’t without its challenges, but she made it her home and felt a sense of community there.

“A home is just so important to the fabric of our society and the health and wellbeing of our society and the individuals living in it,” Brooke said. “It should therefore be no surprise that the threat of losing one’s home will have a dramatic effect on not only the individuals affected but the community they are a part of.”

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Margaret Kelly at Barak Beacon. Photo: Petula Bowa.

Brooke is happy and settled in her new property, but says the process of leaving Barak Beacon was traumatic.

Reflecting on the last couple of years, she said: “I believe we had better outcomes than were initially expected.”

Brooke learnt of the redevelopment in 2021 from a frantic neighbour who told her the  department was going to pull the place down, and that they were knocking on tenants’ doors.

She wrote to a politician saying that the “workers weren’t as sensitive as they could’ve been”.

Some tenants put their heads in the sand, she says, but others were “elated” at the prospect of a new home.

As for Port Phillip Council’s involvement in the redevelopment, Mayor Heather Cunsolo said: “Our council has provided advice to Homes Victoria about the developmental requirements for the site such as building design, open space, vehicle access and community facilities. 

“We are keen to continue to advocate and provide feedback on the best outcomes for the tenants and our community.

“We understand that a private building surveyor issued a demolition permit in February this year, which was organised by Homes Victoria. Our council had no role in this approval.”

Kelly and Brooke are suspicious of the timing of the notifications made to tenants, during a Covid outbreak in the days before Christmas 2021. They think it was deliberately planned to coincide with support services closing down over the summer holiday period.

Kelly says the redevelopment has caused tension, distress and in-fighting among tenants.  

Fighting back tears, she tells me: “There is division and there are people who feel that if we oppose them in any way, it will go badly for them.”

Although Brooke is in favour of the project, she concedes it has caused “damage”. She says her son didn’t speak to her for three months after she accepted temporary accommodation a fair distance from Port Melbourne.

Kelly and Erceg say one positive from the experience is the close friendship they’ve developed.

Brooke, meanwhile, still speaks to some of her old neighbours, but says, “the relationships are not the same”, and that trust has been lost.

“Everyone had to look out for their own interests,” she said.

Homes Victoria was contacted for comment.