Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Public housing then and now

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Public housing in Australia came about primarily as a result of pressure from the labour movement and community groups in the aftermath of World War Two. But well before that people were campaigning for governments to improve housing conditions.

In response to campaigns for renters’ rights and better housing, governments prior to World War One offered cheap home loans to low income families. Throughout the 1920s these schemes were expanded for soldiers who had returned from the war.

In the 1930s the home buying schemes were generally wound back, but state governments like the Dunstan government in Victoria did build some public housing. The Housing Commission of Victoria (HCV) was established in 1938 after a campaign for housing that was led by Christian groups and social reformers. The campaign was given prominence by some sensationalist journalism orchestrated by The Herald.

The HCV’s initial brief was to demolish and rebuild ‘slum pockets’ in inner-city Melbourne. Many inner suburban areas had been badly impacted by the 1930s depression. The HCV initially concentrated its attention on 1,240 houses in lanes, rights-of-way and slum pockets.

Displaced residents were moved to new housing developments built by the HCV such as Garden City at Fisherman’s Bend and new flats built on Pigdon Street in Carlton.

The rehousing of residents from the slums was a difficult task. Tenants were initially reluctant to move and rents on the new estates were more expensive than their former accommodation. Transport costs from the estates to places of work were also an issue.

The HCV acquired some cheap land in the northern suburbs of Coburg, Brunswick, Preston and Northcote but this redevelopment program came to a halt with the onset of World War Two.

Housing shortage crisis

After World War Two the workers movement and community groups demanded action to address a housing shortage crisis.

People were sleeping in covered verandas and balconies as well as in small sleep outs. This shortage caused ‘rent rackets’, long queues, a shortage of building materials and ‘black marketers’ selling existing houses at extortionate prices.

Many working class families still lived in temporarily converted army camps (Nissan Huts), tents, caravans and with extended family.

By 1946 the housing shortage was such that in a state with just two million people there were 80,000 people looking for a house. In response the federal Labor government loaned money to the states to build tens of thousands of publicly owned houses.

In Victoria public housing was expanded significantly. The HCV started to develop regional and outer suburban housing estates where low-income families were located in proximity to expanding post-war industries.

Large housing estates

The decade following the war saw an emphasis on building large ‘villa’ housing estates on broad acre subdivisions. The federal Labor government under Chifley assisted the Victorian state Labor government under Cain with funds to enable the HCV to construct around 10% of all Victoria’s housing.

This was a concession made to working people amidst improved economic conditions and under the pressure of a strong labour movement. The fact that one third of the world was under the influence of Stalinist regimes that provided public housing to workers also pressured capitalist governments to act.

In 1956 the HCV constructed the Olympic Village at Heidelberg West, which while first used to house athletes for the Games, was later used for public housing.

The Broadmeadows estate was built in proximity to the Ford car plant and other factories. The new town of Doveton was in proximity to the GMH factory on the other side of Melbourne. These estates were generally well designed. By 1968 48,000 dwellings were located on 103 metropolitan estates and in 125 rural towns.

The HCV often used innovative building technology. For example, the use of precast concrete panels helped with the mass production of concrete houses. This facilitated the building of houses with a never before envisaged volume and efficiency and it helped address the post-war housing shortage.

Design and layout of the estates was considered just as important as the construction techniques. On the early estates ‘Garden City’ principles were adopted, with more open space provided than required in building regulations. Units were carefully orientated to receive afternoon sunshine. Homes were often erected in pairs to save on construction costs.

The HCV often made provisions for retail facilities to serve local needs and on some estates erected and retained ownership of shopping centres to ensure tenants did not have to travel long distances.

The HCV recognised early on the need to build flats for couples, singles and elderly people. One and two storey flats were built in the 1950s in Carlton, North Melbourne and Ascot Vale. This was a more economic use of land in the inner-city where land values were higher.

In Ascot Vale, the racecourse was compulsorily acquired from John Wren for public housing in 1946 after local residents agitated for it to be developed into a residential precinct. 1,033 dwellings with 846 flats were completed by 1953 and the HCV built a doctor’s residence, an infant welfare centre and a kindergarten on the estate.

1960s high-rise

During the 1960s the HCV, under the Bolte Liberal government slowed down its construction of detached houses in the outer suburbs and turned sharply toward concentrating on so called slum clearance in the inner suburbs.

These working class communities experienced communal order, support, shared values and space. But the state government claimed they were breeding grounds for criminality with a warren of alleys and no-go areas for the police. In many respects they were neighbourhoods of resistance protecting themselves from the overbearing authorities.

The government wanted to clamp down on this resistance and cut across a growing mood of radicalisation. Middle class urban reformers hoped that by imposing an urban renewal blueprint social order would prevail.

The HCV began an ambitious program of redevelopment, adapting the precast concrete method of construction to build huge 20 to 30-storey high flats.

Forty high rise towers on twenty-one sites across fourteen suburbs soon ringed the inner-city. In each inner suburb the government began demolishing not individual houses but whole blocks.

The HCV used the appearance of the streets and the ‘average condition’ of the areas to justify demolitions in the ‘block clearance method’. The locals called it the “windshield survey”. This drew angry resistance from displaced residents, especially migrants who had renovated houses. Some terraces clearly could have been repaired with low-interest loans, as modern day gentrifiers have demonstrated.

Opposition from a coalition of inner-suburban councils, migrant groups, residents’ associations and trade unions eventually halted further HCV high-rise developments in the 1970s.

Each high-rise estate housed on average 1000 people in each block, half were children. In effect the population on each site swelled to the size of a country town, but with no extra schools and amenities, let alone youth workers.

This non-provision of amenities was a stark move away from the more holistic approach adopted under previous governments. The estates offered no replacement for the spontaneity of working class street life and culture.

The end of the post-war economic boom in the mid-1970s saw a shift towards neoliberal economic policies, where the welfare state and funding to public housing was progressively wound back.

The 1960s was the last time there was any significant expansion of public housing. From the 1970s until today both Liberal and Labor governments have sought to wind back the gains that the labour movement made.

In addition to building less homes, they tightened the eligibility criteria and sold off much of the stock. Not surprisingly the waiting lists have increased dramatically.

Andrews continues rightward shift

The Andrews state Labor government of today is continuing the trend of selling off public homes. Currently the government is enacting a plan to demolish and privatise nine low-rise ‘walk up’ estates in small pockets within the inner ring of Melbourne that were built in the 1950s.

About 1000 units are to be demolished and replaced with 5000 expensive private apartments, along with a small amount of mostly ‘community’ housing.

‘Community’ housing is generally managed by not-for-profit organisations. While the rent is cheaper than the private sector, it does not offer the same security or rights as publicly owned housing. Community housing organisations pick and choose who they want to house.

Governments have generally used the cover of ‘community’ housing as a subtler way to enact privatisation. While given nice sounding names like ‘renewal projects’ the Andrews government plan is a blow to all ordinary people suffering from housing stress and a huge gift to private developers.

In Northcote for example, there are currently 87 public housing units, of which 52 are three-bedroom units. These units are to be replaced by 96 ‘community’ housing units, of which only five will be three-bedroom. There will be an additional 127 privatised dwellings – but a huge net loss of bedrooms in affordable homes. On each of the nine estates the scenario is the same.

Defending public housing today

A number of organisations are already campaigning against the Labor government’s plans. A key element of the campaign must be to make the privatisation of the estates and the dire public housing shortage a political issue, especially in the forthcoming state election.

In addition to mobilising those directly affected by the privatisation plans we need to try and draw in all those impacted by housing stress and insecurity, including the 59,000 Victorians currently homeless (23,000) or on the public housing waiting list (36,000).

We need to return to the ideas of the past where the labour movement demanded public housing for all working people who wanted it. Housing should be a human right, and not something that is owned and controlled by greedy developers, landlords and bankers.

Having a secure and affordable home would be a huge asset to workers, as they would be much better placed to struggle for a better deal at work without the fear of losing the roof over the heads of their families.

We need to defend the public housing stock that is left, but also demand that tens of thousands of new publicly owned houses are built. In addition to wiping out homelessness and the waiting list this would create tens of thousands of new jobs.

That both the Liberals and Labor are on the other side of this fight only points towards the need to build a political alternative to the big business parties.

By Michael Naismith


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