A history of public housing

4 March 2021 | Posted In: #138 Autumn 2021, Archive, Public Housing – Redevelopment, Social Housing,

After every major war and depression there has been a push worldwide to address the resulting housing crisis. Unfortunately — as Tone Wheeler chronicles — Australia has missed, or misused, every opportunity.

Housing in Victorian times was either freestanding — which were owner-occupied — or rows of terraces, which were rented. Terraces — so called for their repetitive sequence — were the principal typology in Sydney and Melbourne, and were built by the developers of the day. Named after their wife or daughter, they were rented out to families, with three generations and ten or more per house.

By the end of the century, 50 percent of houses were owner-occupied, 45 percent were privately rented. The remaining five percent were owned by local councils and others such as the Sydney Harbour Trust — which had acquired houses in The Rocks and Millers Point in 1900, when there was an outbreak of bubonic plague, and then let those houses to waterside workers. This was Australia’s first publicly owned housing.

At the turn of the century, there was an international movement to reform housing from a social point of view, but that was not of interest to the newly formed federal government, which considered it a state matter — which it has remained ever since.

The NSW government was the first to address public housing with the Housing Act of 1912, and the NSW Housing Board planned the first public housing estates in Australia. Introduced by state treasurer Roland Dacey, he proclaimed: “We propose to establish a garden city and to offer people healthy conditions for living.” Sadly, Dacey died soon after and his vision was not built until after WW1, but his name is commemorated in the first of those garden city public housing estates — Daceyville — near UNSW, south of Sydney CBD.

At the same time as the Housing Act of 1912 was passed, the NSW government also enacted legislation to advance the control of deposits and mortgage financing so that workers could own their own homes. Dacey’s nascent, social liberal reform ran second to encouraging housing in the private market.

Post WW1–1929
Following the Great War, the federal government established the War Service Homes Commission in 1919, which offered low-interest loans to returned servicemen in order to construct or buy a house, thus promoting private home ownership and avoiding housing being dependant on the old private rental model. The NSW Housing Board was disbanded in the late 1920s — another instance where the government premiated home ownership over the public supply of rental housing.

The provision of all housing was seriously delayed by the Great Depression, but then followed a number of public housing initiatives by various states in a desire to provide housing for those who were poor. Many of the old private and church housing estates fell into disrepair, and a Methodist social reformer, Frederick Oswald Barnett, drew attention to them as ‘slums’, and was instrumental in forming the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board in Victoria in 1936. A similar committee was formed in NSW leading to a Housing Improvement Board established from 1936 to 1942.

A building act inquiry committee in South Australia led to the creation of the SA Housing Trust in 1937; the Victorian Housing Commission was created in 1938, and the NSW Housing Commission in 1942. And in Tasmania, public housing provision was promoted through a housing division in the Agricultural Bank in 1935.

In 1943, the Commonwealth Housing Commission was established by a board of inquiry appointed by Ben Chifley, minister for post-war reconstruction. It concluded: “We consider that a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need, but the right of every citizen, whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profits.” Although the CHC promoted housing as a right for all Australians, it targeted low-income workers: “It has been apparent for many years, that private enterprise, the world over, has not adequately and hygienically been housing the low-income group.”

The CHC report of 1944 made detailed proposals and recommendations to the federal government, most of which were ignored and, instead, the 1945 Commonwealth State Housing Agreement was established for the commonwealth to fund public housing via loans to the states — a system which has continued in various forms to this day.

Post WW2
Immediately after the second world war, the states operated public housing schemes in varying ways. In NSW and Victoria the public housing focus was on slum clearance to rehouse those in poverty, preference being given to large families and those recently returned from service. In ten years after WW2, state housing authorities built almost 100,000 dwellings for public rental — one in every seven dwellings built in Australia. The NSW Housing Commission built almost 38,000 of those dwellings, 18 percent of all housing built in NSW. The majority of the housing built was detached houses in garden city plans in middle and outer suburban areas, such as Green Valley and Mount Druitt in Sydney.

Less in number, but more visually prominent, were the flats. These were initially walk-up blocks of three to four levels, but later became high-rise towers of 20 to 30 storeys in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1946, the Victorian Housing Commission repurposed a tank factory to produce concrete panels for prefabricated houses and flats. Eventually, 27 towers using those precast concrete panels were built across 19 suburbs in Melbourne. Housing towers were vilified in Melbourne and Sydney for their stark visual presence but, moreover, for gathering too many people of the same socio-economic status in one place, typified by violence, drugs and suicides. The irony is there were far more tenants in suburban houses, largely indistinguishable from everyone else’s housing.

In 1956, the first CSHA was concluded by the Robert Menzies government. Menzies had been agitating for some time for home sales not rentals. The government subsequently redirected 30 percent of commonwealth funds to building societies and state banks to subsidise finance for home ownership. Public housing completion declined to about nine percent of all dwellings, and the state authorities sold off much public housing; sometimes more was sold than was built in a year. By 1969, the NSW Housing Commission had sold almost 100,000 dwellings — one third of all the dwellings it had built. The conservative governments turned against public housing, reducing the size of public housing sectors, and shifted public housing clientele away from workers and their families to people on a social wage, or those who were unemployed.

The Whitlam government had big intentions for housing and urban renewal. Through the Department for Urban and Regional Development, the minister (and sometime deputy PM), Tom Uren, brokered deals with state and local governments for the provision of public housing in Glebe and Woolloomooloo, guided by the green bans promoted by the BLF and Jack Mundey.

The Hawke Labor government of 1983 negotiated building more public housing as part of the deal to encourage wage restraint. And Brian Howe, again deputy PM, took a particular interest in developing a joint program with the states called the Local Government and Community Housing Program, referred to as “Logchop”. The idea within the program was to provide public housing to those at the margins who were not normally housed publicly — artists, students, and refugees in cooperatives and local groups.

The program was never able to effectively take off before the government changed to the Howard coalition, which made further cuts to funding social housing under the CSHA. Each return to conservative government saw a continuing fall in public housing: the share of dwelling completions fell from an average of 16 percent from 1945 to 1972, to nine percent over the 1980s, and down to five percent in the 1990s.

By the millennium, almost no public housing estates were being built, and state governments were being encouraged to sell off the most valuable stock in order to build new housing. Most recently, the NSW Berejiklian government has done so with alacrity, selling off the buildings in Millers Point that had been public housing for 120 years — together with the purpose-built Sirius apartment building (see page 16).

The other direction is privatisation, where public housing stock is passed into the ownership of Community Housing Providers — not-for-profits run by a board with an imprimatur to maintain the stock and expand it from the rental income. CHPs are in their infancy, and it may be too early to judge their success.

Our obsession with providing houses for ownership has blinded governments to the need for social housing for the poorest 20 percent, but at the same time they have failed in their mission to provide home ownership. Lose – lose. Public housing in Australia has now shrunk to four percent of all dwellings, compared to say Denmark which has 20 percent (and 60 percent home ownership).

Australia has not had a coherent housing policy, ever. The likelihood of a conservative government developing one is about equal to teaching a kangaroo to do the macarena. But we cannot despair. We need to plan big for the day when we have a government in Canberra that has a social agenda as well as an economic one — one that includes social housing.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, adjunct professor at UNSW, and president of the Australian Architecture Association

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