Public housing in New South Wales: a brief history

26 May 2016 | Posted In: #129 Winter 2016, #132 Winter 2017, Housing Types and Issues, Public Housing, Public Housing – History, Research, | Author: Chris Martin

To understand modern day public housing, it is important to understand its history. Chris Martin looks at what has shaped public housing over more than 100 years.

phhistory1Four years ago, the New South Wales public housing system turned 100 years old. The milestone went unobserved by the NSW State Government, in what felt like an embarrassed silence. Public housing was not always regarded this way. When the Housing Act 1912 (NSW) was introduced, creating the NSW Housing Board and authorising the construction of the first planned public housing estate in Australia, the State Treasurer, Rowland Dacey, proclaimed the Government’s vision proudly:

We propose to establish a garden city, and to offer the people healthy conditions for living. It has been truthfully said that the city beautiful will yield big dividends to the nation. We propose to establish a city beautiful, which Australians abroad will be able to point to with pride and say, ‘There, that is how Australia builds its garden cities.’

Dacey died one week later, and was memorialised in the name of the first public housing estate – Daceyville.

This was not the first involvement by the NSW state government in the provision of rental housing: through the Sydney Harbour Trust, it owned and let houses at The Rocks and Millers Point which had been acquired when the area was resumed for sanitary redevelopment following an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900. But the 1912 initiatives were the first time the state government had a dedicated housing agency with a deliberate mission to improve housing through the design, construction and letting of publicly-owned housing.

The establishment of public housing in New South Wales reflected the international ferment at the beginning the twentieth century of ideas for reform from a particularly ‘social’ point of view. In contrast to the moralising, classical liberal reformism of the previous century, this new social-liberal reformism proposed solutions to governmental problems not through laissez faire or philanthropy or well-meaning amateurs, but instead through greater interventions by the state and technocratic experts in planning, social security and other programs that would secure and regularise the lives and conditions of working people. Housing was significant in these programs of reform, and garden suburbs like Daceyville were described at the time as being ‘the great lever of social reform’.

The social-liberal reform of housing was not, however, only – or even mainly – about public housing: the first choice of reformers was a reform of housing provided privately by the market. So, in the same parliamentary session as it passed the Housing Act 1912, the NSW State Government also passed legislation to advance deposits and mortgage finance to workers for home ownership; later, the commonwealth government would directly support home ownership through the War Service Homes Commission. Less directly, private housing to an appropriate standard was supported by the state through the wage arbitration system, which formulated a ‘living wage’ that accounted for the reasonable cost of housing for a working class household.

Public housing, then, was only one of several solutions proposed by reformers, never the most preferred one and, where it was implemented, it was with a considerable degree of variation and experimentation. This was especially the case in New South Wales: Daceyville was a fraction of the size originally planned when building stopped and the Housing Board was abolished in the early 1920s. A number of more or less stop-start engagements with public housing followed, including the short-lived Housing Improvement Board (1936-42), which produced the fortunately much longer lived Erskineville Estate.

Public housing really became an enduring part of the policy landscape – and the landscape of our cities and towns – after 1945. Internationally, social-liberal reformism at this time was newly rationalised and extended by Keynesian macroeconomics, the practical experience of governing the war effort, and the politics of ‘reconstruction’, and around the world public housing entered its ‘golden age’. In Australia, the commonwealth became crucially involved in public housing. First, the Commonwealth Housing Commission (the CHC), a board of inquiry appointed in 1943 by Ben Chifley as Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, presented a massive report documenting housing conditions and needs, and set out a striking statement of principle for housing policy:

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 profit.

On the CHC’s recommendation, the commonwealth inaugurated the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (CSHA) to fund state governments to build and operate public housing. Under the first CSHA (1945-55) State housing authorities built almost 100,000 dwellings for public rental – one in every seven dwellings built in Australia in that period. The NSW Housing Commission (established in 1942 to house war workers) built almost 38,000 dwellings under the first CSHA, about 18 per cent of all dwellings built here in the period. The majority of the Commission’s new dwellings were detached houses built according to sanitary town planning principles on middle- and outer-suburban estates, initially of 500-2,000 dwellings each, with some very large estates in development from the late 1950s – notably Green Valley, with 6,000 dwellings for 25,000 persons, and Mt Druitt, with 8,000 dwellings for 32,000 persons. As the Commission put it, ‘these estates radiate out from the city proper’ and, it was claimed, ‘created a potential labour force in strategic areas which attracted and allowed “breathing space” for industrial expansion – and provided the “castle” for the working man and his family’. The Commission also built flats, first mainly in walk-up blocks, then, from the mid-1950s, in high-rise towers, such as John Northcott Place, a ‘Town in the Sky’ of 430 units in three 12-storey towers in Surry Hills, ‘designed mainly for business couples and families with grown-up children working in the city’.

phhistory2Policy support for home ownership, however, remained paramount. Australia’s largest state program of direct assistance for home ownership was the War Service Homes scheme, which financed the construction of 265,000 dwellings in the period 1945-1971. From the mid-1950s, public housing policy was shifted to supporting home ownership too, with the 1956 CSHA concluded by the Menzies Government diverting 30 per cent of commonwealth funds to building societies and state banks to subsidise finance for home ownership. In the subsequent decade, public housing’s average share of completions declined by a similar proportion (in New South Wales, to about 12.5 per cent). Moreover, public housing authorities could sell much more of what they built – something Menzies and the state premiers had been looking forward to for some time. (After a conference with the premiers in 1953, Menzies is reported to have said ‘I do not want to see a state of affairs in Australia – and I am glad to gather that the premiers do not – in which governments are the universal landlords. I think that is a shocking position for governments to get into.’) In 1956-57, the NSW Housing Commission built 3030 dwellings – and sold 3,197. By 1969, the Commission would end up selling one-third of all the dwellings it had ever built (93,817 to that date).

From the 1960s, with public housing an established, if less preferred part of social liberal government, a new movement of social scientific investigation, both internationally and in Australia, began to uncover the persistence of poverty amidst the prosperity of the post-war period. At first it was supposed that this would be addressed by extensions to government programs of social security and urban renewal but, by the 1970s, investigative attention was turning to the role of those very programs of government in the production of hardship and strife amongst poor households. So, for example, in his Ideas for Australian Cities (1970), Stretton defended both public housing provision and the suburban form of Australian cities, but lamented the reality: being a resident of a public housing estate was ‘like a yellow badge in a lifeless ghetto town to which it is public knowledge that no successful man would be admitted’ (page 167). These critical investigations were joined by community discontent with the paternalism of government institutions. In New South Wales, the strongest critics of the Housing Commission in the period – and, in particular, its plans for ‘slum clearing’ inner city suburbs and the construction of so-called ‘suicide towers’ in slum-cleared inner city suburbs – were the radical Builders Labourers’ Federation, working class residents action groups and community activists.

While progressive criticisms of public housing and other social-liberal government programs mounted, the long period of post-war economic growth ended and throughout the developed world a new agenda of market-led reformism was embraced by policymakers. Public housing in particular was rapidly recast from being one of governments’ solutions to poor housing and associated problems to being a problem itself. In the 1970s and 1980s, neo-liberal and neo-conservation governments turned strongly against public housing, reducing the size of public housing sectors, variously through cessation of new construction, sales of properties and, most spectacularly, the huge programs of demolitions in the US and the UK. They also shifted public housing’s target clientele from workers and their families to persons who are marginalised or excluded from labour and housing markets.

In Australia, where so much of the public housing stock was privatised a generation previously, the decline was slower, because the early Hawke Labor Governments of the 1980s continued building public housing to mitigate policies of wage restraint, but it took hold by the late-1980s and accelerated from the mid-1990s. Public housing’s share of dwelling completions fell from an average of 16 per cent over 1945-70 to nine per cent over the 1980s, and fell again to five per cent over the 1990s. Upon the election of the Howard Coalition Government in 1996, funding to social housing under the CSHA was cut and declined in real terms over the subsequent 10 years by 30 per cent, whereupon dwelling numbers began to decline absolutely. In New South Wales, the absolute loss of public housing was forestalled until relatively recently – but all the while the stock has become more rundown, and an increasingly poor fit for the changed clientele of public housing.

While the recent history of public housing is, on most measures, one of decline, it is also one of transformation, in potentially positive ways. As well as public housing, New South Wales has now developed a community housing sector to which state housing functions have been contracted out, in neo-liberal fashion. However, it is also in this sector that some of those older social objectives of security and dignity through housing are being maintained and rearticulated with greater responsiveness to the needs of individuals and communities; it is also where initiatives are forming to extend affordable housing again to working households for whom the private sector has failed to provide.

After the silence of public housing’s centenary year, the NSW State Government has recently had a little more to say about opportunities for growing social and affordable housing. It might yet come up with something to be proud of.

Chris Martin is a Research Fellow in Housing Policy and Practice at the City Futures Research Centre at University of NSW.