The 'housing crisis' could use a dose of democratic big government, with state initiatives and regulation — according to some lessons from Australia’s history.
The problem in the past, as today, was just not enough houses in the country — and they built public housing on a big scale.
It worked on common sense designs and social purposes, getting a roof over all Australians’ heads — not so much luxury; definitely not based on greed.
State-provided housing started before World War II to relieve wretched living standards after the Depression and then developed on a big scale because of a serious housing shortage post-War.
Getting a help-out in hard times
Returned servicemen and their brides commonly went to live with the in-laws while they anguished about ever getting a family home of their own.
One of the biggest programs was run by the Queensland Housing Commission, where the long-term post-War Labor governments found they had a pool of money from wartime railway receipts — transporting Australian and American forces North to join the Pacific War.
A large proportion of that was remitted to the Commonwealth, probably to share with other states, but provided a base to finance housing and also the state’s unique “free hospitals”.
Those had come about after the new Menzies Liberal Government scrapped certain Federal subsidies to hospitals and the Queensland State Government was the only one to make up the difference out of its own funds.
Crash program on housing
The Housing Commission projects of the 1950s were a crash program – somewhat rough and ready – producing mass accommodation at a good standard of building integrity that matched general living standards of the time.
Typically they would bulldoze all the light timber off the blocks, then put in the stumps in one go, roofs and so on. Maybe three or four basic house designs would be alternated down the street to relieve “sameness”.
Sealed roads and drainage might have to wait, so it could be a gravel street with no concrete kerbing – outhouses, no sewerage — and an old-style wood stove. Later on, Public Works would come around and make up the deficiencies. Occupants moving in might find polished floors; no soft furnishings.
People brought up in a three-bedroom place on high blocks would recall the general living area included a spacious kitchen-dining room. The downstairs area was not concreted and, in a few cases earlier on, might be subject to some local flooding.
Downstairs was good for laundry and storage, and garage space for the family car — once they could afford to buy one. In the South of the state, some houses were built in brick, in a program for the employment of bricklayers, in place of the ubiquitous wooden frames, weatherboard and tiles, and use of “fibro” (asbestos warnings now go out for all Queensland buildings from before 1990.) Several were imported pre-fabricated from Europe.
The house in question would be a secure roof over your head and you could afford it. It would not be particularly comfortable to live in – definitely not luxurious – and you knew it was not socially prestigious. It could get crowded if there were more than three children. Otherwise, it would be warm enough in Winter, cool enough in Summer, very dry, lock-up-able and stood up in bad weather.
When a cyclone devastated Townsville, it was found that not so many of the Housing Commission places lost their roofs, while many other buildings did. Engineers told journalists it might just have been the way the wind came in but more likely put it down to strict government specifications for the structures, including cyclone bolts. [Joint emergency services media conference, Townsville, January 1972.]
Similar issues came up with contemporary public housing schemes in other states. The South Australian Liberal Premier Tom Playford famously insisted on quality brick buildings — thousands of duplex cottages available for rent across the state.
It went together with his push to expand South Australia through new manufacturing industries, like the car plant and satellite town of Elizabeth, home to many British migrants. He might have had a pot of gold or relied on industrial growth to boost his Government’s revenues.
The policy incidentally created a political problem for him because so many new arrivals voted Labor — a problem solved for several years by gerrymandering electoral boundaries. That practice eventually got bad enough that a later Liberal government caved in and accepted reforms.
Security and dignity
The idea of all these schemes was security and dignity, backing up families, and no Australian children homeless or living out of cars.
In the Queensland program, obtaining a house was means tested, on a liberal-enough basis, given that most people’s wages were still modest. You could start out renting and that could then go towards your being able to buy the property over time. It would not only see the family through but provide an investment, re-sale being crucial to many families for retirement funding.
Very few houses escalated to dizzy multi-million-dollar heights during a boom but are still selling in 2023; advertised from over $350,000 in former Housing Commission areas of Townsville to $700,000 at Zillmere in Brisbane.
Some of the developments were Wulguru in Townsville, Park Avenue, Rockhampton and Inala, Kedron and Norman Park in Brisbane; most in 2023 with populations from 3,000 to 15,000, much more in their heyday as homes for growing families — a really strong contribution to keeping the population housed.
With security of tenure and the ability to sell on, people developed the blocks: restoring trees and putting in gardens, doing maintenance and extension work.
A former Deputy Mayor of Townsville, the late Ken McElligott, laid claim to achieving another piece of traditional Labor infrastructure building, putting in a major roads system for the Western suburbs, which included public housing zones such as the suburb of Gulliver.
McElligott said that another program to build up the weir system for water supply, with a backup line to the Burdekin River irrigation area, ended chronic water shortages and made it possible to recreate the suburbs as a green area. [Interview with the writer, Townsville, 1998.]
Public housing construction was done by government works, not by major out-sourcing to private building groups; a necessary protection against opportunistic price hikes because of a construction drive happening.
Likewise, prices were held down by the projects not being required to fund themselves by generating large profits — no shareholder problem. If the designs were practical and extra budget-conscious, the planners, where possible, looked to providing parks and space, making gestures to modernist garden suburb ideas.
The unusual concentric street plan of Gulliver was meant to enclose a community shopping centre, though this did not eventuate; two enclosed and air-conditioned centres came about 15 years later, each a few suburbs away.
The pendulum swing against public housing
Apart from accommodating the poor and distressed, public housing would become less urgent because of economic prosperity and demographic change, fewer children being born — the “baby boom” generation moving on. With the growth of the commercial project building industry and aggressive marketing, modest-old public housing would become less of an option for many. Things were getting fancy. Were we getting a bit precious?
Deputy Premier and Housing Minister Tom Burns obtained funds for more projects, including duplexes and apartments, for smaller family units. He ran a scheme for employing apprentices in the public construction workforce and tackled the issue of prestige or lack of it. Projects would go into established suburbs more than in separate areas and overall standards were marked up.
Burns declared in 1992:
'There is no reason why public housing should not be the best in the street.'
However, neoliberal ideas had already been taking hold – leave it all to the market – seized on by the Howard Government (1996-2007), which pulled out Federal funding for building. One more blow to government intervention in aid of lower-income earners.
Under Federal Community Services Minister Amanda Vanstone, rental subsidies were offered instead, which tended to get absorbed by rents being put up — in the end, landlords got the money and residents could no longer acquire the property.
The episode was a turning point and revolved around the question of funding. The Howard Government, intent on the market and transferring wealth into private hands, no longer had to find money to back up the states’ housing commitments.
Then, the idea of housing went through a change: away from being about homes and towards being about investment. It envisaged that investors would provide places for rent, which did not work out: not enough built, none cheap enough; many owners’ surplus places kept vacant, waiting for prices to go up and shortages of housing stock contributing to prohibitive inflation of prices.
So now, a few decades down the track, we don’t have enough houses and people can’t afford them.
Will the pendulum swing back?
Should they do it all again to relieve the “housing crisis” of 2023? They’d have to find the money – the occupiers’ “co-contribution” – borrow, re-prioritise. A tax levy (or sock-the-rich, as advocated by the Greens), funding this reform out of economic growth or realise theoretical savings from welfare costs associated with homelessness and people driven poor by high rents.
Industrial efficiencies and modern materials would mean better amenities, a less “rough and ready” approach and less of a pioneering finish to the resulting developments.
Would it mean too much of an adjustment of ambitions, of “aspiration” – not to say the vanities of life – to come up with today’s version of highly serviceable but modest dwellings for Australians?
Would they cop less fancy houses, for example, ones with only one toilet and bathroom: a “drop” in the “standard of living”?
Ask the people looking for a home or a flat to rent — or very worried they are locked out of the housing market. They might think it sounds alright.
Among his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Pacific Journalism Review.
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