Welcome to Week 23

photo of public housing in the 1950s in sydney

Welcome to Week 23 of 40 Stories in 40 Weeks, in this extract from our History co-authored by Sarah Harris and Don Baker, we take a look at the history of public housing in Australia.

It was during a federal election campaign rally in the 1940s that Liberal icon Robert Menzies was asked the question people in the social housing sector have been asking political leaders ever since. “Wotcha gonna do about ‘ousing, Mr Menzies?” someone in the audience called out. “Put an ‘h’ in front of it,” was Menzies’ lightning and patronising retort. And it could be argued that all successive governments have done for housing ever since is uphold the grammatical niceties.

Australians have a view of housing in general and home ownership in particular which can be traced back to Menzies and the so-called “golden years”. It was at this time that the great Australian dream of home ownership was enshrined as a national tenet. In Menzies’ famed “Forgotten People” speech in May 1942 he emphasised the middle-class home as the most respectable bedrock of the nation.

The middle class, he said, had the greatest “stake in country” because it had “responsibility for homes material, homes human, homes spiritual. The material home represents the concrete expression of the habits of frugality and saving ‘for a home of our own’. The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.” Home ownership, he insisted, wasn’t just a materialistic goal, but “one of the best instincts in us”.

At the time of Menzies’ speech barely half of all Australians owned their own homes. By 1961 this figure had risen to 70 per cent thanks largely to his government’s housing policy which included the introduction of housing loan insurance and of subsidies for first-home owners. State support for home ownership has been a plank of Australian governments since the turn of the 20th century, but during the Menzies era it became a mechanism to rebuild the post-war economy. “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,” Menzies said in 1953. Provision of public housing then was viewed as an option of the last resort and its residents marginalised for failing to realise middle-class aspirations and polite expectations, but it didn’t start out that way.

The Victorian Housing Commission was established in 1937 and grew out of the slum reform movement. This followed members of the Melbourne Ladies Benevolent Society taking the Country Party (now National Party) Premier Albert Dunstan, who was the member for Eaglehawk, on a tour of the “industrial suburbs” where people crowded to live near the factories where those fortunate enough to find work laboured long and hard. Leading social reformer Frederick Oswald Barnett, who would be appointed one of the commission’s first commissioners, summed up the philosophy of those early days: “Rehousing is not a matter merely of bricks and mortar.”

The early annual reports of the Housing Commission reflect that view: “Slum abolition involves more than an expenditure on bricks and mortar and its real nature can only be appraised and dealt with if at all times full consideration is given to the most exacting and difficult questions affecting economic needs and social welfare.” The average income of families living in houses due for demolition was barely sufficient to provide food and clothes and “to attempt to solve the problem by building houses for sale to these citizens or to provide for them houses at full economic rent would be to proceed along lines doomed to failure.”

So this early attempt to address the deplorable living conditions of the slum dwellers was genuinely about improving the welfare of individuals. But in the post-war years it became less about social reform and more about the construction and the building of assets which could and would be sold, often faster than they were replaced. For example, in 1956-57 the NSW Housing Commission built 3030 dwellings and sold 3197. By 1969 it would end up selling almost a third of all the properties it ever built. So instead of a vehicle for social reform it became another means by which the state facilitated home ownership.

Public housing has declined in Australia to the point that it now comprises barely 4 per cent of all residential stock. There seems to be an unwillingness to accept that a percentage of the population will never cut it in the general marketplace. Of western democracies, only the US has less public housing than Australia. In the UK public housing makes up almost a third of all residential stock while in the Netherlands it’s higher again, and in some Dutch cities the percentage of social housing surpasses 50 per cent.

photo of public housing in the 1950s in sydney

Public housing estate Redfern August 1953

Photo via dictionaryofsydney.org