Monday, April 9, 2012

The NSW Housing Board and J D Fitzgerald

We observed last week the centenary of the Housing Act 1912 (NSW), which established the public housing system in this State. Today it's 100 years since New South Wales's first dedicated public housing agency – the Housing Board – was established under the Act.

The Housing Board comprised three members: T H Nesbitt (Town Clerk of the City of Sydney), J W Holliman (a public servant) and, as chairperson, J D Fitzgerald. As that link indicates, Fitzgerald is the really interesting one.

(J D Fitzgerald)
A barrister, journalist, trade unionist, republican, suffragist, town planning advocate, housing reformer and, occasionally, a Member of Parliament (before and after his stint as Chair of the Housing Board), Fitzgerald was a founding member of the State parliamentary Labor Party, twice expelled from Labor and, after the split over conscription, Minister for Public Health and Local Government in the State Nationalist Government.*

Fitzgerald's curriculum vitae reflects the remarkable 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, or social-liberal, reformism proposed solutions to governmental problems not through laissez faire or philanthropy or well-meaning amateurs, but instead through greater interventions in the processes of life and economy, particularly by the state and technocratic experts in programs of social security and eugenics. Housing was significant in these programs of reform: garden suburbs like Daceyville were described at the time as being 'the great lever of social reform', and Daceyville itself was described, in Fitzgerald's own words, as 'a small experiment in eugenics'.

The social-liberal reform of housing was not just – or even mainly – about public housing, though: 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. To similar ends, the state also intervened in the landlord-tenant legal relationship: in New South Wales, the State Government first restricted (in the late 1890s), then abolished (in 1930), landlords' old common law remedy of 'distress for rent' (that is, entering the house of a tenant in arrears, and seizing their personal property); it also instituted rent controls (under the Fair Rents Act 1915; rent controls were partly lifted in 1928, repealed in 1937, then imposed again on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939).

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 originally planned to comprise over 1 700 dwellings, but just 315 dwellings were completed when building stopped in the 1920s. The Housing Board itself was abolished in 1924.

Still, the Housing Act 1912 remained on the statute books, and would later form part of the legislative basis of the Housing Commission (established 1942) and the Department of Housing (established 1985). It was repealed only in 2001, when its provisions, and those of the later Housing Act 1985, were updated and consolidated in the present Housing Act 2001.

*An aside: Fitzgerald could also lay dubious claim to writing the first Australian publication in the then-new field of criminology. I say dubious, because 'Studies in Australian Crime' (1924) is written in that 'infamous true crimes' style, and is not really scientifically rigorous. Interestingly, a much stronger claim to authorship of the first Australian work in criminology can be made by another housing reformer and administrator, F Oswald Barnett, the slum clearance propagandist and member of the Victorian Housing Commission, who produced 'The Making of a Criminal' (1940).

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