Friday, May 11, 2012

The Housing Improvement Board

We've been observing the centenary of the public housing system in New South Wales, starting with  the Housing Board, the State's first – albeit relatively short-lived – public housing agency, established a hundred years ago last month by a reforming Labor government. The next major development in the history of public housing in New South Wales was the work of a conservative government: the Housing Improvement Board, established in 1936 by the United Australia Party government led by Sir Bertram Sydney Barnsdale Stevens.

(Premier B S B Stevens (seated) and his Cabinet)
Stevens came up with the idea of the Housing Improvement Board following a study tour of Britain, where he was impressed by the slum clearance and home-building being done by local councils. The job of the Housing Improvement Board was to guide local councils in New South Wales to becoming builders and landlords themselves – not the State Government.
The idea that local government should be a provider of public housing was present at the commencement of the public housing system in New South Wales: at the same time as it introduced the Housing Act 1912, the NSW State Government also introduced the Sydney Corporation (Dwelling Houses) Act 1912, enabling the Sydney City Council to build rental housing; and one of the collateral benefits of the Housing Board's construction of Daceyville was that it might inspire local councils to do more of the same themselves. 
In the case of the Housing Improvement Board, however, the Board's express purpose was to provide a persuasive demonstration of benefits of planned slum clearance and housing development to local councils. Its first task was to build a demonstration project of modern, sanitary flats. After looking about the inner suburbs of Sydney, it settled on Erskineville as the site. A good choice: Erskineville then had lots of crummy houses, lots of tenants (about 85 per cent of the population rented), and a large park that could be included in the redevelopment and reduce its cost. Unfortunately for the Board, Erskineville (then a municipality in its own right) also had one Alderman A P 'Pop' Henry, a key Labor machine man, sometime mayor and, as it happened, a real estate agent. 
At Henry's agitation, Erskineville Council opposed the scheme; so did hundreds of residents, who signed the petition below, circulated by Henry:
WE the undersigned RATEPAYERS and RESIDENTS of ERSKINEVILLE desire to
protest against the proposed erection of FLATS in ERSKINEVILLE PARK, and wish
to emphaisse [sic] that if any rebuilding scheme is carried out the people shall be
supplied with semi-detached cottages or such other designs of building that will give
each family a definite form of homelife embodying a backyard to each home.

Our objections are based on the following grounds:
(1) FLATS are not desirable. Where they have been undertaken on Communal
lines in New South Wales they have invariably been a failure as instanced by
the efforts of the Sydney Council (City)
(2) FLATS are unsuitable in an industrial area because the industrial classes
have the largest families and large families and family homelife has been the
backbone of the development of the British Empire.
(3) FLATS on moral and religious grounds have a definite tendency to make
people limit their families by birth control methods, which has a definite
injurious effect on the health and morals of married people.
(4) Community grounds for drying clothes on washing day takes away from the
homelife which families have been used to and is foreign to industrial classes
who have always had their own drying grounds. The washing and drying of
women’s private garments (personal hygiene, etc) demands the amount of
privacy every female is entitled to.
(5) Private space for gardens and lawn tends to increase the homelife of the
individual supplying for him a hobby that is so essential. This also allows
children to play in their own backyards where they are under direct control of
the parents. The appalling number of street accidents to children speaks for
(6) If we desire to populate Australia with Austrlians [sic] we must encourage
them to propogate [sic]. If people are encouraged to live in FLATS small
families will result.
(7) The swampy area intended for building will make it necessary to have an
up- to-date drainage system instituted. In England it is illegal to build on made
(8) Infectious diseases in children must be isolated. How are we to isolate in
COMMUNITY backyards?
In view of the foregoing, we therefore voice our unified protest and ask the Housing
Board to refrain from building FLATS on the plan introduced.              

As Harvey Volke, historian of early public housing in New South Wales, wryly observed, it is not known how many of those who signed had to pay their rent to Henry.

Despite the opposition of the Labor councilors, the scheme was built, but the Board's legal and financial weakness was exposed and its persuasive powers were spent. However, the Board's 56 flats, in seven walk-up blocks, still stand today – and thank goodness, because the Erskineville estate is a lovely spot, and still a model of the good that public housing can do.

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