Friday, August 24, 2012

Tenancy culture studies: community housing centres

As well as being the centenary of the public housing system in New South Wales, 2012 is the National Year of Reading, an initiative of Australian libraries to promote basic literacy and a 'reading culture' in every home.

This coincidence got us thinking: what's the first appearance of public housing in Australian literature?

The earliest one we know of is a peculiar one; it's in Ruth Park's tenurially significant 'Poor Man's Orange', first published in 1949. (Another coincidence: today's the 95th anniversary of Park's birth). This novel and its predecessor, the equally tenurially significant 'Harp in the South' (1948), tell of the tribulations of the Darcy family and their neighbours in the rental housing of post-war Surry Hills – housing that was run-down and in short supply. Rent controls were in force, but if a person lost their tenancy, they were in strife.

Through one of her characters, Mr Casement, Park describes ‘the terror of most of the evicted people... that they would be sent to squalid housing settlements where worse slums had been created than any the Council had pulled down’:

‘Them little army huts,’ thought Mr Casement in panic, ‘and people fighting and screaming and banging on walls, and pinching the washing, and Jessie expecting me to go in and tell ’em off. I just ain’t up to it these days.’

Mr Casement is terrified of the 'community housing centres' operated by the NSW Housing Commission in the first two decades of the post-war period. At the end of the Second World War, the Housing Commission came into possession of a number of ex-military sites, which it put to use as temporary accommodation for people in urgent need of housing.

The largest of these sites was an ex-US Army hospital at Herne Bay, where the Housing Commission converted the long hospital buildings to flats by throwing up partitions across their lengths and installing toilets and showers.   

This was not the most comfortable accommodation: those partitions did not extend to meet the pitch of the roofs, so you could hear, smell and, if you stood on a box, see everything that happened in the flat next door. And it was high-density: the Herne Bay centre comprised 1096 flats (with one to six bedrooms each), and housed about 6000 people. (By contrast, the public housing estate that stands on the site today – which includes two high-rise buildings – houses between 2000-3000 people.)

The provision of emergency temporary accommodation for public housing applicants was not the only function of the community housing centres. They also allowed housing officers to observe the conduct of applicants, and check if they maintained regular rent payments and satisfactory standards of housekeeping. Those who didn't (in pretty challenging circumstances) would be evicted, or just crack up and leave, and so would not proceed to an offer of proper public housing. In this way, the community housing centres were a variation on the model of 'experimental colonies' for 'difficult' tenants instituted by Dutch housing authorities in the 1930s, which operated on disciplinarian lines (surrounding walls, 11 pm curfews); these experiments had excited interest, but no formal emulation, in housing authorities around the world.

The accommodation provided by community housing centres reduced over time, as the sites were gradually redeveloped as public housing estates; the last of the 'horror huts' were gone by the mid-1960s. In the case of Herne Bay, the authorities and local citizens sought also to remove the infamy of the community housing centre by renaming the suburb – in 1958, it became Riverwood.

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