Almost 70 years ago, Father Gerard Kennedy Tucker declared there was “no use moving a certain type of slum people into decent houses”.
Father Tucker, founder of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, spent years working with the poor in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, and was one of many debating how to fix an estimated shortage of 80,000 homes in the city.
In 1951, Father Tucker was quoted in Melbourne’s Herald newspaper where he proposed shifting “the better type” of disadvantaged people to newly built public housing towers and to leave the properties that remained to “the real slum dwellers”.
“Their hovels should be pulled down and replaced with decent houses. Then you can start to educate them to appreciate decent houses,” he said.
About 15 years earlier, Victoria’s premier Albert Dunstan had vowed to improve living standards for the city’s poorest residents, many of whom stayed in squalor during the depths of the Great Depression.
He was prompted to act after intense lobbying from Frederick Oswald Barnett, a frequent visitor to the slums who, armed with a camera, captured appalling living conditions in suburbs like Carlton, North Melbourne and Fitzroy.
Slums cleared, towers built
The Housing Commission of Victoria was set up, leading to the demolition of the city’s slums over several decades.
English-style cottages were first built in Port Melbourne in a public housing estate known as The Garden City.
However by the 1960s, the strategy had changed to achieve three goals — scale, efficiency and delivery — according to RMIT urban development professor Libby Porter.
More than 40 high-rise towers were built across 19 suburbs, including the buildings in Flemington and North Melbourne that have been at the centre of news coverage this week.
“That logic hasn’t changed very much.”
Even as far back as the 1940s, there were concerns the new public housing could become overrun.
W.C.L Townsend, a lawyer who served on Melbourne City Council, issued a warning about a proposed smaller block in 1946.
“If for economic or other reasons married couples were unable to leave the flats as their families grew in size, overcrowding would be inevitable,” he said in comments printed in the Herald.
Shortcomings exposed by ‘hard lockdown’
Fast forward to 2020, and Mr Townsend’s comments ring true.
The Victorian Public Tenants Association estimates there are 100,000 people on waiting lists for public housing, and a 2018 Victorian parliamentary report found chronic under-investment led to properties not being kept to an adequate level.
Multiple generations of large families live in two or three-bedroom apartments, including those in towers subjected to hard lockdowns because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Ahmed Dini, a resident of the North Melbourne tower on Canning Street for 20 years, said the concept of social distancing was “basically non-existent”.
“You probably have an average of around 10 different apartments on a floor, and some even more,” Mr Dini said.
“We share a very tiny laundry. We share two tiny lifts and a tiny corridor.
‘We just need to build a lot more’
The Andrews Government has pledged $185 million towards redevelopments in eight public estates in a bid to create up to 2,500 public housing dwellings.
Under the proposal, the state-run dwellings would be mixed with private housing and homes managed by community housing providers.
Much like a century ago, the reforms are coming with pain for some residents — some existing public housing blocks are being knocked down as their replacements are being constructed.
Dr Kate Shaw, an urban geographer at the University of Melbourne, fears the public housing sell-off will drive subsidised rent prices up for disadvantaged tenants.
“Obviously, we just need to build a lot more,” she said.
“We now have less public housing in Victoria than any other state in Australia as a proportion of population.”