Is affordable housing a basic right for all Australians like other social goods such as education?
In his new book Accommodating Australians: Commonwealth Government Involvement in Housing Pat Troy answers this question strongly in the affirmative and chronicles a betrayal of this position over the last 60 years by numerous actors most notably the Commonwealth Government.
The highpoint for inclusionary housing policy was the 1940s. Responding to the widespread misery of the Great Depression exacerbated by other national priorities during the Second World War and then faced with the return of hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen to civil life, a bi-partisan political consensus acknowledged the importance of shifting significant resources into residential construction.
Home ownership and a central role for the private sector were never in doubt, but most social commentators of the day advocated – and the broader community endorsed – a national obligation also to meet the general housing needs of the stratum of low income earners on a priority basis.
The Commonwealth Housing Commission which inquired into all aspects of the post-war housing question certainly endorsed this position and set in train a joint agreement with the states to fund public housing through low interest grants (actually loans).
At the same time the challenge was seen as more than just building houses. The national obligation was to develop real communities, establishing a close nexus between housing and the then fledgling profession of town planning.
Things went well for a while, even if post-war shortages of building materials and recalcitrant state governments proved troublesome. But when the Labor Governments which had dominated the parliament in the 1940s, lost office, out went the high-level commitment to quality public housing in the broadest sense.
Instead, owner-occupation became the new bulwark of national policy and a succession of Commonwealth-State Housing Agreements up until 2008 when they ceased altogether progressively emasculated public housing by redirecting declining funding into a suite of welfare housing programs catering for special needs.
In the process the notion of a right to housing has been irreversibly corroded and the progressive and inclusive vision of the 1940s completely lost.
Troy tells this story in both a combative and exacerbated manner alive to the social justice questions which have always troubled him, and evident in his earlier books Equity in the City (1981) and A Just Society? (1981).
The doyen of Australian urban researchers, he has worked tirelessly and fearlessly for an informed and justice-driven national commitment to cities since the 1960s. While this book focuses on housing specifically, it has plenty more targets from tunnel-visioned bureaucrats and airport privisatisation through McMansions to Westfield and the NSW Department of Planning. There are, needless to say, few sacred cows.
But the main lament surrounds the hijacking of housing policy by increasingly economistic approaches cemented by the rise of neo-liberalist doctrines from the 1980s. Needless to say the role of the Commonwealth Treasury is not given a great wrap with a long history of negativity towards extra demands on the public purse regardless of social and environmental dividends.
The rot starts with Menzies who seemed blind to the needs of low income earners but few political leaders, Labor or Liberal, are spared. Surprisingly, two conservative politicians emerge with reputations enhanced: Thomas Playford, long term South Australian Premier who so well understood the connections between housing, community amenity and economic development that he could actually rebuff the feds for a while, and Dame Annabelle Rankin, a long suffering housing minister in the first Holt Government.
The real hero here is HC (‘Nugget’) Coombs, Director of Post War Reconstruction in the 1940s. His vision of planning magically balance between technocracy and democracy and driven less by aesthetic standards and more by a fundamental commitment to economic and social reform suffuses this account.
What makes Accommodating Australians such a compelling book is how the author manages to convincingly fold in so many of his well known bete noires: the current vogue for densification which he has questioned consistently since his The Perils of Urban Consolidation (1996); political preoccupation with short term point scoring rather than long term beneficence; the failure of the planning system on many fronts but particularly institutionalising high costs of development; developers intent on maximising their profits above all else; superficial critiques of urban form based on environmentally determinist ideologies; and the chronic absence of analytical evidence-based policy formation.
All of this makes for a serious if not bleak read. Certainly, there seems no longer a bipartisan constituency to significantly enhance the low income public housing stock nationally. The Liberals have been ideologically antagonistic for decades and with Labor, well, even there ‘the light on the hill was turned off some time ago’.
The best hope, says the author, lies in constituting new federal and state commissions as independent and principled sources of research and policy advice for government on housing and the urban environment generally.
Needless to say Accommodating Australians is an authoritative, thoughtful and remarkably nuanced account of the Commonwealth’s role in housing policy since the 1940s. Its remit is primarily historical but Pat Troy loves nothing better than a good debate on public policy and there are rich pickings here for that.
Robert Freestone is Professor of Planning at the University of New South Wales.
Accommodating Australians: Commonwealth Government Involvement in Housing by Professor Patrick Troy AO, Adjunct Professor in the City Futures Research Centre at the Faculty of Built Environment of the University of New South Wales. Federation Press, August 2012.