Conference paper
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Abstract: Commonwealth Government engagement in housing was very limited until the war of 1939-45 when the conditions were ripe for its leadership. Reviewing the nation’s social security system, Parliament concluded that housing was important in achieving a fairer society. The Commonwealth Housing Commission (CHC) in the letter of transmittal accompanying its final report said: We consider that a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit (Emphasis in original) CHC 25 August 1944) The CHC statement summarised the aspirations that had energised housing reformers as they responded to the privations of the previous half century. The Commonwealth’s development of a public housing program was seen as a way of giving effect to the CHC’s assertion. This paper charts the departure from that lofty ambition since 1945 revealed as a series of episodes around the periodic Commonwealth State Housing Agreements (CSHAs) from 1945 to 2000. Slum clearance and rehousing the displaced population was another important subject during the late Depression years. The identification of flats, terraces, and tenements, particularly in the inner city, as slums irrespective of how sound they were as housing stock was as much a moral judgment as a functional one. The claim that overcrowding in the slums would lead inevitably to alcoholism, crime and indecency, suggested that “morality is a question of square feet” (Spearritt 1974:65). The Commonwealth proposed to create a public housing program under which households would be able to rent housing from a State housing authority as a matter of choice but low income households were expected to be a significant proportion of tenants. The original CSHA provided for the sale of houses although that the proportion would initially be very low. The initial CSHA was signed in 1945. It was followed by Agreements in 1956, 1961, 1966, 1973, 1978, 1981, 1984, 1989, 1996, 1999, and 2003. The Commonwealth underestimated the difficulties of creating the capacity in the various State agencies to deliver the program and of getting the States to share its political and program ambitions. While all States were covered by the Agreement, some felt that the conditions were too onerous. Queensland initially refused to sign up on the grounds that sales of houses were not permitted. South Australia was unenthusiastic because it believed its own housing scheme was better. Both States eventually signed up to the CSHA. Tasmania signed up in 1945 but withdrew in 1950 because of the limitations on sale of houses, re-signing in 1956 when the conditions on sale of houses were relaxed.

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