The Federal Government announced expenditure of $9.3bn for social housing in this year's budget. Bickering over whether it’s new or reheated money misses the point. Belatedly, almost unbelievably, the Fed’s big money is addressing the housing crisis where it’s needed most: in social housing.

Whilst funding is now increasingly centralised, the heavy lifting of implementation will be done by the states, traditional providers of social housing through state-built ‘housing commissions’. Once in excess of 5% of all housing stock, social housing has dwindled to being less than 3% (through sales and fewer replacements). But that could soon be reversed.

For architects the key question is: “how should that social housing be designed?”

Or rather, what can we learn from the past about what works and what doesn't in social housing. The temptation in solving a big problem is to use a big stick. But that failed in the last three big leaps in state-built housing. The post WW2 solutions of high-rise towers in Sydney's Waterloo and South Melbourne created ghettos of social dysfunction (which cannot be solved by an equally misguided ‘big stick’ idea of demolition).

In the 1970s, making whole outer suburbs in social housing, such as Sydney’s Green Valley, was equally fraught. Cramming residents with low incomes, social and mental health issues and poor life skills in one area only leads to further ghettos of resentment and anti-social behaviour. The poor media and increasing costs in addressing the issues only increased the stigmatisation.

The 80s brought a more subtle form of stigma: the ‘housos’ got experiments in first-past-the-post modernism. Instead of being welcomed into a community with equity and equanimity, they stood out by being housed in theatrical interpretations of early 20th C worker’s housing. Philip Cox in Woolloomooloo and Edmunds and Corrigan in Carlton juggled polychrome brickwork that was more hysterical than historical.

In each of the three periods, the residents’ real needs and desires were ignored. Successful social housing in the 21st century can learn from these mis-steps by developing four components: being dispersed, diverse, indistinguishable and durable.


Tomorrow’s social housing needs to be everywhere: dispersed through all suburbs and towns. People with social needs should not be congregated in the annulus of inner-city areas, or aggregated in far-flung suburbs with poor amenities and transport.


Social housing should be diverse, not just one type. Family homes in the suburbs, solo apartments in high-rise towers, and a mix of all typologies in between. Our huge variety of households (less than 50% traditional families) compels a matching variety of different spatial arrangements.


Social housing should be indistinguishable from the surroundings. Residents mixed into the community rather than stigmatised into ghettos of the past. Imperceptibly built so that only its rental operation distinguishes it from the housing next door. The worst social housing shriek eyesores, the best social housing goes unnoticed.


Social housing must be durable, because it will be held in perpetuity by the providers. Costs for maintenance, upgrading and replacement must be minimised to ensure low-costs into the future. An incentive to be better built than the ‘all show and poor go’ market-based housing that plagues poor building quality identified by the NSW Building Commissioner.


Crucially, this cannot be delivered by a singular top-down state organisation, a re-badged housing commission. On the contrary, its distribution needs to be delivered by multiple Community Housing Providers, or CHPs, that know local areas, local problems, and local issues. The centralised big stick approach should be replaced with letting thousand flowers bloom.

Well-designed social housing is indistinguishable from good housing: that will see the best outcome for the investment of more than $9bn.

Title image: The NSW Housing Commission’s original urban design for the suburb of Cartwright, near Liverpool in SW Sydney. Originally all housing commission, it was fashioned as a ‘Radburn suburb’, a middle-class conceit, wholly unhelpful for social housing. Plagued with social unrest it is being remade less than 40 years later. The red dot indicates a low rise building of 31 apartments (30% affordable) which we have designed to replace three houses.

Next week: The Fed’s funding incudes $1bn to address homelessness. As previously commented, this requires a completely different approach, a home alone doesn't solve homelessness: it’s the wraparound services that are needed more. The subject of next week's Tone on Tuesday.

This is Tone on Tuesday #208, 14 May 2024, written by Tone Wheeler, architect / Adjunct Prof UNSW / President AAA. The views expressed are his. Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here. You can contact TW at [email protected].