The Morrison-McCormack Government's ‘Homebuilder’ stimulus package launched last week has been roundly condemned from all quarters: too little, too closely targeted, too tightly time-framed, too open to corruption; all up ‘middle class welfare’ that could make the dreaded ‘Pink Batts’ debacle look Gold Class. The best version of the rules can be found in The Shovel.

As many pointed out, it failed to address the ‘real housing problem’, which was commonly identified as ‘social housing’. But what is meant by social housing? This week we'll seek to unravel that issue with some history; next week we’ll look at some viable alternative typologies.

Firstly, the nature of the housing market in Australia. We are obsessed with home ownership, and have been for 120 years, but in that time we’ve gone from world’s best to near worst, without realising it. At Federation, 50 percent of homes were owner occupied, the highest rate in the world. Ownership, once as high as 70 percent in the 70’s, is now 66 percent, and we are 42nd out of 52 industrialised countries, well behind many other developed countries, such as the USA, UK, most of Europe and Scandinavia, and many Eastern bloc countries.

Yet we cling to this belief that Australia’s home ownership makes us a property-owning gerontocracy.

Secondly, Australian housing policy is an oxymoron, twice over. The Federal Governments’ total focus on home ownership has failed to deliver: retrogressive tax initiatives like negative gearing promote multiple house ownership for those that have a house, at the expense of those without one. Most OECD countries have tax deductions on the family home, taxes on multiples, and death duties that prevent property being used to avoid taxes. Airbnb has turbo-charged it.

And vitally in this discussion, the ownership obsession has blinded governments to the rising need for investment in housing for the poor: the working poor (generally in second lowest quintile), and the socially waged, or the homeless (in the lowest quintile).

Thirdly some terms. Increasingly we are hearing about ‘build-to-rent’ – buildings specifically designed for those in the whose wages or savings can’t provide for them to buy. And rent rates are often characterised as needing to be affordable – not to be confused with the chimera of affordable purchases (and ‘first home-owner’ subsidies).

Housing for the poorest is usually provided by the public purse. Hence, the term public housing. But in Australia that’s a dirty word sullied by association with housing commissions, and ‘housos’. Hence, we now use ‘social housing’, a misnomer since not all the occupants are socially waged. But it’s a term we are stuck with, just like social distancing that’s really spatial distancing.

After every major war and depression there has been a push worldwide to address the resulting housing crisis. Unfortunately, Australia has missed, or misused, every opportunity, so a little history may help us avoid repeating mistakes by not learning as we exit COVIP.


Housing in Victorian times was either freestanding houses, which were owner occupied, or rows of terraces which were rented. Terraces, so called for their repetitive sequence, were the principal typology in Sydney and Melbourne, and were built by the developers of the day, naming them after their wife or daughter, and were rented out to families, with three generations and 10 or more per house.

By the end of century 50 percent of houses were owner occupied, 45 percent were privately rented and the remaining 5 percent were owned by local councils and others such as the Sydney Harbour Trust, which had acquired houses in The Rocks and Millers Pt in 1900, when there was an outbreak of bubonic plague, and then let those houses to waterside workers. This was our first ‘publicly owned housing’.


At the turn of the century, there was an international movement to reform housing from a social point of view, but that was not of interest to the newly formed Federal government, who considered it a state matter, which it has remained ever since.

The NSW government was the first to address public housing with the Housing Act of 1912, and the NSW Housing Board planned the first public housing estates in Australia. Introduced by state treasurer Roland Dacey, he proclaimed: “We propose to establish a garden city and to offer people healthy conditions for living… will yield big dividends to the nation… that has how Australia builds its garden cities”.

Sadly, the visionary Dacey died soon after, and his vision was not built until after WW1, but his name is commemorated in the first of those garden city public housing estates, Daceyville, near UNSW south of Sydney CBD.

At the same time as the Housing Act of 1912 was passed, the NSW government also passed legislation to advance the control of deposits and mortgage financing so that workers could own their own homes. Dacey’s nascent social liberal reform ran second to encouraging housing in the private market.

Post WW1 - 1929

Following the Great War, the Federal Government established the War Service Homes Commission in 1919, which offered low interest loans to return serviceman in order to construct or buy a house, promoting private home ownership, avoiding housing being dependant on the old private rental model.

The NSW Housing Board was disbanded in the late twenties, another instance where the government premiated home ownership over the public supply of rental housing.


The provision of all housing was seriously delayed by the Great Depression, but then followed a number of public housing initiatives by various States in a desire to provide housing for those who were poor.

Many of the old private and church housing estates fell into disrepair, and a Methodist social reformer, Frederick Oswald Barnett, drew attention to them as ‘slums’, and was instrumental in forming the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board in Victoria in 1936. A similar housing slums investigations committee was formed in NSW leading to a Housing Improvement Board established from 1936 to 1942.

A building act inquiry committee in South Australia led to the creation of the SA Housing trust in 1937; the Victorian Housing Commission was created in 1938 and the NSW Housing Commission in 1942; and in Tasmania public housing provision was promoted through a housing division in the Agricultural Bank in 1935.


In 1943, the Commonwealth Housing Commission (CHC) was established by a board of inquiry appointed by Ben Chifley, minister for post-war reconstruction. It concluded: “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 profits”.

Thus, the CHC promoted housing as a right for all Australians, targeted to low income workers: “…it has been apparent for many years, that private enterprise, the world over has not adequately and hygienically being housing, the low income group”.

The CHC report of 1944 made detailed proposals and recommendations to the Federal Government, most of which were ignored and instead the 1945 Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA) was established for the Commonwealth to fund public housing via loans to the States, a system which has continued in various forms to this day.

Post WW2

Immediately after the second world war, the States operated public housing schemes in varying ways. In NSW and Victoria the public housing focus was on slum clearance to rehouse those in poverty, preference being given to large families and those recently returned from service.

In 10 years after the WW2 state housing authorities built almost 100,000 dwellings for public rental, one in every seven dwellings built in Australia. The NSW Housing Commission built almost 38,000 of those dwellings, 18 percent of all dwellings built in NSW. The majority of the housing built was detached houses in ‘garden city’ plans in middle and outer suburban areas, such as Green Valley and Mount Druitt in Sydney.

Less in number, but more visually prominent were the flats. Initially walk up blocks of 3 to 4 levels but later high-rise towers of 20 to 30 storeys in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1946 the Victorian Housing Commission repurposed a Commonwealth Tank Factory as the ‘Housing Factory’ for the production of concrete panels for prefabricated houses and flats.

Eventually 27 towers using those precast concrete panels were built across 19 suburbs in Melbourne. Housing towers were vilified in Melbourne and Sydney for their stark visual presence, but moreover for gathering too many people of the same socio-economic status in one place, typified by violence, drugs and suicides. The irony is there were far more tenants in suburban houses, largely indistinguishable from everyone else's housing.


in 1956, the first CSHA was concluded by the Robert Menzies government that, together with some states, had been agitating for some time for home sales, not rentals. Menzies then redirected 30% of Commonwealth funds to building societies and state banks to subsidize finance for home ownership.

Public housing completion declined to about 9% of all dwellings, and the state authorities sold off much the public housing; sometimes more was sold than was built in a year. By 1969, the NSW Housing Commission had sold almost 100,000 dwellings, one third of all the dwellings it had built.

The conservative governments turned against public housing, reducing the size of public housing sectors and shifted the public housing's clientele away from workers and their families to people on a social wage or those who were unemployed.


The Whitlam government had big intentions for housing and urban renewal. Through the Department for Urban and Regional Development (DURD) the minister (and sometime deputy PM) Tom Uren brokered deals with State and Local Governments for the provision of public housing in Glebe and Woolloomooloo, guided by the ‘Green Bans’ promoted by the BLF and Jack Mundey (see here).


The Hawke Labor government of 1983 negotiated building more public housing as part of the deal to encourage wage restraint. And Brian Howe, again deputy PM, took a particular interest in developing a joint program with the States called the Local Government and Community Housing Program, referred to as ‘Logchop’. The idea within the program was to provide public housing to those at the margins who were not normally housed publicly, artists, students and refugees, in cooperatives and local groups.

The program was never able to effectively take off before the government changed to the Howard coalition, that made further cuts to funding social housing under the CHSA. Each return to conservative government saw a continuing fall in public housing: the share of dwelling completions fell from an average of 16 percent from 1945 to 1972, to 9 percent over the 1980’s and fell again to 5 percent over the 1990’s.


By the millennium almost no public housing estates were being built, and state governments were being encouraged to sell off the most valuable stock in order to build new housing. Most recently the NSW Berejiklian government has done so with alacrity, selling off the buildings in Miller's Pt that had been public housing for 120 years, together with the purpose-built Sirius apartment building.

The other direction is privatisation, where public housing stock is passed into the ownership of Community Housing Providers, not-for-profits run by a board with an imprimatur to maintain the stock and expand it from the rental income. CHPs are in their infancy, and it may be too early to judge their success.


Our obsession with providing houses for ownership has blinded governments to the need for social housing for the poorest 20 percent, but at the same time they have failed in their mission to provide home ownership. Lose – lose. Public housing in Australia has now shrunk to 4 percent of all dwellings, compared to say Denmark which has 20 percent (and 60 percent home ownership).

Australia has not had a coherent housing policy, ever. The likelihood of a conservative government developing one is about equal to teaching a kangaroo to do the macarena. The only two times we had some sort of cogent policy it was led by a deputy Labor PM.

But we cannot despair. We need to plan big for the day when we have a government in Canberra that has a social agenda as well as an economic one, one that includes social housing. And we need to plan small for the many CHP’s that are now in the grip of privatisation. They need good models, and that’s next week’s task.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, adjunct professor at UNSW and is president of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be addressed to [email protected].