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Housing Commission of Victoria

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Title: Housing Commission of Victoria  
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Subject: Public housing in Australia, Architecture of Melbourne, Barry Pullen, Wendouree, Victoria, Norman Lacy
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Housing Commission of Victoria

Part of the Wellington Street Housing Commission high rise building

The Housing Commission of Victoria (colloquially known as the Housing Commission) was a State Government body responsible for public housing in Victoria, Australia. Responsible to the Victorian Minister for Housing, it was established in 1938 and existed until replaced by the Victorian Office of Housing.

Its most notable legacy was the tens of thousands of buildings either acquired or constructed to provide more affordable housing for residents of Melbourne and other Victorian towns, including the construction of 40–45 individual precast concrete high-rise apartments in inner Melbourne. Though the Commission arguably often operated with the best of intentions, few would agree that its influence was benign or that its original ideal of replacing slums with modern and functional housing (and communities) was met. The high-rise apartments are popularly considered as a scar on the Melbourne cityscape, and successive governments have actively worked towards their demolition or gentrification.


The Commission was established over the Housing Act 1937 in response to slum housing in Melbourne, and worked under the Slum Reclamation and Housing Act 1938.[1] The mission was 'slum abolition' driven by the zeal of Christian and other social reformers, but later became 'slum clearance' and 'block demolition'.[2]

The Commission presided over the construction of the Melbourne Olympic Village in 1956, and made its mark on the Melbourne skyline during the 1960s in the form of high-rise blocks of flats on various sites around inner Melbourne, the largest of which being Lygon Street in Carlton and Atherton Gardens in Fitzroy.[3] Approximately twenty of these precast concrete 20 to 30 storey height buildings were constructed around Melbourne, until the type of development fell into disrepute, mainly for sociological reasons.[4] By 1970 nearly 4000 privately owned dwellings had been compulsory acquired and replaced by nearly 7000 high rise flats.[5]

Production then moved to low rise walk up and single dwelling units, with about 10,000 homes using locally engineered design and erection methods constructed using the technology.[4] Public housing was also built in regional Victorian cities, such as Wangaratta, Wodonga and Geelong.[6]

Slum Reclamation

In the midst of the economic conditions caused by the Great Depression, the overcrowded conditions in the inner suburban areas of Melbourne had created a 'housing crisis'.[7] Oswald Barnett, active in campaigning against slums and his 'study group' led the Victorian Government to establish the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board (HISAB) in July 1936, to investigate housing conditions in these areas.[8] HISAB's 1937 report found 3,000 houses 'unfit for habitation' and recommended the establishment of the Housing Commission with John O’Connor the Commission's first chairman, while Oswald Barnett, Oswald Burt and Frances Penington were appointed as part-time commissioners.[9] In the next few years, the Commission moved thousands from the slums to new housing, improving conditions but also encountering problems along the way.

The Housing Commission of Victoria was established under the Housing Act 1937 to improve existing housing conditions and to provide adequate housing for persons of limited means; the Slum Reclamation Act 1938 and the Reclamation and Housing (Financial) Act 1938 provided the framework for the Commission's work.[10] On the passing of the legislation, the Victorian Premier, Albert Dunstan,[11] declared the beginning of the Commission's activities as a 'war on slums', but also recognised the magnitude of the task before it. The legislation not only gave the Commission powers for housing construction and improvement, but also made it 'a planning authority in its own right'.[12] The Commission's chief concerns however, were the 'slum pockets' which required 'excision' for the 'common good'.[13] The Commission developed a plan of action in March 1938, concentrating its attention on 1,240 houses in lanes, rights-of-way and slum pockets, referred to in HISAB's earlier report.[14] Slums were to be reclaimed and people rehoused.

To house the people moved from the slum areas, the Commission needed to provide new homes. The Commission's first estate was the Garden City development at Fisherman's Bend. Next was the development of flats at Pigdon Street, Carlton, though the original proposal for three storey flats was reduced to two storeys after local opposition.[15] The Commission then began to acquire cheap land in the northern suburbs of Coburg, Brunswick, Preston and Northcote as well as in inner suburban areas such as North Melbourne, Fitzroy and Richmond.[16] These estates and acquisitions were the first of many.

The Commission's acquisition plans were ambitious and it was bound to come across difficulties. The synchronisation of the 'demolition program' was proving difficult and by June 1940, only 53 families had moved into new houses while only 99 houses had been ordered for demolition.[17] The Commission also had difficulties dealing with local municipalities, in acquiring properties in the North Melbourne reclamation area as well as with the labour movement, who believed that the government should subsidise loans to enable workers to buy homes rather than rent them.[18] The rehousing of those from the slums was a difficult task.

As a landlord, the Commission also experienced problems. Tenants were initially reluctant to move, while rents on the estates were more expensive than in their former accommodation.[19] At Fisherman's Bend, there was tension between tenants of the Commission's estate and those who had bought homes under an earlier housing program; vandalism was also a problem, both at Fisherman's Bend and in the West Brunswick estate.[20] Frances Penington, who was also a social worker, advocated for community facilities to be built at the estates to alleviate some of these problems, these were built after protracted debate by others on the Commission.[21] Transportation costs from the new estates to places of employment were also an issue.[22] Despite these issues, residents 'adjusted to their new homes and locations'[19] and appreciated the 'better home environment'.[23]

By 1942, building had halted as the Commission shifted its focus to post-war planning. It continued to acquire land though, taking advantage of low prices by purchasing land in industrial areas in the western suburbs as well as in the middle class eastern and southern suburbs.[24] The Commission, in its planning authority capacity had also drawn up plans for the future development of Melbourne but by 1944, it was lacking resources to deal with backlogs of council plans.[25] The Commission recruited Frank Heath from its advisory Architects Panel to deal with these problems but it was stripped of its town planning powers later in the same year.[25] The Commission's 1944 report found that housing was required in 'large numbers as quickly as possible to house those recently returned to civilian life and catch up on the lag of construction over the war years'.[26] The era of slum reclamation was over.

While the Commission was planning for the future, so were its commissioners. Barnett and Burt[27] published Housing the Australian Nation, reviewing the slum reclamation, but also putting forward their plans for a national housing policy. Barnett, Burt and Heath[28] published We Must Go On calling for a fairer society and centralised planning. By now, housing for growing numbers was the main concern.

The Housing Commission achieved a lot in these early years. The Commission had reclaimed slums and provided housing for many in new estates. In doing this though, it also encountered difficulties. With the end of the war approaching, the increasing housing shortage as well as the large numbers returning from war meant that the Commission shifted its focus from reclaiming slums to become a housing provider.[29]

1960s high rises

An 'S-shaped' 1960's high rise on Wellington Street in Collingwood

There are 20 or 21 sites, spread across 14 suburbs in Melbourne that contain around 40–45 high rises in total. The largest sites contain 4 buildings each; Elizabeth St, Richmond, Atherton Gardens, Fitzroy and Racecourse Rd, Flemington. Other large sites contain 3 buildings; Boundary Rd, North Melbourne and Malvern Rd, Prahran. The high-rise buildings vary between 20–30 storeys in height and come in a variety of shapes, when viewed from the air these appear as; S, T, Y, I, L and C-shape, the most common being the S-shape. The high-rises have become pop-culture icons, being synonymous with ambitious government projects and ideas that become compromised, and are used for various film and photographic work.


  • Victoria Avenue (Corner of Reed St), 1 building (I-Shaped)
  • Barkly Street (Corner of McKay St), 1 building (S-Shaped)
  • Elgin Street (Corner of Nicholson St), 2 buildings (I-Shaped)
  • Lygon Street (Lygon St), 4 buildings (2 S-Shaped, 1 Y-Shaped, 1 T-Shaped)
  • Hoddle Street (Between Perry & Vere Streets), 2 buildings (S-Shaped)
  • Wellington Street (Between Perry & Vere Streets), 1 building (S-Shaped)
  • Racecourse Road (Racecourse Rd), 4 buildings (4 S-Shaped)
  • Gordon Street (Corner of Shepherd St), 1 building (T-Shaped)
  • 56 Derby Street, 1 building (L-Shaped)
  • 72 Derby Street, 1 building (demolished 1999)[30]
  • 94 Ormond St, 1 building (I-Shaped)
  • Boundary Road (Boundary Rd), 3 buildings (1 S-Shaped, 1 Y-Shaped, 1 T-Shaped)
  • Canning Street (Corner of Boundary Rd), 1 building (I-Shaped)
  • Park Towers (Corner of Park St and Ferrars St), 1 building (C-Shaped)
  • Emerald Hill Court (200 Dorcas St), 1 building (2 conjoined rectangular towers)
  • Malvern Road (Between Bray St & Surrey Rd), 3 buildings (2 Y-Shaped, 1 S-Shaped)
  • King Street (Corner of Little Chapel St), 2 buildings (T-Shaped)
  • 112 Elizabeth Street, 4 buildings (S-Shaped)
  • Highett Street (Corner of Lennox St), 1 building (S-Shaped)
  • Inkerman Street (Corner of Henryville St), 1 building (T-Shaped)
  • Thompson Street (Corner of Hanmer St), 1 building (I-Shaped)
  • Nelson Place (Corner of Pasco St), 1 building (S-Shape)
  • Union Street, 1 building (S-Shaped)
  • 4-10 Larissa Ave, 80-apartment project
  • Various sites in:

See also


  1. ^ "Burt, Walter Oswald (Ossie) (1893–1969) Biographical Entry". Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  2. ^ Leonie Sandercock (1990). Property, Politics, and Urban Planning: A History of Australian City Planning 1890 – 1990. Transaction Publishers.  
  3. ^ "The Victorian land scandals 1973–82". Australian Institute of Criminology. Archived from the original on 28 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  4. ^ a b "Industrialised Pre-cast Concrete Housing". Technology in Australia 1788–1988. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  5. ^ J. John Palen, Bruce London (1984). Gentrification, Displacement, and Neighborhood Revitalization. SUNY Press. p. 249.  
  6. ^ Bruce Pennay (2006). Making a City in the Country: The Albury-Wodonga National Growth Centre. UNSW Press. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  7. ^  
  8. ^ Russell, E.W. (1972). The slum abolition movement in Victoria, 1933–37. Melbourne: Hornet Publications. p. 8.  
  9. ^  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ "Commission Meets". The Argus. 2 March 1938. Retrieved 7 May 2011. 
  12. ^  
  13. ^ Freestone, Robert (2010). Urban nation : Australia's planning heritage. Collingwood, Vic.: CSIRO Pub. in association wih the Dept. of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, and the Australian Heritage Council. p. 217.  
  14. ^  
  15. ^  
  16. ^  
  17. ^  
  18. ^  
  19. ^ a b  
  20. ^  
  21. ^  
  22. ^ Barnett, F.O. & Burt, W.O (1942). Housing the Australian nation. The Book Depot. p. 46. 
  23. ^ Barnett, F.O. & Burt, W.O (1942). Housing the Australian nation. The Book Depot. p. 22. 
  24. ^  
  25. ^ a b Lewis, Miles (1999). Suburban backlash : the battle for the world's most liveable city. Hawthorn, Vic.: Bloomings Books. p. 46.  
  26. ^ Housing Commission of Victoria (1963). Housing Commission, Victoria: The first 25 years. Housing Commission of Victoria. p. 3. 
  27. ^ Barnett, F.O. & Burt, W.O (1942). Housing the Australian nation. The Book Depot. 
  28. ^ Barnett, F.O., Burt, W.O. & Heath, F. We must go on: a study in planned reconstruction and housing. Melbourne: The Book Depot. 
  29. ^  
  30. ^ Hulse, Kath; Herbert, Tania; Down, Karyn (2004). "Kensington Estate Redevelopment Social Impact Study". Swinburne Institute for Social Research. p. 1. 
  • 1960s High Rises:
  • New houses for old: fifty years of public housing in Victoria 1938–1988, edited by Renate Howe, Ministry of Housing and Construction, Melbourne. 1988.
  • Museum Victoria Website
  • Victorian Government Housing Website
  • Fitzroy: Melbourne’s First Suburb, cutten History Committee of the Fitzroy History Society, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1991.
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