Woroni Special Edition 6.5 - The Broadsheet

Page 18

18 - the Territory

Vol. 73, Issue 6.5

The Havelock House picket and housing activism in Canberra 40 years on: Where did we come from and where are we now? Author - Joseph Mann A lack of affordable accommodation has been a perennial issue for every new Canberran, including ANU students. Right from the start, Canberra has always had periods of housing shortage - about 2,000 of the workers who built Old Parliament House lived in tents. The Federal Minister for Territories, who directly ruled Canberra until 1989, quickly realised that it would need a way to house public servants required to move to the city while more permanent housing was constructed. One of the solutions was the construction and support of various hotels and hostels. At the time, per the late local housing historian Alan Foskett, about a fifth of the population lived in one of the government’s hostels. Many hostels functioned very similarly to the residential halls at ANU with social activities and residents’ committees. Until the 1970s, many new Canberrans would have slept their first nights in one of these government-run hostels, including Havelock House, on Northbourne Avenue near Ipima Street station. The house opened in 1951 as a hostel targeted at single public servants and teachers moving to the city to take their posts. One Havelock resident’s account describes it as “upmarket” compared to the other hostels of the time. The hostel was reputed for its vibrant social circuit, though another resident remarked in another account at the sharp division between younger, more socially-active new arrivals and older, longer-term residents who would criticise their antics. In 1982, the Fraser government handed Havelock House over to the Australian Federal Police to use as office space. The handover coincided with, what was at that time, an unusually severe rental housing shortage in Canberra, particularly affecting those on low incomes and retired people. By this point, the older house-style hostels like Havelock were becoming less popular with new public servants as cheaper options like Gowrie House, later to become the original Fenner Hall, were opening at the same time that sharehouses were becoming viable.

To understand what happened at Havelock House after the handover, it helps to set the scene for what the housing situation was like in the early 1980s. Cuts to government expenditure over the previous decade, particularly after Malcom Fraser won the 1975 election, caused Canberra’s economic growth to stall after the boom of the 1960s. The effects of decisions made by the government and its National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) to sell public housing properties to occupants and to shift residential housing construction from inner urban rentals to suburban detached houses were exacerbated by the cuts. Those that could not afford to buy were confronted with a shrinking rental market. Cuts to government departments meant that less people were moving to Canberra and, among those who were, options other than hostels like share houses were now available. The government would respond to a lack of demand from new arrivals by closing hostels. That many usable hostels sat empty despite increasing homelessness in the city was a constant point of outrage. Many Canberrans’ jobs were cut due to budget constraints with unemployment rates, particularly among young people, reaching heights unseen for decades. Despite low vacancy rates the NCDC was forced to “pause” virtually all residential construction between 1979 and 1982 for lack of funding.

From 1971, a vibrant and militant culture of housing activism would emerge. Over the following decade, people would squat in empty hostels, abandoned embassies, and whatever vacant dwellings they could find. The closure of many hostels in 1972 saw the formation of a new Committee for Low Cost Housing to advocate for their use as emergency homeless shelters. The campaign was supported by students and, in an unusual alliance, the local branches of the Communist and Liberal parties. The local Communist branch secretary at the time, Ray O’Shannassy, would frequently be before the courts on trespass charges

for leading many sit-ins and squats of vacant housing estates. Later, to protest large rent hikes, the same committee would organise rent-strikes at housing precincts around the city. ANU students would join in the wave, protesting similarly large hikes in 1980, by refusing to pay. Students held sitins and camps inside the Chancelry to demand cheaper options. By November 1982, the Canberra Times frontpage editorial was lamenting the “passing of the hostels” as almost all of them had closed with only a couple still being used as low-cost housing. Back at Havelock, after the new Hawke government announced that the previous Fraser government’s closure of Havelock House would be permanent

in June 1983, local community groups, including student groups, members of the local Communist Party, the local Trades and Labour Council (TLC), and a local Squatters’ Union set up tents and picketed the site for the rest of the year. The TLC put bans on any works on the building. The picketers’ demands were that the former hostel be used for community housing and that the government hold an inquiry into the rising homelessness problem. The picket would continue, 24-hours a day, through the frigid winter. On 16 August 1983, the protests escalated with a group led by O’Shannassy voting to occupy the building’s courtyard, leading to at least four arrests including O’Shannassy and civil servant David Eastman (better known for being wrongfully accused of murdering Canberra’s police chief in 1989). Nine more activists, mostly social workers who would have seen the impact of the housing crisis firsthand, were arrested on September 6 after they linked arms in an attempt to prevent AFP employees from entering the building. The picket ended in December with the Hawke government agreeing to the picketer’s demands. Charges against those arrested were dropped as part of a deal between the government

and the Trades and Labour Council. After consultation, renovations to the lodge and the opening of a new office for the AFP, the house had its first new residents by 1988. By the 1990s, the keys were handed over to the Havelock Housing Association: a charity which manages the house to this day. The inquiry into homelessness tabled its report to Parliament in May 1984. It found that various structural factors, chiefly “an inadequate supply” of affordable options and especially public housing, to be major contributors to Canberra’s perennial housing problem. Per the inquiry’s findings, Canberra could have had as many as 4,000 people in housing stress: about 1.6% of the population at the time. Homelessness and housing stress at the time predominantly affected single young workers, younger parents, those on low incomes and the elderly. Those finding themselves without a place to live faced either or both of the public housing bureaucracy and the unscrupulous rent-seeking tactics of private landlords. Per data from SQM Research, for most of the past 20 years, the residential vacancy rate in Canberra sat around 1 per cent. This was as low as it was at the time of the Havelock picket: a rate viewed at that time as unusually low. This shortage of available rentals, public or private, could be palpably seen in the long lines outside rental showings. In April this year, the rental vacancy rate reached 2% for the first time in about eight years. More recent data from the ACT government suggests that there are about 1,700 homeless making up less than 0.01% of the population. This low homelessness rate is despite a sharp reduction in the number of public housing properties in Housing ACT’s portfolio since many of the largest properties were sold to developers in the 2010s. With national vacancy rates hitting their lowest point in decades, housing has re-entered the national conversation.

The Albanese government came into office in 2022 promising a permanent longterm fund to provide capital for expensive public and social housing projects.

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