Australia abolished its slums a hundred years ago. They might be coming back

Sydney. Not the slum part. Image: Getty.

Truth be told, most Australians live in good housing: this is good news for all of us because our housing is a major determinant of our health and wellbeing. But the lessons of history, and our recent research findings, published in August in the Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, tell us this good news story is at risk.

Ideally, housing provides us with the secure, comfortable shelter that people and their families need to live healthy, productive lives. In general, Australia has modern housing stock with good heating and cooling, few major structural problems and few problems with damp and mould. By contrast, bad housing makes it much more likely you will get sick and stay sick once ill.

In Australia’s early years, much of the housing stock was of poor quality, often overcrowded, and posed real risks to people’s health. Slums were common in the inner parts of the major cities and in many country towns.

Scenes from the Fitzroy slums in Melbourne in the early 20th century.

As late as 1915 bubonic plague was a reality in the poorer parts of our cities and other contagious diseases remained an ever-present risk. Numerous letters to the editor documented a real social concern with the housing standards of the poor.

Government intervention, economic prosperity and tenancy laws all improved housing conditions across Australia. Within a century Australia was defined by good housing and high rates of home ownership. The nation saw off the last of its slums in the late 1940s.

Now the same conditions that gave rise to substandard housing in the 19th century are returning in the 21st, with a likely similar outcome. Recently, the Reserve Bank governor acknowledged young Australians need their parents' help to buy a home in Sydney. But most Australians don’t have a wealthy and doting parent to fund them into the house of their dreams.

The alternative is to live in lower-quality housing and to make do with a home that is relatively inaccessible, fundamentally unaffordable or both.

A million Australians on the housing brink

The confronting reality is that poor housing conditions are more prevalent in Australia than we think. We have a sizeable “hidden fraction” of Australians living in poor-quality housing. In particular, many of our most vulnerable have the double disadvantage of also having housing conditions that we might deem as falling below an unacceptable standard.

In one of the few contemporary analyses of this issue, we used the Household Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, a national longitudinal dataset, and find compelling evidence of a substantial stock of poor-quality housing in Australia.

The scale of our findings is somewhat surprising: we found almost a million Australians are living in poor or very-poor-quality housing. Within this total, more than 100,000 are residing in dwellings regarded as very poor or derelict.

These simple findings are important. They show the existence of a significant (and currently little known) population of individuals living in very poor conditions. At the very least, we need to monitor Australian housing conditions in a systematic way if we are to avoid this problem worsening.


Harms of poor housing multiply

Poor-quality housing makes the already disadvantaged even worse off. Younger people, people with disabilities and ill health, those with low incomes, those without full-time (or any) employment, Indigenous people and renters are much more likely to be found in the emerging slums of 21st-century Australia.

Importantly, many of these groups are already disadvantaged and (most probably) have a pressing need for housing that improves or supports their health and wellbeing. People with an existing illness or disability, for example, are almost twice as likely to live in dwellings in very poor condition as people without a disability or illness.

These findings about the size and uneven distribution of the problem should force us to ask what effects poor-quality housing has on people – on their mental, physical and general health? It is clear from our analysis that such housing has measurable impacts on mental, physical and general health. This impact is large enough to be statistically significant.

Given the time it takes to reform policy and plan for our cities and regions, Australia urgently needs to face up to the dismal reality that once again many Australians are living in housing not fit for habitation.

Governments must take steps to ensure the supply of affordable housing of reasonable quality. Otherwise, we are destined to become a nation scarred once again by slums, reduced life chances and shortened lives.The Conversation

Emma Baker is associate professor in the School of Architecture & Built Environment at the University of AdelaideAndrew Beer is dean of research & innovation at the University of South AustraliaRebecca Bentley is associate professor in the Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.