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.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.