During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries individuals, collectives and sometimes whole movements in Australia have taken over abandoned and disused property and put it to socially useful ends. This form of self-housing has been widely labelled “squatting”.
This page features a talk originally given by Iain McIntyre at the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History conference in 2019 and later broadcast on Community Radio 3CR. It discusses how activism, including the squatting of empty houses and military camps, forced federal and state governments to provide emergency shelter during a period when Australians faced a shortage of more than 300 000 homes.
The presentation can be heard from 25.25 min onwards.
Australia suffered a housing crisis of record proportions in the years following World War Two. Brought on by a halt in dwelling construction during the peak years of the Depression and war, the problem was accelerated by military demobilisation and a spike in births. In 1944 the Australian government estimated a shortage of 200 000 dwellings, with another 82 000 considered unfit for habitation and 155 000 to be of poor quality. By the following year the deficit, not counting substandard housing, had risen to between 300 and 350 000 in a country in which only a little over 1 600 000 dwellings existed.
In human terms this meant anywhere up to a million or more people were experiencing homelessness and chronic overcrowding.
Private industry had shown it could not meet this need so as part of federally driven reconstruction efforts the key response was to institute a massive program of public housing development. The ability for this to meet demand in the short to medium term was hampered by the sheer scale of the shortage and difficulties associated with restarting an industry that had long been dead in the water. Sourcing materials and skilled labour during the transition to a peacetime economy also posed problems. Although the pace would pick up thereafter, the original goal of 50 000 properties in the first year after the war was downgraded and only 14300 were built. This was an almost tripling of what had been constructed the previous year, and the rate of construction would rise significantly thereafter, but in the meantime a huge shortfall remained.
As during the Depression working class Australians adopted a variety of ad hoc solutions. In some cases families split up and crammed in with relatives across various homes. Others broke existing regulations to live under houses, on verandahs or in garages. Most typically they crowded ten or more into small flats and houses.
From 1945 onwards stories emerged of tent villages and shanty towns either being constructed or reappearing or expanding from those of the 1930s. According to a local history of South Perth camps at Pt Walter which had previously existed during the Depression reappeared after the war with the residents refusing to leave until they were provided with state housing. In these photos, both taken in 1946, we see three children sharing a bed in a large tent near Launceston and another family camping outside a home in Ashfield, Sydney from which they had been evicted. Some camps were still in place into the 1950s for non-Indigenous Australians. For First Nations people, depending on state government policy, camps persisted for much longer, due to their general exclusion from other housing options.
Despite repeated warnings from veterans groups and others the majority of authorities had not adequately planned for the housing crisis. When it hit they were slow to respond to immediate need and remained focused upon medium to long term construction plans. In part this reflected a reluctance to divert from plans that had come out of difficult negotiations between state and federal governments as well as an unwillingness to invest scant resources in providing low standard housing which would run the risk of spiralling into slums.
I have been unable to access relevant Federal cabinet records as of yet, and have been informed that Victorian ones for this period were not kept whilst in NSW, in the words of researcher Michael Hogan, records regarding temporary housing have been obliterated. Whilst this makes it difficult to ascertain their exact reasoning I believe it is possible, if not likely, that authorities expected that the wartime acceptance of austerity would continue into the reconstruction period or that they simply felt that since the construction of longer term housing was a better investment the public would lump it. Many people did, but others did not.
Veterans were at the fore of housing activism during the 1940s. Regardless of your view on whether Australian involvement in WW2 was premised on imperialism, self-defence or anti-fascism, or all three, working class mobilisation had been largely premised on sentiments of sacrifice for the nation and the promise of a better post-war world. In this context it was unsurprising that whilst many veterans involved in housing activism were simultaneously unionists, ALP members and communists it was their position as veterans they chose to emphasize. Wartime experiences were also drawn on to argue that exceptional circumstances justified unconventional measures.
As one military veteran involved in a squatting action during 1945 stated, “When Australia was threatened by Japan, tred tape was dispensed with and all sorts of emergency measures were put through in double-quick time. The housing shortage should also be considered as an enemy to be met by similar high-speed tactics…”
Faced with rising public anger, authorities responded in three main ways- by improving regulations allowing individuals to identify empty houses and then apply for authorities to force the owners to rent them out, by building prefabricated temporary housing, and by repurposing government and military properties for civilian accomodation. None of these fully met need, but all improved on existing conditions.
Based on figures compiled by Annette Saunders in her study of the squatted Victoria Park military camp and Michael Hogan’s research regarding 3 camps in NSW, including the Herne Hill camp seen on the slide, as well as media reports and brief mentions in studies of public housing, emergency solutions sheltered upwards of 180 000 Australian citizens, mainly during the mid to late-1940s, but in some cases up until 1960.
Despite this, the history of these emergency housing responses remains largely unwritten. I don’t have time today to go into why these emergency responses have been largely ignored or to go into great detail about the overall role of activism in forcing authorities to introduce them, but will briefly discuss some examples where unofficial requisitioning in the form of squatting had an impact.
Wartime powers regarding the requisitioning of empty private properties for housing, a policy virtually unthinkable in peacetime, had been introduced during 1940, but were full of loopholes and had largely been flouted by landlords. With veteran’s groups and the media pointing to the many holiday homes, investment properties and other dwellings remaining empty the federal Labor government tightened its regulations and some state Labor governments introduced new legislation.
Squatting seems to have played a major role in these reforms after two relatively small and unconnected actions occurred on the 3rd of August 1945. Both received intense and national media coverage. The first saw an ex- servicemen squat a house in Auburn, Sydney. Although he had undertaken this individually a local committee was immediately set up to support him which included Labor and Communist party members as well as members of the RSL, a move which created disruption within the latter organisation’s state branch.
The other incident of squatting involved a newly minted group called the Australian Soldiers Legion (ASL) who moved a family into an empty property in Hawthorn. Whereas the Sydney action had garnered media attention after the event reporters were present when tpeople broke into the Melbourne property. Statements were given to them claiming that the group had identified dozens of other empty properties and that they had already moved other families into them.
Both actions followed on reports from the UK of a group dubbed the Vigilantes squatting empty houses in a movement led by veterans of WW1 that began during July 1945 in Brighton and then spread to other areas. Within 3 weeks of the first squat the British government had moved to contain unofficial action by announcing changes that would allow councils to directly requisition disused, habitable housing. Combined with police and court repression of the Brighton activists this brought a temporary end to organised squatting. In this context the two Australian squatting actions were covered nationally in at least 165 newspaper articles. A number of newspapers carried editorials which whilst condemning the actions as inevitably leading to chaos also deplored the conditions that had led up to them.
In the days and weeks following the squatting actions the renewed focus on waste and deprivation led to the aforementioned changes in Federal requisitioning rules and new promises regarding emergency housing from politicians in various states. They had the most impact in Victoria where three days after the house in Hawthorn was squatted the Premier announced that the state government would introduce its own legislation to give councils and municipal shires the power to install tenants in disused houses, with the state government to guarantee the payment of rent.
The change in state policy also came a day after a spokesperson from the Australian Soldiers Legion threatened to “move 3000 strong and force you to act to seize all empty houses in Melbourne and Bayside areas within seven days.”
This was probably not taken at face value given another member had stated the group consisted of eight, but had plans to grow. Nevertheless the spectre of people taking things into their own hands likely proved a catalyst for a government already under great political pressure. Plans may have already been in train to introduce the legislation, but thus far I have been unable to locate any evidence of them. As it was new Victorian laws forcing property owners and hoteliers to rent out properties were not introduced and passed until six months later. When they were the Labor government ran a major media campaign with the result that many owners acted before being dragged before the courts. The policy proved so popular that a Liberal MLA attacked the government for missing out on a mansion in Toorak. The Victorian government also began to reduce political pressure around the issue by adopting another policy consistently pushed by veterans organisations and other activists, that of repurposing military property.
During the Depression and war various local, state and Federally owned properties had fallen into disuse or been requisitioned by the military. A large amount of newly built low quality barracks and dormitory style housing had also been constructed for military personnel. Following the war it was overwhelmingly intended that these would be either demolished, sold off or returned to civilian use unrelated to housing. The time lags associated with delays in the disposal of these properties rapidly led to calls for them to be
used for accommodation. Such demands mainly came from veterans groups who were not only able were to claim moral authority associated with service, but were also in a position to argue that their experience of living in military accommodation was an improvement on the civilian conditions they were enduring.
In some cases lobbying alone was enough to redirect authorities. Despite requests from the West Australian government the Federal government had intended to sell off the Melville Army camp, but following months of negotiating and a campaign led by veterans groups conversion began there, and at other camps such as South Guilford, in 1946. Even by the low standards of much temporary housing the conditions were particularly rough at Melville with residents having to fight for public transport during the day to alleviate having to walk 6.5 kms to the nearest shopping strip and health issues related to heating, fleas, lice, clogged drains and insufficient rubbish and other services.
Whilst the housing crisis itself was the main force driving federal and state governments to take emergency housing seriously it’s also fairly clear that squatting played some role through focusing attention on the issue and by foreshadowing the possible consequences of inaction. Squats of military, council and other government properties occurred in all states. Many began after the high-profile occupation of a 20 room mansion called Maramanah in Kings Cross in 1946. This was owned by a council and scheduled for demolition, but after it was squatted served a rooming house up until 1954.
Military properties in NSW were squatted in places such as Moore Park and at Port Kembla and the Stowell Hospital in Hobart housed over 50 people. Although the first of these Australian occupations began before a major wave of squatting took place in the UK, the occupation of disused military camps there by more than 45 000 people from mid-1946 onwards likely spurred the practice in Australia and concentrated government efforts in response to it. Despite evictions and measures such as cutting off or denying water, power and gas, Australian authorities more often rehoused squatters or legalised occupations.
It was in Queensland that the squatting of military hospitals and barracks had the most obvious impact. There had been a small amount of conversion up until the first half of 1946, but the government was reluctant to devote construction resources to it. In July 1946 families, including that of an organiser for the Legion of Ex-Servicemen and Women, moved into the disused Ekibin airforce hospital, preventing the auction of housing there. In September people who had been prevented from camping in a reserve in Holland Park were aided by a local Communist Party activist to move into a nearby military hospital. Following this the state government’s policy rapidly shifted. It had previously argued that it would take at least 12 months to prepare housing at Holland Park camp, but within days the rest of the camp was designated public housing and photos of construction work were running in newspapers.
Further squatting of military properties in Qld took place at locations such as Acacia Ridge,Townsville and Yeronga. The popularity of the tactic was demonstrated by the Federal government stating it would not make a decision regarding evicting anyone from squatted military property until after the 1946 federal election. During 1946 and 1947 14 former military camps were converted to emergency housing, eventually accommodating between 60 and 100 000 Queenslanders. Of these around half of the properties had been initially squatted and most had been originally slated for disposal.
Due to its often covert nature, the exact level of squatting during these years is impossible to ascertain, but media reports would suggest upwards of 1000 Australians took part in occupations during 1946 and 1947. Although constituting a tiny proportion of the
overall housing mix, squatting commanded widespread attention and the threat of unofficial requisitioning contributed to reform that housed a significant number of homeless Australians.
- Other talks from the 2019 Australian Society for the Study of Labour History Conference
The program covered Australian and NZ scholars giving talks on topics such as union, anti-fascist, anti-racist, housing, anti-globalisation and other campaigns and struggles.
- Resources About Australian Housing Justice and Unwaged Rights Campaigns
- For a chapter comparing Australian and UK squatting movements during 1945 download the open access PDF of the Comparative Approaches to Informal Housing Around the Globe anthology