A history of Braybrook’s social housing offers lessons for today’s housing crisis


    By Trevor Cunningham

    The shortage of social housing has reemerged as a critical issue and many of our local councils are developing policies in an attempt to address the crisis. What better time then to explore how authorities dealt with this problem in decades past in order to avoid more of the same mistakes.

    I recently documented the development of Braybrook as a social housing estate in the 1950s in Social Housing: Braybrook’s Story (Australian Scholarly Publishing). It provides an interesting standard against which to measure aspects of the current responses to the issue. 

    Braybrook is a pocket-sized suburb in the west of Melbourne, developed by the Housing Commission of Victoria (HCV) to alleviate a post-war housing shortage. In 1944, The Age newspaper suggested that the plans for Braybrook constituted a complete, modern, model suburb heralding a landmark in the history of housing in the nation.

    That prediction evaporated and Braybrook suffered due to poor planning and implementation coupled with a lack of institutional support.

    For a start, the existing housing lots were too small, so the HCV redrew the subdivision. It resembled neither what The Age had foreshadowed nor what appeared in the bold recommendations of the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission Report of 1929. Issues arose from the quality of housing, the approach of the HCV to its role as landlord, and social supports missing from the estate. 

    Most of the houses and flats were concrete. They were intrinsically inappropriate housing. Residents at a group of flats in Commerce and Carlton Streets were living in deplorable conditions. The flats were in seven double-storey blocks on the site. Each block contained four flats – two up and two down. The structures were in abominable condition and huge cracks allowed cold air to enter. The foundations of the concrete structures appeared to be moving. Whilst the HCV proposed spending between $40,00 to $60,000 to upgrade each flat, it was not a guaranteed solution. Rising damp and mould were present, and tenants claimed they were suffering bronchitis, asthma and rheumatism because of their living conditions.

    Those flats and many of the concrete houses have since been demolished. A Royal Commission into the operations of the HCV looked at the issue of the concrete houses and the general standards of the HCV flats and houses but that final aspect was accompanied by a rider, namely, that the general standard of the flats and houses was to be considered with regard to the cost of their production and the purpose for which they are designed and built.

    Perhaps because of the rider, the Royal Commission was able to conclude that ‘the concrete house as built by the Commission is an acceptable form of accommodation for the purpose for which it is designed’, despite their obvious shortcomings.

    That startling assessment flew in the face of the tenants’ lived reality. 

    The HCV was a tough landlord and maintenance was poorly attended to. Also, a ballot system was used to decide who would be allocated a rental house. Even being drawn in the ballot didn’t guarantee a house; it was the gateway to being considered for one. Families drawn in the ballot and subsequently interviewed could be rejected. The Brotherhood of St Laurence found the Commission’s ballot system unjust. ‘Its method of dealing with those families that it declares to be ineligible for a Commission home borders on the inhuman. The Commission’s attitude is that it determines eligibility according to its own undisclosed rules. Having made the determination it keeps the reasons to itself. Indeed it often makes a feature of telling rejected families that the reasons for their rejection will not be disclosed.’

    The basic needs of community, like schools, were not met by government. Braybrook State School was a typical example. Conditions were horrific and overcrowding was rife.

    The school playground was the site of an enormous sludge pit. It was described in the local press as a ‘no man’s land’ of sludge and potholes of greeny-brown coloured scum, a natural breeding ground for insects and a health hazard which no mother would allow her child to play near if it were beside her home’. Approximately, 20,000 square feet of smelly, inky substance had originally been a waste dump for a nearby factory.

    Non-government secondary schooling for boys in Braybrook was absent until the establishment of St John’s College in 1965 after the Catholic Church purchased a site in Churchill Avenue from the Commonwealth Government. 

    Preschool age infants were no better served. It was only in 1982 that a kindergarten was opened in Braybrook itself. Up until then residents had been required to use kindergartens in other parts of Sunshine. The funding for the centre came from Council, the State Government and the HCV, supplemented by local community funding. How it can be that it took 30 years after the estate was established for such an essential facility to materialise is beyond comprehension.

    Currently, the face of the suburb is changing rapidly, with many of the original houses replaced by HCV units, and others redeveloped privately. The former RAAF base in south Braybrook presents the new face of Braybrook, with modern townhouses in tree-lined streets. 

    The City of Maribyrnong is considering plans to transform the Churchill Avenue shopping strip into a unique village, a new community focal point with changes to traffic and extensive landscaping. The HCV had much earlier announced a $100 million redevelopment of the suburb. So much has been promised and so little delivered. HCV proposals have often been shrouded in secrecy and poor communication. If optimism is lacking, history demonstrates why.

    The HCV built the estate; the residents built the community. Local people prospered by running youth clubs when the Council didn’t, building church halls used by the wider community and understanding what was needed. They demonstrated insight which the government lacked, as expressed by local MLA, Mr Athol Guy when he said:

    ‘It is my opinion as a member of the government that the western suburbs of Melbourne have suffered historically in planning terms and have also suffered because of the past lack of government interest in the area.’

    A repeat of the past looms as the State deals with the issue of current social housing shortages. A new ballot system has appeared and poor communication is being complained about again. The context is similar to when Braybrook was first developed, including labour and materials shortages in the building industry. Social Housing: Braybrook’s Story serves as a study of the mistakes of the past and a source of wisdom for the future.

    Our content is a labour of love, crafted by dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the west. We encourage submissions from our community, particularly stories about your own experiences, family history, local issues, your suburb, community events, local history, human interest stories, food, the arts, and environmental matters. Below are articles created by community contributors. You can find their names in the bylines.

    Your feedback

    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here



    Latest Articles

    Latest edition

    #98 July 2024

    Recent editions


    Become a supporter

    The Westsider is run on the power of volunteers. Your contribution directly contributes to ensuring we can continue serving and celebrating our community.

    Related articles