They were seen as state-of-the-art when they were built, but what does the future hold for Melbourne’s public housing towers?
They were seen as state-of-the-art when they were built, but what does the future hold for Melbourne’s public housing towers?

Fate of public housing towers decided

When a group of high-rise buildings sprung up in Melbourne during the 1960s and 70s, the high-density constructions were seen as state-of-the-art towers of hope.

Stamping out slums in inner-city areas, the 47 towers would offer low-rent housing for families in financial difficulty and change the city's skyline.

The precast concrete panel technology meant they were built to last, to the joy of public housing advocates and chagrin of those who saw them as eyesores. And prefabrication of the towers from a former tank factory in Chadstone added some industrial appeal to a post-WWII push to rehouse the poor and energise the construction industry.

In such sought-after suburbs as Richmond, South Melbourne and Fitzroy, the land most of the towers stand on is a developer's dream.

But while the towers soaring up to 30 storeys high have become a haven for those with low socio-economic or migrant backgrounds, they are not without their problems.

Nine of the towers were last week being placed into hard lockdown to try and stop the spread of coronavirus, including a North Melbourne precinct still under police guard on Friday night.

Families in each of the towers have to share crammed spaces, lifts, laundries and corridors.

And the towers appear set to be part of Melbourne life for longer than the former Housing Commission of Victoria intended when it built them.

Even before 3000 tower residents were locked in their high-rise homes in dramatic scenes beamed to TV screens around the world, the state government quietly increased the lifespan of public housing buildings by 25 years. Originally intended to last 60 years they're now expected to last 85.

Residents look out from their window at 130 Racecourse Rd Flemington. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Residents look out from their window at 130 Racecourse Rd Flemington. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

With Victoria lumped with the lowest proportion of public housing in Australia, federal Labor Wills MP and former commission house tenant Peter Khalil said it was just as well.

"There is a huge waiting list for people to go into public housing and it's probably going to get worse post-COVID-19 as people search for more affordable housing,'' he said.

"So you can't knock those towers down at this point in time unless you are going to spend billions of dollars, and which state or federal government is going to do that right now?''

Kate Shaw, an urban geographer at Melbourne University, said the towers were "quite utopian in their inspiration'' and similar to those in the US, UK and Canada.

"The problem with them is the intent was that this would be the beginning, it was a brave new world,'' she said.

Georgina Montgomery enjoys her first day outside after being under forced quarantine for a week. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Georgina Montgomery enjoys her first day outside after being under forced quarantine for a week. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

"They were for working families, the idea was many more would be built and, under premiers Bolte and Hamer in Victoria, this utopian vision was beginning."But then successive governments refused to invest further and there has been very little expenditure on upkeep or maintenance or indeed updating, even though we are building very similar buildings now.

"In Southbank and Docklands, South Yarra, Richmond, we're still reproducing the same model but we haven't continued to invest in modernising public housing towers.''

Former premier Jeff Kennett considered pulling the towers down when he was in power, and closed the factory where they were made on the site now home to Holmesglen TAFE in Chadstone.

Health workers are briefed before entering the public housing tower at 130 Racecourse Rd Flemington. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Health workers are briefed before entering the public housing tower at 130 Racecourse Rd Flemington. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

He said "the great trouble'' with the towers was the length of time people stayed.

"There should be a limited period in which people can stay there before they have to move out … there has to be a review of how you can encourage people to come, settle, but then to move out,'' he said.

But moving tenants from the towers any time soon was virtually impossible.

Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute official Tom Alves said the towers, in places such as North Melbourne and Flemington, were "obviously iconic''.

Moving tenants from the towers any time soon would be virtually impossible. Picture: David Crosling
Moving tenants from the towers any time soon would be virtually impossible. Picture: David Crosling

"In terms of Melbourne's built environment and culture they have a bit of an iconic place,'' he said. And the "general amenity'' was better than might be expected for a project funded by a slum-clearing initiative.

Victorian Public Tenants Association Mark Feenane said the buildings were "made special by the people who live in them''. "Around Victoria, but especially these suburbs in the sky, public housing is home … vibrant and resilient people that look out for one another and pull together when the going gets tough," he said.

peter.rolfe@news.com.au

Originally published as Fate of Melbourne's public housing towers decided



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