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1954: Sydney Slum-clearance Work Is Tardy, Piecemeal

The following article from a Staff Correspondent on the The Sydney Morning Herald Wednesday 17 February 1954, talks about the Slum clearance that lead to the public housing estates in Redfern and Waterloo which are now considered in need of urban renewal while the slum terraces sit in heritage areas as expensive real estate.

Sydney Slum-clearance Work Is Tardy, Piecemeal

By a Staff Correspondent

One home in every ten in the Sydney metropolitan area is what has been termed a "sub-standard dwelling."

This proportion has been arrived at from State and municipal surveys made in recent years. The Cumberland County Council estimates that there are more than 40,000 sub-standard homes in Sydney in need of immediate replacement. The Housing Commission of New South Wales, more conservatively, places the figure at 30,000.

NOT all of these sub standard homes are actual slum dwellings, and not all of them are in slums; but very many of them are.

Sydney has a number of slum areas, the worst being in Paddington, Erskineville, Redfern and Darlington. Other slums exist in Glebe, Surry Hills, Woolloomooloo, Mascot, Waterloo and Alexandria.

The Cumberland County Council condemns a house as sub-standard if it does not have a certain adequacy of lighting, ventilation, air and living space, and space for children; if it is obsolete or in a bad state of repair; if it does not have bathroom facilities or utility services like running water; if it is damp, cold or unhealthy.

It has been estimated that the infant mortality in slum areas is 56 in 1,000, whereas the average for the whole of the metropolitan area is 24 in 1,000.

Slums Are Costly

The problem of Sydney's slums has worried civic and religious leaders, sociologists and town planners for more than 40 years.

Slums have been proved to be the breeding ground of crime, and. they are socially costly in other ways. They reduce the productivity and efficiency of the worker, and burden the nation with big bills for sickness: American communities have found that the cost of slum clearance schemes is more than repaid by reduced health, crime and fire bills and greater industrial productivity.

But the simple, main argument for wiping out slums concerns the actual living conditions in them. Families exist in damp, gloomy, unhealthy shacks, badly ventilated and poorly lighted. Some of these buildings are in the last stages of decay and do not even provide adequate shelter.

The only organisation at present undertaking slum clearance on any scale in Sydney is the Housing Commission of N.S.W.

The commission's slum clearance scheme began in 1946, when it drew up plans for extensive clearance in Redfern, Surry Hills, Paddington, Glebe, Waterloo and Erskineville. '

The commission was empowered to resume land in slum areas so that it could demolish the existing houses and build new, modern dwellings. The commission usually comes to agreement with the owners of the land about its value, but appeals are heard by the Valuer-General.

Late in 1947 the first bulldozers moved into the slums near Cleveland Street, Redfern, and the following year rebuilding began on the cleared land.

The commission plans eventually to replace all the 30,000 sub-standard homes it estimates exist in Sydney. But since the scheme began it has demolished only 642 homes, and built only 426 homes on the land cleared. At this rate of progress it would be 300 years before Sydney were rid of even the slums the Housing Commission has listed.

What is the reason for this exasperatingly slow progress in Sydney's slum clearance?

The secretary of the Housing Commission, Mr. J. M. Bourke, pointed out to me that the commission's postwar construction has faced two severe handicaps: acute shortages of manpower and materials and, more recently, lack of finance.

"We have accordingly had to restrict the rate at which we can demolish buildings in sub-standard areas and erect new homes in their place," he said.

"But these days lack of finance is not restricting us.

"The main trouble is that, although slum clearance is a vital and necessary work that should have been undertaken years ago, it is limited by the extent to which the commission can house the displaced families.

"Our number one difficulty is the almost insuperable problem of immediately rehousing these people”

"With the housing shortage so acute in this State as it is, it would obviously be wrong to undertake more demolitions and intensify the shortage.

"We have had to concentrate on putting up new houses rather than pulling old ones down.

"Families living in tents and tin shacks, or without anywhere to live at-all, need accommodation more urgently than people living in slum areas. Slum clearance has just had to take second place." Mr. Bourke said that the commission could not expedite slum clearance until there was a fall in the demand for emergency accommodation.

"When might this be? I don't know. It may be 12 to l8 months at least." The way in which slum clearance has been relegated to second place in the commission's building programme is shown by the fact that, since building began on land cleared in slum areas, the commission has constructed 18,793 homes, of which only 426 have been in the cleared areas.

It is more than two years since any extensive demolition of slums has taken place.

The commission-has so far spent £964,000 on the construction of homes in cleared slum areas, exclusive of homes still under construction and the cost of land resumption and demolition.

Work has so far concentrated on the Redfern area, where 196 flats have been built and 21 are under construction; and the Surry Hills area, where 83 flats have been completed.

At Erskineville 78 dwellings have been completed and six are under construction; at Glebe 45 completed and 27 under construction; at Waterloo 24 completed; and at Paddington 33 under construction.

Most of the dwellings are flats of one and two bedrooms in multi-unit buildings. Some two storey semi-detached dwellings and single-storey semi-detached dwellings have been included to relieve the monotony of the bigger blocks.

About 755 families have been displaced because of the commission's slum clearance activities.

Of these more than 600 are now living in permanent commission homes, while others are in community housing centres waiting for homes. Few of the families displaced have wanted to return to the districts in which they formerly lived.

Mr. Bourke said the commission plans shortly to begin building 20 flats on land already cleared at Redfern and 50 on cleared land at Surry Hills, But critics of the commission, including residents of commission flats in those areas, maintain that it has shown untoward tardiness in building on the cleared land available.

At Redfern, for instance, where there are several acres of cleared land ready for use, only one block of 21 flats is under construction.

Yet to build on this land would not involve any displacement of families, and the commission has said that lack of finance is not holding up its building projects.

In a walk around the commission's projects at Redfern and Surry Hills I found only nine men at work, and eight of these were on the block of flats under construction at Redfern.

Huge boulders and rubble still fronted the main block of flats at Redfern, which was completed more than six months ago. What was supposed to be the children's playground and backyard at the rear of the block was a mass of weeds, refuse, broken bottles, and burning garbage.

Incomplete Project

Although work on the latest building completed in the Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, project ended more than eight months ago, there is still no sign of the remaining buildings in the project or the "grassed courtyard, volley ball, and tennis courts, and community centre" that were to be included in the scheme.

The Housing Commission maintains that a change in the plan by the Sydney City Council, which is providing the parks, playgrounds and children's facilities in the project, has caused the delay.

Critics of the commission also maintain that the buildings it has erected in the slum areas are of such a poor standard that they themselves will be slums within a few years.

But residents of these homes to whom I have spoken disagree, although they complain of the poor, rather "slapdash" finish given to them.'

"This is wonderful after what we had before," said one young wife, who is living with her husband in a one-bedroom flat. "They don't do much for you here, but if you use a bit of paint yourself, you can make things nice."


Another housewife who was pegging out clothes on a rotary clothesline was not so "We thought it

was lovely" when we first came here, but we've got a bit disillusioned since," she said.

"The workmanship's very rough, and everything seems to fall to pieces. The towel rack fell to bits the other day, and the lines in the windows keep on breaking, and the stove's no good. And, another thing, mildew seems to come through the walls.

"Everything's the cheapest and, for the rent, 1 think they should do something about it. We pay

£3/6/6 a week for two bedrooms, a lounge-room, bathroom and kitchen.

"But of course it's much better than we used to have."

The general verdict of the people living in the commission flats seems to be that, although the rents are high for the rough workmanship and economical fittings and finish of the flats, they provide good homes for those who are willing to look after them.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Wednesday 17 February 1954, page 2