Warrane, one of the earliest Housing Department suburbs, 1959 (AOT,
Public housing has rarely been provided by non-government organisations, though some landowners provided housing for employees, the Hobart Benevolent Society built twelve cottages for low-paid workers in 1895, the Hydro-Electric Commission provided houses for workers in remote areas from 1915 (see Hydro housing), and after the 1919 influenza epidemic revealed some appalling housing, Hobart City Council provided eight houses for 'the poor' in 1922. In that decade both Electrolytic Zinc and Cadbury provided some homes for their workforces. Meanwhile, the federal Homes Act (1919) provided housing assistance, administered in Tasmania by the Agricultural Bank, which provided loans for construction. In 1938 it began a small building programme, in Liverpool Street, Hobart.
The commonwealth-state Housing Agreement of 1945 provided commonwealth funding for homes, and the Bank created its own labour force in 1946. This was subsumed by the state Housing Department, established in 1953 to build good-quality homes, provided with modern amenities including electricity, water and sewerage. With the post-war housing shortage, demand was enormous, and the Department moved into 'broad-acre' development, building whole suburbs of homes. By the 1980s larger subdivisions included: in Hobart, Abbotsfield and Hilton Road in Claremont, Bridgewater, Chigwell (the largest, with 1036 homes), Clarendon Vale, Gagebrook, Glenorchy West, Goodwood, Mornington, Risdon Vale, Rokeby, and Warrane; in Launceston, Mayfield/Treherne, Ravenswood and Waverley; George Town, Acton (Burnie) and Highfield and Pardoe Downs (Devonport); and houses in most country towns. The Department encouraged tenants, at first almost all families, to buy their homes. From 1945 until the 1970s, 67 percent of houses were made available for sale.
There were problems. It was difficult to co-ordinate services, and some suburbs at first lacked constructed roads, shops, transport and schools, especially when the Department's desire for economy meant it bought cheap land in an isolated area, like Risdon Vale. Tenants, by definition low-income earners, suffered 'the stigma attached to any Housing Department development' and there was some anti-social behaviour. However, whenever any Housing Department suburb was criticised publicly, residents defended it vigorously. At first the high employment rate meant little unemployment; in 1967, only two tenants were receiving unemployment or sickness benefit. A growth in unemployment meant that by 1989, 2320 tenants were receiving unemployment benefits.
The Department learnt from experience. From the 1970s applications for housing also came from single parents, the elderly, single people, disabled people and students, and the Department built them suitable accommodation. After regularly reviewing the designs of houses and acknowledging comments and complaints from clients and others that houses all looked the same, the Department used a wider variety of designs and included private blocks among its houses. It introduced special tenancy options such as residential accommodation for community groups, and supported residents' social and other activities through the Neighbourhood House programme. A review in 1980 led to a change from a mainly supply driven policy of providing housing, to one which was demand-driven, based more on clients' needs and choices. The Department withdrew from its broad-acre policy in favour of small subdivisions in existing suburbs, or buying existing houses. This meant it did not have to provide expensive infrastructure, and tenants suffered less stigma.
Overall, from 1944 to 1989 the Department built 24,848 houses, including some for other agencies, and provided thousands of Tasmanians with comfortable, modern accommodation. In 2004, Housing Tasmania owned 12,500 homes throughout Tasmania.
Further reading: Housing Tasmania, annual reports 1954–89; A Alexander, The eastern shore, Rosny Park, 2003.
Alison Alexander and Colin Sproule