In Dr Tony Gilmour’s book Champions of change: Shelter NSW, community activism and transforming NSW’s housing system there is a story about how Shelter was formed in New South Wales.
“Many organisations have a clear history, being established on a particular date in a specified location by a known group of people,” notes Dr Gilmour.
“Not so for Shelter, or National Shelter. Both organisations emerged gradually and informally, as befit collectives formed by activists keen for change. Rules and regulations could follow later, action was needed now! While what can be identified as ‘Shelter’ came into existence in 1974, it remains an interesting point – and contested by some authors on this topic – whether this was Shelter NSW, National Shelter or a hybrid.”
“Back in 1974, the approach seems to have been to simultaneously establish state-based Shelter organisations and a National Shelter.”
By 1975 inroads had begun to be made around Australia. There was a National Shelter, and a branch in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Evidently it seems this was enough for the Shelter organisation to hold its first national conference in Canberra.
But who would be in attendance from WA? What would become Shelter WA at this stage was still an informal group of like-minded people from the Church of England, Anglicare and the Western Australian Council of Social Service (WACOSS) and others. Craig Smith had been to several of these meetings as an interested party after establishing the Housing Research Information Centre at the University of Western Australia along with fellow Director Peter Little and working with Executive Officer Geoffrey London. Funding for the Centre was provided through the state’s Housing Minister Peter Jones.
“I went to the Shelter National Conference purely because the nominated Western Australian representative from Anglicare couldn’t go,” recalls Craig. “When I got to Canberra, the agenda included the election of a national chair/spokesperson.”
The Federal Government were keen to see Shelter thrive. Funding for the conference had been provided by Joe Riordan AO, the Minister for Housing and Construction in the Whitlam Government and the secondment of a project worker in Cathi Moore to establish a national secretariat for the fledgling organisation. Roles needed to be filled to get the ball rolling.
Heads turned towards Craig. “I wasn’t a part of the Australian Council of Social Service, I wasn’t a part of the government system, and I could be seen, because of my University connections, as an independent, so effectively they decided that I was the man for the job of convenor and spokesperson. Primarily the show was still being run from Canberra, with some editing from me. Press releases were written by Cathi, but I was happy to play this role as it was important to get Shelter off the ground.”
By 1976 the name Shelter WA began to be used informally by the Tenants’ Advice Service for advocacy purposes. That same year Craig recalls working on a Federal Government project through the Housing Research Information Centre which Shelter WA “absolutely hated”.
The Australian Housing Allowance Voucher Experiment (HAVE) was designed by an American consultant where cash payments to housing recipients were replaced by vouchers. “This was seen as a real infringement on peoples’ rights,” recalls Craig. “Others saw it as an efficient means to making sure the money went on the housing first and then to other things after that.”
The fairness of residential tenancy agreements was another area of concern in the early days of Shelter WA. “They (agencies and landlords) would fight like Kilkenny cats with people whether they would give the bond money back to them or not, on the grounds a place was not spotlessly clean,” said Craig. “A lot of people were not doing inspections before they took on tenancies so they couldn’t establish that a window was cracked before they moved in. It was about moving those anomalies out of the system all together.” Agencies were also known to be putting bond money in trust accounts to earn interest. A large agency could have up to 1,000 rentals with each rental requiring two weeks’ worth of rent as a bond.
While Craig who is now the City Architect at the City of Perth remained with Shelter WA for only a couple of years while juggling his Housing Research Information Centre duties, he sees his role as a “cog in the wheel who happened to be really useful at the time”.
It is important to remember that everyone in these early days would carry out the work of Shelter WA in their spare time and without such a collective enthusiasm from people like Craig and others the organisation could have very easily fallen over.