It has been thirty years this year since Dr. Carmen Lawrence became the Premier of Western Australia and in her second ministry she appointed Jim McGinty AM as the Minister for Housing replacing Yvonne Henderson.
The newly installed minister employed two housing officers and twenty-five-year-old Janine Freeman was one of them. A good working relationship with Shelter WA was to follow.
“Back then Shelter WA was at the forefront of advocacy,” recalls Janine. “They really pushed the agenda in terms of social housing and there were lots of different projects we worked on.”
One early ministerial office direction would push the Department of Housing and Works to focus on social issues putting tenancies at risk. The Special Housing Assistance Program (SHAP) provided support to vulnerable Homeswest tenants and would assist them to retain their tenancies, particularly in situations where children could become homeless if parents lost their tenancy. Janine and the Department, with input from Shelter WA, worked to develop SHAP which was partly based on the ‘Homemaker Program’ that used to operate in the 1970s and early 1980s run by the Department for Community Welfare. This time however, rather than the government running it, SHAP would go out to tender with not for profit organisations assisting families at risk.
“Funding was found within the Department of Housing and Works budget for SHAP and this was a big change,” notes Janine. The Department’s primary role was to manage the housing stock and build homes so it was a big ask to “have to find funding to run a social program”. In another area of collaboration Shelter WA were pushing for more social housing, particularly for the over 55 elderly cohort, as the demand was high for smaller dwellings.
‘Wise Choice’ was an initiative which allowed seniors to purchase newly constructed units. Sold on strata title and restricted to retired people over the age of 55 who meet Homeswest’s income asset guidelines, the first group of homes were constructed in Belvedere Street in Belmont and were close to bus routes, shops, and medical facilities. A similar development was also established in Albany. In the end some 400 ‘Wise Choice’ homes were built throughout the state.
In 1992 a new apartments policy touted in a media release to “take major steps to address the problems in its stock of medium-density housing” created controversy.
Although the intent was to demolish or redesign apartment blocks which had failed to meet the needs of the people living in them, it was the subdivision of sites into lots of various sizes for sale to first-home buyers which caused concern.
Clare Court complex in Lockridge was the first to go. “The demolition of Clare Court and sale of the land will result in more stability and a better mix of private owners and Homeswest tenants,” said Mr McGinty in a press release. “Due to poor planning and design, Clare Court failed to meet the needs of its tenants and instead created problems which saw high vacancy and turnover rates, lack of privacy and vandalism.”
“You were taking down large public housing flats and you were then taking the land and you were subdividing the land and you were selling a greater proportion off of that land as affordable housing,” said Janine. “There was a major report the Department did that assessed whether those large intense social housing in the big blocks were or weren’t necessarily the best way to do public housing so then the decision was made to bowl them over.”
The injection of funding into public housing during this period was a way to fuel the economy and create employment. In the early 1990s Perth was one of the places hardest hit by a crippling recession which had spread through Australia. This period meant the appetite for more social housing was strong and Jim McGinty could convince treasury to spend money in the public housing space. Ellenbrook, which was just a proposed housing development in 1992, would become a large block development run by the Department of Housing and Works.
The Department wanted to develop Ellenbrook so it will have the funds to build houses, so it organised the negotiation and contractual engagement of developers in this area. “The Department was a developer and Jim McGinty gave them the capacity and the opportunities to do these types of big developments with a good proportion going to public housing,” Janine said.
Over time the model of a public housing provider being a developer would change. The thinking being a public housing provider should not be a developer as well as “it takes away from your core business of providing public housing … because you are trying to build to fund”.
Although Janine would only remain in her housing role for three years before the government was voted out, her link to public housing remains strong. She grew up in public housing in what her father described as “Menzies breeding pen”. “It gave me the stability, capacity and capability to go to school, to attend through to high school and have aspirations because housing gives that solid foundation to a life in Australia.
“There are some big discussions that go on in the space and it is really important that Shelter WA drives those ideological aspects of the discussions about what does public housing develop. I have residents who got to buy properties through the Housing Authority and that has given them the deep foundations to establish successful and well-connected lives. Housing does that and that is the point of public housing to provide that.”