Keith Wilson can recall vividly the housing commission areas he lived and worked. He got to know the housing situation firstly as a resident and secondly in his role as an Anglican Priest in Balga before he entered state Parliament.
Balga along with Nollamara and Westminster was designed by the State Housing Commission as part of the “Mirrabooka Project”, and the laying of streets and building of homes commenced in the 1960s. By the time Keith was a clergyman in the early 1970s problems had begun to surface.
“It was the most disadvantaged people who were placed in these density housing social experiments,” recalls Keith.
“Previous Governments had built large flats which were all occupied by people in difficult social circumstances all jammed together in duplexes and triplexes.
“I remember going to a house where there was an elderly Aboriginal grandmother whose house was said to be overcrowded,” said Keith. “It obviously was because it was a refuge for all of her grandchildren as she was the only one offering them shelter and care. She was evicted unfortunately and probably sent to some outlying property on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.”
This was the way it worked back then. The Housing Commission found rundown properties in outlying suburbs which were allocated to Aboriginal families. With not enough accommodation to go around the houses would quickly become overcrowded.
In the 70s and 80s one of the other major problems was the accommodation of single-parent families particularly women with children.
“They were living in flats which were not well equipped for their purposes because they were often far from the services that they needed and they weren’t well supported,” Keith said.
“Before I went into Parliament, we formed the Balga Civic Association and we were contesting with the then Housing Commissioner about the social problems of people living in housing commission areas.”
Once Keith entered Parliament and became Housing Minister, he took the Housing Commission CEO and his senior executives on a bus tour to the housing commission areas to show them the problems people were facing on the spot.
“I always believed in trying to be close to the problems rather than dealing with the problems through those for whom this was just their job that they had to do and who felt they didn’t have a lot of leeway in carrying out their tasks,” said Keith.
“Sometimes I thought people (in housing commission places) were given a record which made them virtually never likely to be able to find a place where they were settled.”
In terms of Shelter WA Keith remembers the fledgling organisation.
At the time Shelter WA was formed to advocate for the reform of tenancy legislation. In those days more so than now there was a push to secure home ownership. Rental accommodation was seen as a second-rate option and private rental accommodation options were limited due to high costs and meagre assistance packages.
It was a difficult issue for Keith and his Labor Government to push for reform. Powerful organisations and real estate agents were “suspicious of any opening up of tenancy rights”. Private landlords were particularly vocal. They were strong in their resistance to any change.
“The first drafts of legislation I think probably weren’t going far enough for groups like Shelter WA,” Keith noted. “It had to be a gradual process.
“From that point of view, it was probably seen to be too slow, and it usually is. I always found that the people I dealt with who were leading on the issue for Shelter to be well informed and to be quite reasonable in their arguments.”
Another issue Shelter WA were vocal about at this time related to redevelopment plans for East Perth. There were several boarding houses in the area which were run by private landlords who gave accommodation usually to older single men. They were places where people with mental illness went. With redevelopment they were in danger of disappearing.
However, through the governments influence on the East Perth Redevelopment Authority a decision was made to allocate accommodation to people who would need public housing and to include public housing options in the new development. Some of the boarding houses were also preserved.
“Shelter WA was one of the main moderating influences on the adoption of social housing being preserved in new developments particularly in the case of the East Perth Redevelopment,” said Keith.
“They were always advocating for a proportion of development being allocated for rental accommodation which would usually mean either subsidised rental accommodation or appropriately priced rental accommodation.”