How does public housing impact a suburb?

It has been a while since I last wrote public housing – a history of the Ascot Vale estate was the most recent one. This time I ask the question – does the presence of public housing impact the rest of a suburb?

Housing Commission flats in Ascot Vale

Last year Melbourne newspaper The Age wrote about a council survey of residents in Richmond and Fitzroy who lived near public housing estates:

Separate lives on our housing estates
November 27, 2012
Miki Perkins

Overwhelmingly, residents at the Richmond estate and those living nearby were concerned about the effect drug use had on the area’s safety. Residents told the council’s researchers the playgrounds were raked every day to remove needles, and women living nearby avoided walking on or near the estates.

”I don’t like my children to go into the gardens. There are people there I don’t trust and needles that will harm them,” said a Richmond estate resident quoted in the report.

Only two in five people from the surrounding area had been to the estate, and this was primarily to use it as a short cut.

In Fitzroy, many said they felt two separate communities were living in close proximity, with the estate a ”no go” zone. But the majority said they were willing for more integration, including removing the perimeter fence and putting paths through the estate, the report found.

They also ran a piece on the effect that public housing estates had on property prices:

Public high-rises keep prices down
October 2, 2012
Simon Johanson

The closer you live to public housing estates such as Richmond’s towering commission flats, the lower property values become. Data supports what is often an unspoken assumption among home buyers – namely, that properties farther from public housing estates generally sell for more than those close to them.

Five years of sales results in Richmond show a median price of $765,500 for homes within 200 metres of the towers. Beyond 200 metres, the median rose to $795,000, analysis by buyer advocate Paul Osborne found. Being near to housing commission flats has a negative effect on value, he said.

So how about Ascot Vale and the public housing estate there? Unfortunately I don’t have access to a real estate sales result database, but I found some other interesting statistics to look at in the 2009-2010 annual report of the Moonee Valley Legal Service.

Looking at the country of origin of residents, the 2006 census gave the population of the suburb of Ascot Vale to be 12,398 people, with 3,382 being born overseas (27%). Meanwhile on the housing commission estate the statistics are flipped on their head – those born overseas dominate, as seen in the table below. When the two statistics are combined to exclude residents of the public housing estate, the number of overseas born residents in Ascot Vale falls from 27.3% to 18.4%.

Country Percent
Australia 27%
Ethiopia 15%
Vietnam 12%
Somalia 9%
Eritrea 4%
Sudan 3%
China 2%
El Salvador 2%
Chile 2%
Other 24%

A similar disconnect between the public housing estate and the rest of the suburb is seen when examining the unemployment rate: the 2006 Census states that of the 6,372 people aged 15 years and over in the Ascot Vale population only 7.0% are unemployed, but among the public housing residents 83.3% are not participating in the workforce.

The reliance on government benefits is reflected in the median individual income statistics: in the three public housing Estates in Moonee Valley around two-thirds of all households live on an income of under $400 per week. For comparison the 2006 census found the average Australian earned $466 per week, with the average Ascot Vale resident earning $520 per week.

As for the rest of Ascot Vale, having a public housing estate down the road doesn’t seem to have killed property prices: according to Australian Property Monitors the median house price for the suburb in 2012 was $683,000 and growing by 6.8% per year.

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10 Responses to “How does public housing impact a suburb?”

  1. Jason says:

    I’ve wondered about this for a while. As a child I lived somewhat near the Prahran housing commission flats, which didn’t seem to stop Chapel Street from being highly desirable, or the whole suburb from gentrifying. Richmond and Carlton too, seem to have gentrified fast alongside the housing commission flats. The question is whether this is causal. Does the presence of tall towers like the housing commission flats actually power gentrification?

    I can think of two reasons the answer might be yes

    1. The towers lift density, density lifts the provision of services and the area becomes well known for having good shops. (certainly, you could apply this to Brunswick St, Bridge Rd and Chapel St)

    2. The diversity makes the area different in a way that attracts your Richard Florida types, who then set off gentrification.

    Where I live, at least some of the public housing is in buildings that are no different from a lot of the rest of the housing stock, i.e. blended. I’m sure that helps reduce stigma.

    • mich says:

      “The towers lift density, density lifts the provision of services and the area becomes well known for having good shops.”

      Yes, people living on $200 a week are known for having a lot of cash to splash around at the shops.

  2. Tom the first and best. says:

    The Housing Commission towers would have a disproportionate effect, compared with other public housing, because they stand out from their surrounding so much and in a way that can been seen from a lot further away.

  3. Bramley says:

    Could you do a post with more info on Melbourne’s commision flats?
    Why do we have so many that all look the same, spread across the inner city?

    Why is the Richmond estate so vast? What was there before, and how was such a large swathe of land completely levelled of its former occupants?
    What are they like inside? Is there a spot where you can get all the flats across the city in the one photo?

    What were the architects’ dreams? Walking through the Richmond estate, I think I caught a glimpse of what their original intent might have been – high density living, edge of the CBD, but plenty of open space in between, surrounded with lush parkland. The reality is unfortunately a bit different 🙁

    • Andrew Waugh says:

      @Bramley. Slums. That’s what was there before. Actually, the areas were occupied by housing stock that was the same as that which still survives around the towers. Of course, the condition of the stock was far worse than the yuppified houses of today, and photographs from the various reports show that the worst conditions could be pretty vile. It’s not easy, however, to know what the average or even best conditions were like as the various investigations didn’t publish those photos.

      Around the time of the second world war, the Victorian Government set up the Housing Commission. Its job was to build acceptable housing stock for the workers instead of leaving this to private enterprise (aka slum landlords). After the war the Commission compulsorily acquired existing houses in large areas, knocked them down, and built housing – typically blocks of flats. At the edges of Melbourne, they developed whole estates (e.g. West Heidelberg, Olympic Village…). This was, of course, exactly what the UK (and most of Western Europe) was doing at the same time. Think of the UK estates.

      By the ’60s, the housing commission was building these huge towers. They were standardised and prefabricated. From memory, the prefabrication site was where Holmesglen TAFE now stands. At the time they were considered quality engineering. Pity about the social engineering.

      I have a colleagues whose parents brought their first house in Richmond in the mid to late ’60s. Unfortunately, the vendor knew that his house was to be compulsorily acquired by the commission, and he saw an opportunity to unload his house on some New Australians just off the boat. I think they had their house for about a year before being forced to move.

    • Andrew Waugh says:

      Oh, I should also say that the Housing Commission also purchased large blocks of land where available. Much (all?) of the Richmond estate was a racecourse.

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