Sydney, Australia

by Joe Flood


Since the 1840s, Sydney’s housing development has historically followed cyclical pattern of booms – in which large areas of poor quality housing were hastily erected on vacant land – and busts, in which poverty and misery combined with rapidly deteriorating and unserviced housing to create traditional slum areas. The first economic and population boom during the 1850s was followed by a depression during the 1860s, in which Sydney’s first large slum areas emerged.

From 1906, the resident population began to fall in inner-city slum areas and some areas were razed to make way for commercially profitable redevelopments, especially factories and warehouses. Secondary employment centres began to be constructed further afield as the city expanded. The post-World War II wave of assisted immigration tripled Sydney’s population within 50 years. Huge new, sprawling single-family homes in suburban areas were built, assisted by housing loans at concessional interest rates, and home ownership
rates soared to 70 per cent by 1960. The construction of urban services at these low densities was expensive and providers had a great deal of trouble keeping up. By 1970, it appeared that the whole inner-city area would be completely redeveloped for business purposes and that the working-class inhabitants would be displaced. However, inner-city areas with their historical precincts came to be seen as better located and more colourful than suburbia, and most inner-city slum areas were steadily redeveloped, sometimes by building new houses, but more often by refurbishing. The wave of gentrification spread south over the next 30 years to encompass much of the south Sydney local government area, though improvement has been patchy and still eludes some areas. Land became too expensive for industry and much of it has relocated to the outer west. The century-long population flow out of the inner areas has reversed: between 1995 and 2000, the population of Sydney’s inner suburbs grew by an average of 15 per cent each year, which was among the fastest growth in the country.

There is no official definition of slums. The term is regarded as offensive and is rarely used. Three types of area with relatively dilapidated housing are considered:

1 Inner-city former slums, now partly gentrified.

2 Extensive public-sector estates toward the periphery.

3 Areas with cheap housing, centred about 20 kilometres to the south-west of the central business district (CBD), where many new immigrants and other
disadvantaged groups live.

The inner areas are mostly private rental with an increasing proportion of homeowners and some public housing. The estates are primarily public housing, with some ‘right-to-buy’ownership and private rental, In some places, housing associations are becoming established. The immigrant areas have a good proportion of home-ownership and public housing, but private rental is increasing.

Apart from a few run-down suburban blocks and areas, Sydney no longer has any slums as is normally conceived, although there are many areas where disadvantaged people live in high concentrations. Its traditional inner-city slum areas have moved from squalor to mixed-income status, with high proportions both of advantaged and disadvantaged people and culturally disparate groups. The city is shaped by multiculturalism and a fairly profound spatial separation of social and income groups – mediated through globalization – through which the slums of the future might possibly emerge. There are large deteriorating tracts of poorly maintained public housing estates near the outskirts that form the focus of most social interventions for the disadvantaged. To the south-west of Sydney stretches some 60 kilometres of flat suburban sprawl, standing in sharp contrast to the wealth and privilege of the northern suburbs. Here, the bulk of population increase is taking place, where the new immigrants increasingly settle, and the disadvantaged can find affordable housing and support mechanisms. The city is fairly clearly dividing between a ‘new economy’ around the CBD area, and an ‘old economy’ of poor households ringed by suburban families to the west.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the gap between the rich and the poor widened considerably, although in absolute terms everyone was better off. With regard to the three ‘slum’ types:

1Despite gentrification and the impact of higher income or shared professional households, lowincome people still live in significant concentrations in inner Sydney. It is the middle class and families that are absent in their usual numbers.

2 Market rent policies have caused average incomes to fall rapidly in the old public housing estates, and most people are on pensions and benefits. Single mothers are particularly prevalent.

3 Ethnic groups improve their status with time and move to better suburbs, so that successive waves of new immigrants tend to occupy the cheapest housing – currently, Vietnamese, Lebanese and Somalis. Studies have shown no essential difference between second-generation immigrants and the general

The two major governmental housing programmes are public housing (mostly post-1945) and rent assistance (since the late 1980s), as well as very large programmes of concessional housing loans to lower middle-income groups from 1945 to 1990 – although these have become less necessary due to low interest rates and secondary mortgage markets. From the late 1970s, public housing became ‘welfare housing’ and is now restricted almost entirely to the most disadvantaged groups, who are heavily subsidized. During the late 1980s, it became obvious that public housing construction was never going to keep up with increasing demand, and that the majority of disadvantaged people would remain in the private rental sector. Rent assistance has become the largest housing programme, with national outlays of about US$700 million, compared with US$550 million for public housing. Housing policy has been in something of an impasse for a decade, with the Commonwealth unwilling to take responsibility for the public housing deficit from the states (which would enable the states to expand the stock).

The marginalization of public housing has resulted in many social problems on the larger estates, and the lack of rent-paying middle-class households has reduced operational funds below the level required for sustainability. Almost no
new public housing is being constructed in Sydney, with capital funds now devoted to upgrading existing estates. In the meantime, with continuing work-force restructuring, family breakdown and population aging contributing to polarization, the demand for public housing continues to grow. Some joint ventures with the private sector to build more affordable housing have been tried, but these have been small scale. Cooperation between tenants and a housing association in one estate to police social problems and improve run-down housing has reduced social problems considerably. Joint programmes between state departments of housing, health, education and social welfare to provide a comprehensive improvement strategy for problem areas are taking place.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh