Monday, October 3, 2022

Shanty towns and eviction riots: the radical history of Australia’s real estate market

Rising property prices and an impossible rental market have led to increasing numbers of Australians struggling to find a place to live.

Recent images of families pitching tents or living out of cars evoke some of the more enduring scenes from the Great Depression. Australia was one of the countries hardest hit when global wool and wheat prices fell in 1929.

By 1931, many were feeling the effects of long-term unemployment, including widespread evictions from their homes. The evidence was soon seen and felt as slums – known as dole camps – in and around urban centers across the country.

How we responded to that housing crisis, and how we talk about those events today, shows how our attitudes about poverty, homelessness and well-being are intertwined with questions about national identity.



Read more: ‘I could not see a future’: what former car workers told us about job loss, downtime and communities on the edge


Shanty villages and eviction riots

Sydney’s Domain, Melbourne’s Dudley Flats and the banks of the Torrens River in Adelaide were just a few places where communities of homeless people emerged in the early 1930s.

Some lived in tents, others in temporary shelters of iron, sacks, wood, and other purified materials. Wooden crates, newspapers and flour and wheat sacks were used for many inventive household uses, such as furniture and blankets. Camps were full of lice, fever and dysentery, all treated with home remedies.

Shanty towns and eviction riots: the radical history of Australia's real estate market
Some people lived in tents in the Domain during the Depression of the 1930s.
Knights, Bert / Victoria State Library

But many Australians have fought eviction from their homes in a widespread series of protests and interventions known as the anti-eviction movement.

As the author Iain McIntyre explains in his work Lock Out The Landlords: Australian Anti-Eviction Resistance 1929-1936, these protests were an initiative of members of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement – a kind of trade union of the unemployed.

As explained by authors Nadia Wheatley and Drew Cottle,

With the money given in the form of goods or coupons rather than cash, it was impossible for many unemployed workers to pay rent. In working-class suburbs, it was common to see sheriffs throwing furniture on the sidewalk, pushing women and children on the street. Even more common were the sightings of strings of terraced houses, which no one could afford to rent. If anything demonstrated the idiocy as well as the injustice of the capitalist system, it was the fact that in many situations the owners did not even draw anything from it to evict people.

The aim of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement was to

Organize neighborhood vigilance committees to patrol working-class districts and, through mass action, resist the eviction of unemployed workers from their homes, or attempts on behalf of sheriffs to remove furniture, or gasmen to shut off the gas supply.

Methods of resistance have been varied in practice. Often, threats were sufficient to deter a landlord from evicting a family.

If not, a common tactic was for a large group of activists and neighbors to gather outside the house on eviction day and physically prevent the eviction. Sometimes it led to street fights with the police. Protesters sometimes returned in the wake of a successful eviction to raid and vandalize the property.

Protesters went under armed siege in houses cordoned off with sandbags and barbed wire. This led to a series of bloody battles with police in Sydney’s suburbs in mid – 1931, and numerous arrests.

It’s not just what happened – it’s how we talk about it

Narratives reflect and shape our world. Written history is interesting not only for the things that happened in the past, but for how we tell it.

Just as the catastrophic consequences of the 1929 crash were intertwined with the growing struggle between extreme left and right political ideologies, historians and writers have since taken various and even opposing views when it comes to interpreting the events of Australia’s Depression years and the assigning meaning to it. .

Was it a time of silent stoicism that brought out the best in us as “warriors” and fostered a spirit of society that underpins who we are as a nation?

Or have we pushed our fellow Australians on the streets and in tin huts and made people feel ashamed because they need help? As Wendy Lowenstein wrote in her landmark work on Depression oral history, Weevils in the Flour:

Generally, the belief was that the most important thing was to own your own home, to stay out of debt, to be sober, diligent, and to take care of your own affairs. One woman says: ‘My husband was out of work during the Depression for five years and no one ever knew […] Not even my own parents. ‘

This part of our history remains controversial and narratives from this period – for example about “lifters and leaners” or the Australian “dream” of home ownership – continue to exist today.

As Australia’s current housing crisis deepens, it is worth emphasizing that we have been through housing crises before. Public discourse on housing and its relationship to poverty remains – as was the case in the Depression era – emotionally and politically charged.

Our slums and eviction protests from the Depression era, as well as the way we remember them, are a reminder that what people today say and do about the housing crisis is not just about facts and figures. Above all, it reflects what we value and who we think we are.

Nation World News Desk
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