Australian Heritage Commission, 2001
28 - Commission house
Widford Street, Broadmeadows, Victoria
Carmel McMennemin and her Housing Commission home at Broadmeadows in 1997.
The day we came out here ... we came into Widford Street from the Glenroy end, and the road was only made so far ... Well, when I saw the house I just broke down and cried, because I thought I had come to the land of the never never, I really did. All I saw were these concrete houses, the sameness ... But ... because we had a baby, and my mother-in-law was minding him at the time; I accepted the house in order to have my baby back with me ... Going back all those years, it was the sameness. No shops, no transport, no footpaths, no front fence. All we got from the Commission was the house itself.
Carmel McMennemin still rents her home, 43 years after she and husband Kevin gingerly stepped across an unmade yard and into one of the Victorian Housing Commission's new concrete houses at Broadmeadows in outer Melbourne. Their first home had just two bedrooms but the Commission soon wanted that house for a rent office, and asked them to move into a three-bedroom house across the street. The floor was bare boards. The gas water heater and copper, concrete wash trough, four-legged gas stove and open fireplace were the only interruptions along hastily-painted walls. Because the site had been used for roadworks, the mud was carved into deep ruts which eventually swallowed seven truckloads of soil.
They bought blinds, congoleum and then linoleum, and a briquette burner. A slow combustion heater was disallowed, because it would have meant minor structural adjustments to a house the Commission consistently reminded them they did not own. And so began a story shared by most tenants of public housing authorities since the 1950s. Grateful for the house, and eager to make it into a home, tenants had to be ever mindful of 'Commission property'. They asked for repairs and improvements, waited and waited. During the 1970s, the tenant workers funded by Family Services - and eventually by the Commission itself - helped tenants realise their right to be heard, and Carmel later became an active member of the Glenmeadows Public Tenants Group.
In the 1960s and 1970s inspections were tenants' most frequent contact with the Commission; 'I dreaded the inspections ... I felt I was under a microscope.' Demands for late rent were instantaneous, but the family had to wait until the late 1970s for a new water heater and a new stove. It was 1974 before the toilet was moved inside and insulation was provided for houses in which people must still heat their kitchens by opening the door of the gas stove.
The concrete houses symbolised the VHC's fascination with mass-production technology, but the people who lived in them suffered the shortcomings of drawing-board ideas. In some streets, shifting ground prised apart the concrete slabs so that rain poured down the walls. Mildew covered everything in cold weather. It was impossible to keep the walls dry, especially without adequate heating. Carmel participated in the Commission's unsuccessful response to the mildew problem.
"There were five tenants asked if we would take part in a program to allow the Commission to paint the inside walls with certain paints to see if that could stop the growth of the mildew. If the mildew grew, I was not to touch it, but to contact the Housing Commission, because they wanted to estimate the rate of growth of the mould. This I duly did. On a Saturday morning, someone from the Commission came out to see me and, dear heaven, a few days later I got a letter to say that I'd made no attempt to wash this mildew off the wall and if it wasn't done in so many days, then they would provide the labour and I would have to pay for it."
In the winter of 1965, Carmel's baby daughter suffered severe bronchitis, and a doctor suggested they should vacate the house. Yet the Commission ruled that the concrete houses were fit for human habitation. Carmel spoke up at a town hall meeting; one official responded by suggesting that there would be no problems if these tenants would just keep their houses clean.
Carmel never expected to stay at Widford Street very long. She came from the Wimmera to train as a nurse in Melbourne; she married Kevin in 1954 and lived in the 'rooms' advertised in the Age and the Argus. After Michael was born in 1955, they rented a house in Brighton, but the owners returned, so Carmel applied to rent a Commission home:
I look back and I think I was very fortunate to get a Commission home, because prior to moving to Brighton, we were living in ticky-tacky rooms ... It was good to have a house to yourself, your own clothesline, your own toilet, your own bath which you didn't have to scrub before you got in.
Like thousands of other couples earning low wages, they welcomed the opportunity to rent from the Commission while they saved for a home. But 'you can't plan for illness, for accidents to children, for wages not rising quickly enough'. Michael was followed by Shane (1958), Kieran (1961), Andrea (1962) and Janice (1964). Five children sharing two cramped bedrooms. 'Luckily we had a big yard'. They could never save enough, or keep up with the soaring cost of land or new homes.
The children have now gone, into their apprenticeships and jobs and marriages. Kevin died in 1994, and Carmel has been ill several times. She remains active in the Tenants' Group and has many good friends across the road or around the block. Yet Carmel is worried. She is a widow in a three-bedroom house. She knows how the ground rules are changing for public renters and is worried they will start taking older people's homes away. Every room in Widford Street is used, when Carmel's daughters come to stay, or when grandchildren visit. When Carmel was ill, her sister moved in to help out. Carmel's home is an unofficial tenant group office and an album for the memories of a 'hoarder'. Broadmeadows people find that all the different circles they move in join up in Carmel's kitchen or through Carmel's telephone.
Carmel knows that there are many people who desperately need public housing. When the renamed Housing Department asked her if she'd like to move, she considered it. But this is her home, and she doesn't want to be 'put where they think I should live'. Government might thank Carmel McMennemin for all the good she has done for Broadmeadows people, for her tolerance and neighbourliness, for so diligently repaying their investment in her home many times over. Or they might decide she is 'inappropriately housed' and needs to be moved. This is one story - among many - of public tenants who have never been allowed to forget that they are not as good as people with a mortgage. In Carmel's future there is another story; we have yet to decide its conclusion.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
My thanks to Carmel McMennemin.
The photograph is the author's.
Further reading: R Howe, ed, New houses for old: fifty years of public housing in Victoria 1938-1988, Ministry of Housing & Construction, Melbourne, 1988.
Mark Peel teaches history at Monash University in Melbourne. Beginning his life in a semi-detached public housing 'double unit' in Adelaide's Elizabeth, he has since explored the relative advantages of apartment life and the shortcomings of private landlords in three cities. His publications include Good times, hard times: the past and the future in Elizabeth (Melbourne University Press, Carlton 1995); 'Poor places: life on the restructured urban frontier', in G Davison, T Dingle and S O'Hanlon, eds, The cream brick frontier. Histories of Australian suburbia (Monash University, Clayton, 1995); and a chapter in Patrick Troy's History of European housing in Australia (2000).
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