Book review.

Many books and articles catalogue the often turbulent history of housing activism across Australian cities. The Victorian cases are usually focused on the inner north of Melbourne. A recent example, Trendyville: the battle for Australian cities, documents the slum reclamation battles, the involvement of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Oswald Barnett, and redevelopment of many sites around the inner north such as Brookes Crescent, Fitzroy.

Housing first, a path to social justice. The story of St Kilda community activism and the Port Phillip Housing Association by Anne Tuohey and Tony Lintermans covers new geography. Crossing the Yarra, it is very much a St Kilda-centric story, out of which wide consequences grew for other areas, as governments devolved provision of affordable housing to registered housing associations.

It particularly acknowledges the vision of a new wave of socially-minded gentrifiers who took over St Kilda Council and made history as the first Victorian local government authority to contribute capital funding for affordable housing.

Some of those former councillors and committed activists from 20-30 years ago were gathered at the launch of Housing first. Many reflected poignantly that, while the collective skills and will are as sharp as ever, the circumstances which nurtured that activism are a feature of time past, and since when have irrevocably changed. On balance, though, the adage holds true about knowing your future to know where you are going. There are always lessons we can learn.

As Tim Costello acknowledged in launching the book:

“We are all standing on the shoulders of people who dared to believe things could be different. They were trailblazers. And a key message was that all residents mattered, not only those with a voice.”

This is perhaps one of the inspiring messages of the book: people can make a difference. It was a largely well-educated class of twenty-somethings and some long-term residents who decided everyone had a right to live in St Kilda, be they low-income rooming house renters threatened with evictions as the pro-development surge took hold, sex workers, homeless youth, or those without a home through deinstitutionalisation.

Over thirty years, a dedicated group, originally under the Turn the Tide banner, campaigned and organised the wide community to ensure a pro-affordable housing agenda remained a priority. The baton was regularly passed to others keen to keep the momentum going. St Kilda’s artists and bohemians stood alongside the comfortably off St Kilda residents. Diversity was truly being enacted there well before it became a popular policy catchphrase. Community change is never plain sailing- there were turf wars, differing priorities – historic preservation and heritage concerns jockeyed at times for top position alongside those single-mindedly after more affordable housing.

A recurring theme in this story is that various interest groups found common ground and worked well together. There was a particularly high calibre of skills, with many collaborators involved in unions, the community sector, the arts, academia, and the media. The quality of campaign material which features in the book demonstrates these skills. SHOUT was a wonderfully bolshy newsletter put together regularly by an army of volunteers. It was influential beyond contributors’ wildest dreams.

The modest St Kilda Housing Association created in the 1980s grew into the Port Phillip Housing Association (PPHA) under the passionate and clear-eyed focus of founder Karen Barnett. She retired after 26 years, and the book is, in part, acknowledgement of her dedication to increase the stock and quality of affordable housing which took the Association into other municipalities. PPHA’s well-established reputation as an innovative housing provider and developer which has managed to keep a ‘local’ feel wherever it provides housing, is evident across the array of projects outlined in the book. NIMBY (not in my backyard) battles were frequent and often ugly, and make for fascinating reading. The book chronicles what PPHA and the Council learned about managing this opposition.

Speaking in the St Kilda Town Hall, his old stamping ground, Tim Costello reminisced that he had been the last mayor before the Council was sacked by the Kennett Government. In those heady times, it seemed everything the gathered activists had believed in and fought for would be dismantled. Somehow, against great odds, much of their vision prevailed, even though, as Minister Martin Foley cautioned those gathered, today is an era of finding ways to leverage increasing housing in a constrained environment.

The book is proof that these activists were fostering ‘community engagement, connection, and relationship building’ long before they had a name.

The book is a rollicking good read, full of great yarns, St Kilda music culture, colourful characters, and insightful reflections from key players. Tenants’ stories remind us of the key reasons behind the campaigning and the history.

Anyone whose formative years were in the seventies and eighties, who appreciates the indefinable essence of St Kilda, will enjoy a trip down memory lane, and tales of courageous and clever community activism. For the uninitiated, you will relate to this uniquely Melbourne story.

Copies of Housing first, a path to social justice. The story of St Kilda community activism and the Port Phillip Housing Association are available for $30 plus postage from PPHA, 9534 5837, 22-28 Fitzroy Street St Kilda.

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