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The post-war housing crisis that built Brisbane

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The post-war housing crisis that built Brisbane

LYNDA SCOTT looks back at how a state government created suburbs to house ex-Defence Force personnel, migrants and their families.

Almost 80 years ago at  the end of World War II, Queensland was facing  a similar housing crisis as now.

Home building had come to a standstill, with skilled labour scarce because of servicemen fighting overseas, and there was a lack of materials as factories concentrated on the war effort.

At war’s end, ex-servicemen were marrying their sweethearts. Migrants – many with large families – were flocking to the relative safety of our shores. They all needed somewhere to live.

The Queensland government set up the Housing Commission in 1945 aimed at providing “secure, affordable and appropriate housing”.

What the QHC achieved so many decades ago is almost unimaginable today. Huge plots of land were purchased and suburbs created, all requiring schools, parks, playgrounds, water and gas, mains power and transport services. Estates had to be planned, cleared and surveyed, with roads and drainage. Houses were designed to suit small and large families, and Queensland’s climate.

To relieve the labour shortage, ex-servicemen were trained as carpenters, plumbers, painters, plasterers and bricklayers, even though this trade was scarce because brick homes were uncommon in Queensland. To combat the materials shortage, the commission imported cement from Czechoslovakia, iron sheeting from Belgium, timber from Finland, and roofing  from England. The contract price of the first house was $1680.

That covered land clearing, fibro construction, polished hardwood floors, cupboards and painting, plus connection to gas, water and electricity. The houses boasted ‘modern kitchens’ like the one in this 1951 photograph from the Royal Historical Society of Queensland archives.

Times were tough. The QHC estimated that thousands of Queensland families were living in homes made from “calico, canvas or hessian”, while many were in makeshift accommodation with relatives  or friends.

By mid-1945, the QHC had 198 homes for rent. Three years later, it jumped to 1241. By the end of the ’50s, there were 23,000 across the state. A government publication of the time revealed “no Australian family was expected to pay more than a fifth of their weekly income in rent”.

One of the earliest and biggest projects was at Inala. On the northside, Enoggera, with “good access, and handy to school and shopping facilities” was one of the first planned housing estates. Farmland was reclaimed to establish Zillmere as a suburban centre. Others followed: Ashgrove, Banyo, Camp Hill, Cannon Hill, Chermside-Wavell Heights, Coorparoo, Corinda-Graceville, Gaythorne-Mitchelton, Fairfield-Yeronga, Indooroopilly-Taringa, Kedron, Wynnum-Manly, Moorooka-Rocklea-Salisbury, Morningside, Mt Gravatt, Nundah, Stafford  and Tarragindi.

Queensland was reluctant to follow the New South Wales example of building blocks of flats. Brisbane’s lord mayor at the time said Queenslanders preferred their own backyard where they could have a garden.

Another initiative was the Imported Homes Scheme, and by 1950, pre-fab homes from France, Sweden, Holland and Italy were assembled on large housing estates. The wood proved popular with termites.

As demand blew out in the 1960s and ’70s, the commission branched out from large estate development to unit blocks and attached housing. Over time, a stigma developed about living in a Housing Commission estate. But that soon changed when government policy encouraged renters to buy their QHC homes, with many renovated and sold for a healthy profit.

 Lynda Scott is a volunteer at the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. Visit queenslandhistory.org

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