This project is a perfect example of how well suited oral and community history is to understanding issues related to urban and social planning.
The tenants of the Hotham Housing Estate in North Melbourne were temporarily moved to allow the thirty-year-old buildings to be demolished and replaced with new accommodation as part of the Better Cities Housing Program. After they had resettled in the new flats a project was initiated to understand how well or otherwise they had adjusted and been able to develop a sense of community. Historian Frances O'Neil of the Department of Planning and Development was in charge of the project and wrote the report, while I conducted eight oral history interviews.
All the people I spoke to had been born overseas and were recent migrants. They had a variety of English language skills and employment experience. Only two were employed at the time, in manufacturing, and they were either families, retired people or single parents. We talked about their families, language difficulties, links with their communities, how they felt about the new housing, the levels of noise and disturbance, the physical surroundings and design, cultural differences, and the difficulties of car ownership.
This project was completed on the cusp of new public housing regulations in Victoria to be introduced in June 1997 so that "future access to public housing in Victoria is to be limited to those who are old or disabled. Others in need, such as those who are affected by industry restructuring or family breakdown, will have to rent in the private market though they can apply for rental assistance." The picture below, from the Department of Human Services Our Housing Stories website - http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/ourhousingstories/history-of-public-housing (accessed June 2014) - shows typical inner city public housing in Melbourne in the 1930s. Of course things have got better since then and the Hotham redevelopment project is an example of that. But the vulnerability of those hoping for or living in public housing continues to be a concern.
You can read the full report and interview summaries in the scrapbook in this blog.
With Frances O'Neill