Melbourne’s high rise public housing towers are icons of the city’s skyline. Indelibly associated with the inner-city suburbs, they are the product of hard-fought battles between social reformers, residents’ associations and the sprawling bureaucracy of the Housing Commission of Victoria. Throughout their history, they have been both hated and loved, generating protests against their construction and then, once established, to defend them from demolition. 

All 44 towers have now been slated for demolition by 2051, in what was the final act of Daniel Andrews’ reign as premier. 

The state government’s policy of “urban renewal” is a program of creeping privatisation, one that has already destroyed nearly a dozen walk-up public housing estates across the city. The high rise flats are the last remnants of a time when the Victorian government engaged in ambitious projects to increase public housing stock instead of selling it off to the highest bidder. Their destruction is about disowning that history, eradicating its legacy from public consciousness, and a major milestone in the long march towards the eradication of public housing in Victoria. 

Melbourne’s imposing high rise towers have their origins in the social reform campaigns of the 1930s. As in many industrialising cities during the early period of capitalism, the combination of heavy industry, overcrowding and poverty had created a dire housing crisis in Melbourne. By the early twentieth century, huge swathes of inner-city suburbs such as Carlton, Collingwood and Fitzroy were crammed full of poor and working-class families living in slum conditions. Houses were narrow, with as many as three or four dwellings occupying a single allotment. They were badly maintained and lacked basic amenities. Poor sanitation encouraged the spread of disease. 

The situation horrified the delicate sensibilities of many a middle-class do-gooder. One of the most dogged advocates for slum reform was Frederick Oswald Barnett, a Methodist socialist who documented life in the slums with his camera, submitting dozens of photographs to local newspapers and journals to draw attention to the conditions faced by the residents. A conscientious social reformer, Barnett advocated careful and gradual rehabilitation of the slums, emphasising that poor living conditions were not a reflection on the character of the inhabitants. 

Barnett’s campaigning resulted in the creation of the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board in 1936. The board surveyed more than 7,000 homes within eight kilometres of the city centre and found that the majority required demolition or extensive renovation. Barnett’s work, which included taking then Premier Albert Dunstan on a tour of the slums, gave rise to the 1937 Housing Act and the subsequent creation of the Housing Commission of Victoria. The commission had a mandate to deal with the slum problem by reconstructing houses and rehousing residents if required.  

Early projects were put on hold in 1939 due to the outbreak of World War II, and shortages in construction materials and labour caused by the war only made the housing crisis worse. The situation grew so desperate that, from 1946 to 1954, Royal Park played host to Camp Pell, a military camp repurposed as emergency accommodation for those displaced by the early slum clearances. When the health and housing minister defended the appalling conditions in the not-so-affectionately named “Camp Hell”, one letter writer to the Age offered to donate £10 to the children’s hospital if the minister could name a rougher slum in Melbourne.

From 1938 to 1956, the commission built around 32,000 units, mostly single-family homes and low rise apartments, and mostly in the suburbs. But at the same time, the number of dwellings classified as “slum housing” in the inner city continued to grow. So, in 1956, there was a policy shift that emphasised sweeping large-scale redevelopment and the construction of high-density apartment blocks in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. This was the beginning of the great postwar slum clearance program, which would continue until mid-1973. 

Two key factors motivated the commission’s move away from low rise and mixed-use dwellings to the now ubiquitous high rise flats. The first was the surging demand for housing following WWII and the ongoing problems of slums in the inner city. The Brotherhood of St Laurence led an “All Parties Housing League” which held protests in the suburb of Oakleigh and on Collins Street in the city in 1949, demanding greater attention to the city’s poor and destitute, and it produced many pamphlets and films about the housing crisis. By 1955, pressure was mounting on the newly elected Liberal state government under Premier Henry Bolte to address the issue.

The second factor was the cost. “Multi storey flats are the only way of economically developing sites with high site values”, explained a 1958 report by the commission’s housing director and chief technical officer. The increasing cost of buying up inner-city land pushed the commission’s directors to aim for the highest possible density, a logic that RMIT urban development Professor Libby Porter has pointed out continues to inform housing policy to this day.

Developments in construction techniques provided further economic incentive for ambitious high rise construction. In 1945, the state government had acquired the Holmesglen factory, a former munitions facility, and turned it over to the production of prefabricated concrete panels for use in housing construction. This method allowed hundreds of panels to be produced in quick succession, transported to building sites by truck and assembled like a pack of cards. By the early 1960s, this technique had been refined to the point where it was possible to build towers of as many as 30 storeys using precast panels. 

This convergence of social need, a government with a view to large-scale urban redevelopment and the economics of modern productive technology created the 44 high rise towers that ring the city today. But this development was not without controversy.

In the 1988 book New Houses for Old, architect George Tibbits argues that in the postwar period the commission made a turn away from “social welfare values” and towards a cold, technocratic approach to urban renewal. This view was shared by Barnett, who, at 85, was invited to attend the opening of the 32-storey Park Towers development in South Melbourne. There he expressed his dismay at how far the commission had strayed from its original mandate, reportedly commenting at the time, “They’ve gone in for high rise. Our thinking was for homes”.

From the outset, slum residents resented being told they had to leave homes that were well loved despite their disrepair. The closely knit communities that had been built in the narrow streets and laneways of Carlton, Collingwood, North Melbourne and surrounds were not willingly sacrificed in the name of modernisation and social good, but the commission was increasingly unwilling to let residents’ concerns stand in the way of progress. Its callous approach to rehousing and compensation was the subject of an angry Collingwood council meeting in 1958, where, according to Tibbits, the mayor accused the commission of “terrorising the people of Collingwood”.

As the high rise flats sprung up around the inner city throughout the 1960s, they provoked a new tide of anger. In Trendyville, a book by Renate Howe, David Nichols and Graeme Davison that documents the struggles over inner-city development in the 1960s and ’70s, student activist and future Labor MP Pete Steedman sums up the reaction. “Fucking monster blocks went up”, he recalled, “and I think it was only when a couple of them went up that people suddenly realised, shit, what this was doing and people started to have an understanding”. 

The high point of the commission’s bureaucratic overreach was the 1966 Carlton Comprehensive Development Area (CDA) plan, a scheme devised by the architecture firm Leslie M Perrott & Partners that recommended more than half the suburb be demolished and rebuilt along modernist, planned lines. Had the plan been followed through, it would have destroyed the entire Lygon Street shopping strip, constructed a six-lane freeway in place of Princes Street and demolished and redeveloped all housing between Princes and Victoria Streets.

Opposition to the CDA and other developments came from residents, church groups and activists schooled in the radical movements of the late 1960s. By 1970, a residents association had formed in every suburb where the commission engaged in extensive redevelopment, linked together by the city-wide Committee for Urban Action. The Fitzroy and Carlton chapters were particularly active, and managed to stymie plans to redevelop parts of North Fitzroy and North Carlton respectively, at times aided by union work bans. Concerted effort by the Carlton Association prevented a second attempt to impose parts of Perrott’s CDA in the early 1970s and played a major part in the eventual collapse of the commission’s slum clearance program. According to Tibbits, resident activism had become the Achilles heel of the project.

So, as much as they are valued today, the high rise towers have a chequered history. The price paid for modern living was the destruction of closely knit communities of poor and working-class people. Some would be rehoused in the towers, but others would be scattered to further-flung suburbs, separated from people they’d lived with for decades. Indigenous author Tony Birch recalled in a 2006 ABC interview that, on being rehoused to the Fitzroy estate, his mother “got running hot water, but she lost her whole family to get it”.

On the other hand, their construction was part of Victoria’s most ambitious public housing program ever. The flats, more than half of which contain at least two bedrooms, were modern and spacious. The towers stand as a reminder that governments are capable of building thousands of homes for those who need them, if the political will exists.

And in the intervening decades, communities have been built inside the towers that very much object to their demolition. Sarah, a resident of the Flemington high rise, told the Age last month, ‘“If they cared about us, they wouldn’t move us. It’s all rubbish. They want to build the houses and put higher rent for rich people. They are moving us from the city”.

The demographics of the towers have shifted over time. From an initial focus on the elderly and those displaced by the slum clearances, the flats gradually became a landing pad for migrants. For many, the high rises formed a bridge between the countries they left behind and the new life they embarked on in Melbourne. “In the high-rise you spend a lot of time in communal spaces”, 25-year-old South Sudanese migrant Awak Kongor told the Guardian in 2020. “It’s very intimate, you are forced to get to know each other. You know every crevice, every hole, every corner of those flats. You’ve just come out of war, so finding another black or African person in your building is crazy. We grew up figuring out our identities. We were all fish out of water at the same time.” In 2017, migrant communities in the Flemington and Kensington flats poured into the streets to join anti-fascist activists in a protest against notorious racist Milo Yiannopolous.

Residents have complaints about the towers, it’s true. After decades of systematic neglect and a concerted campaign by the press to demonise public housing residents, as well as constant police harassment, life is not always easy on the estates. But the incontrovertible fact is that in the depths of Australia’s worst housing crisis in generations, the Victorian Labor government is moving not to improve existing homes and build thousands more, but to tear down and sell off all that remains of the city’s dwindling public housing stock. The demolition of the high rise estates will destroy the communities that reside there, and it will erase from the landscape any sense that all people are entitled to housing and that governments should be obliged to build it.