BooksCommunity GroupsHousing

What can we learn from the history of housing?

Author: Dr Tony Gilmour
Publisher: Shelter NSW

Dr Tony Gilmour’s Champions of Change: Shelter NSW, Community Activism and Transforming NSW’s Housing System captures the history of Shelter NSW from its early days as an activist organisation driven by volunteers, to the role of respected housing policy analysis and professional advocacy it occupies today. The book tells of contemporary housing stories – particularly for those on low incomes – emerging from the struggles against Sydney’s inner-city gentrification in the 1970s through to the decline of the public housing system in NSW from the late 1990s onwards.

The BLF campaign to 'Save the Loo', 1970s Image: Courtesty of City of Sydney archives 066/066804. The Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) are shown opposing the destruction of housing in Woolloomooloo.
The BLF campaign to 'Save the Loo', 1970s Image: Courtesty of City of Sydney archives 066/066804. The Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) are shown opposing the destruction of housing in Woolloomooloo.

As it winds its way through the decades it notes key moments for the organisation in its relationships with both state and federal governments, their housing bureaucracies and the broader housing advocacy sector with whom its journey is shared. Gilmour presents a clear and coherent take on how the social housing system in NSW has evolved throughout Shelter’s time, shedding light on some of the policies, personalities and debates that have influenced it along the way. For the student of housing policy this is not only an enjoyable read, but it will prove a useful resource as well.

Gilmour’s sources are, for the most part, the written records of the organisation that can be found in the archives and in the catalogue of publications and papers produced by Shelter NSW throughout its 44 years of activity. These sources are rich and, one suspects, sometimes quite dense, but the nature of such material means that critical elements of a story can remain difficult to uncover – the dialogues between colleagues that lead to one decision being taken over another, the day-to-day machinations of the organisation as it rises to opportunity or responds to adversity.

To that end, Gilmour has had the benefit of conversations and correspondence with a number of people who have worked closely with the organisation – sometimes from the very beginning – to help determine which stories might rise to prominence, and to fill some of those inevitable gaps.

It is no mean feat to have teased out the themes that make up this book, and to arrange them into a series of coherent narratives: the origins of Shelter and its early years; the spawning of other key housing organisations; early support for housing co-operatives and the community housing sector; a sometimes adversarial approach to working with government; and the challenges of working in a policy arena that has, over the years, attracted more and more players to the field.

As the history of an organisation that is alive and well today, Champions of Change concludes with one eye on the future. Having reflected upon its activist origins and the highs and lows of its journey to date, Gilmour notes that Shelter can bring strength to the challenges of the future.

While launching the book as part of Urbanfest last month, he quipped from behind the lectern that “we need a new generation of eccentric housing activists to join the campaign”.

As it happens, we’re already here, and thanks to the work of those who’ve come before us we’re already embedded within structures that allow access to decision makers and the potential for change. Our activism, analysis and advocacy – even our very interest in the impact of housing on the wellbeing of society – are all part of the Shelter legacy.

But if there’s one thing this legacy can teach us, it’s that we can’t always rely on what’s been left to us by pioneers. If we are to make a lasting difference then we must be prepared, always and in every respect, to remain true champions of change.

 

Ned Cutcher is a Senior Policy Officer with Shelter NSW. He played no part in the publication of Champions of Change: Shelter NSW, Community Activism and Transforming NSW’s Housing System by Dr Tony Gilmour. The book is available for purchase at https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=423139& while stocks last.

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