• Written by Vanessa Whittington, PhD Candidate, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

The queues of unemployed people outside Centrelink offices in recent days are reminiscent of the dole queues seen across Australia during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

At that time, most states provided inadequate food vouchers rather than cash to people in the form of income support payments. This made it particularly difficult for renters, many of whom were unemployed due to the mass closure of factories, to continue to pay rent.

In NSW, lower-income areas of Sydney were particularly badly hit by unemployment, and because the working class was a renting class, this quickly translated into homelessness.

Read more: As coronavirus hits holiday lettings, a shift to longer rentals could help many of us

For example, male unemployment reached 38.9% in the then-working class suburb of Newtown by 1933, well above the NSW average of 32% and three times the rate in the affluent suburb of Vaucluse.

Tent cities sprang up in Sydney’s Domain and on the outskirts of the city in suburbs like La Perouse, such as the ironically named tent city, Happy Valley. Although this is likely to underestimate the numbers of homeless at the time, the 1933 census reported

33,000 people [were] travelling in the hope of work and 400,000 [were] living in shelters made of ‘iron, calico, canvas, bark, hessian and other scavenged materials’.

Residents in Happy Valley in the 1930s. State Library of New South Wales

COVID-19 and assistance for renters

There are distinct parallels between the severe economic downturn of the 1930s and the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis in terms of mass business closures and worker layoffs.

The Australian government has estimated that one million Australians could become unemployed as a result of the coronavirus. However, it is not clear if this comprises only those who will be directly affected by business closures or includes people impacted by the flow-on effects.

Taking into account the current unemployment rate, an additional one million Australians would bring the rate to 13% of the Australian workforce, from my own estimates.

Although the increase in Centrelink payments announced by the Morrison government will help those workers suddenly without jobs, additional measures are needed to protect people who can’t pay their rents and are faced with possible eviction.

Read more: Why housing evictions must be suspended to defend us against coronavirus

The National Cabinet is working on a range of strategies to assist renters, including preventing landlords from evicting tenants directly impacted by the coronavirus and offering tax relief to landlords who reduce or waive rents.

But these need to be supplemented by strong legislative measures, such as the amendment passed by the NSW parliament this week that empowers the housing minister to ban evictions for renters for six months.

Emergency laws to protect renters are also currently being debated in Tasmania.

Queues of people formed outside Centrelink offices nationwide this week. JOEL CARRETT/AAP

Staving off homelessness in the Great Depression

There is precedent for legislative reform of this kind from the Great Depression.

In response to the mass numbers of job losses in NSW, the government at the time, led by Premier Jack Lang, passed two pieces of legislation aimed at providing relief for renters. This legislation was very significant, as it was the first of its kind that afforded tenants across NSW any serious amount of protection.

One of the bills, passed as the Reduction of Rent Act 1931, reduced rents state-wide by 22.5% and made leases that did not acknowledge this reduction illegal.

Read more: Coronavirus puts casual workers at risk of homelessness unless they get more support

The other piece of significant tenancy reform was the Ejectments Postponement Bill 1931. This bill prohibited eviction from a dwelling house without an order of the court. If the court could be shown the rent could not be paid, the tenancy could be extended indefinitely.

In his second reading speech, William McKell, minister for justice in the Lang government, described the bill as “a bona fide effort to provide against hardship due to unemployment”.

As honourable members are aware, there is a large amount of unemployment, and there are many very deserving and reputable people who, unfortunately, are not able to pay their rent. It is a tragedy that people of that type, with their families, are being evicted from their homes, and the Government is desirous of preventing as far as possible evictions of that character.

Though the government was committed to helping renters, McKell clearly distinguishes between the deserving and undeserving unemployed in his speech, an unhelpful way of thinking that is still with us today.

Although it is not known how many evictions the reforms of 1931 prevented, the new laws were undoubtedly a boon for renters, given the news coverage of the time. Landlords and their representatives complained about the impact the laws had on their ability to evict tenants.

In fact, the Real Estate Institute noted the financial hardship the Ejectments Postponement Act was placing on landlords.

Hundreds of cases have been reported to the Real Estate Institute, where the owners of houses, dependent on rents for their livelihood, have been refused possession, and have also been refused relief under the dole system, on the grounds that they are property owners.

Unfortunately for renters, these reforms were relatively short-lived. The Lang government was sacked by the NSW governor in May 1932 and replaced in the next election by the more conservative United Australia Party and Country Party coalition government.

This change in government saw the passage of the Landlord and Tenant (Amendment) Act 1932, which repealed the Ejectments Postponement Act 1931. The rent reduction law was also made more favourable to landlords.

The interests of landlords were prioritised over those of unemployed renters, a salutary lesson to present governments not to let ideology and vested interests get in the way of needed reforms that will benefit a significant portion of the population during a crisis not of their making.

Authors: Vanessa Whittington, PhD Candidate, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Read more https://theconversation.com/lessons-from-the-great-depression-how-to-prevent-evictions-in-an-economic-crisis-134644

Buying Apartment vs House: 3 Tips to Consider

If you're looking to buy a property in Australia, you might need to decide between an apartment vs house. Learn some tips for making your decision. About 67% of Australians own their own home. Twen...

Sarah Williams - avatar Sarah Williams

6 tips to travel more in 2020

How many times in a year do you think that you would like to travel more and how many times did you stay home because of the thoughts "I don't have...", "I can't...", "not now..."? Don't be afraid, ...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to stay productive while working at home

Advancing technology and increased connections have meant that many people can now work from home and still achieve the results they want. The allure of escaping the daily commute and getting to sle...

Chris Howard - avatar Chris Howard

'Stupid coronavirus!' In uncertain times, we can help children through mindfulness and play

Shutterstock“Stupid coronavirus!” I heard my six-year-old mumble while talking in her sleep. Earlier that day her swimming and basketball lessons were cancelled, a birthday party postponed...

Ben Deery, Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, University of Melbourne - avatar Ben Deery, Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, University of Melbourne

'Zoombombers' want to troll your online meetings. Here's how to stop them

StanWilliams/Pixabay, Author provided“Zoombombing” in case you haven’t heard, is the unsavoury practice of posting distressing comments, pictures or videos after gatecrashing virtual...

David Tuffley, Senior Lecturer in Applied Ethics & CyberSecurity, Griffith University - avatar David Tuffley, Senior Lecturer in Applied Ethics & CyberSecurity, Griffith University

Can I visit my boyfriend or my parents? Go fishing or bushwalking? Coronavirus rules in the Northern Territory and Tasmania

ShutterstockEditor’s note: The following is current as at April 3, 2020. Things are changing quickly so best to keep an eye on the latest information from the NT government, the Tasmanian govern...

Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling - avatar Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling

Can I visit my boyfriend or my parents? Go fishing or bushwalking? Coronavirus rules in Western Australia

Shutterstock/IncEditor’s note: The following is current as at April 3, 2020. Things are changing quickly so best to keep an eye on the latest information from WA Health, as well as the federal g...

Michael Lund, Commissioning Editor, The Conversation - avatar Michael Lund, Commissioning Editor, The Conversation

What does the coronavirus pandemic sound like? The voices of people struggling, secluding and surviving around the world

What does the COVID-19 pandemic sound like?For this episode, Dallas Rogers – a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney – asked academ...

Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling - avatar Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling

Australia's telcos, banks and supermarkets granted exemption to cartel laws

Shutterstock“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion,” wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776), “but the conversation en...

Sven Gallasch, Lecturer in Law, Swinburne University of Technology - avatar Sven Gallasch, Lecturer in Law, Swinburne University of Technology

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company

CBD



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion