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New Housing Histories Workshop

Australia currently confronts an interlocking series of crises in terms of how we inhabit this land and how we provide shelter to its inhabitants. The “Housing Question”, as Engels famously framed the problem over a century ago, has assumed a renewed sense of urgency, with an enlarged set of challenges.

Edgewater Towers St Kilda designed by Mordechai Benshemesh, photographed by Lyle Fowler in Sept 1962

With this in mind, Dr Stephen Pascoe (UNSW), Dr Rachel Goldlust (La Trobe) and Fiona Gatt (Deakin), organised the inaugural New Housing Histories Workshop. The one-day event, held at Deakin Downtown on Friday 21 April 2023 and sponsored by the Centre for Contemporary Histories, invited emerging and established scholars to engage in conversation about the future prospects of the field.

The expertise of the 18 attendees was deliberately broad and included sociologists, geographers, planning, heritage and cultural studies leaders, and economic, urban, policy and social historians, from ECRs to distinguished scholars.

During the workshop’s discussion, the group considered the ways in which the contours of how we understand housing have undergone a series of epistemological shifts in recent decades. Renewed calls for racial justice, informed by the insights of settler colonialism studies, have focused on how our habitation patterns are based on the logics of dispossession and on the racialised, exclusionary production of housing. The escalating climate crisis has increasingly made us think about dwellings in ecological modalities: as inputs of resources and energy and generators of pollution; in relationship to land and ecosystems; and as implicated in arrangements of population density and urban form framed as either exacerbating or alleviating the climate crisis. Meanwhile, the shifting political economy of housing – expressed in declining affordability relative to income, falling rates of owner-occupation, increased financialisation of housing production, limited political will for state investment in housing and ever more visible homelessness – has forced many to question the democratic bases that housing was once understood to under gird.

The translation of this set of ethical and political concerns into the realm of housing history has been patchy and uneven. As the group discussed, while Australia has a rich tradition of scholarship in housing history – as represented in seminal works by Darian-Smith, Davison, Dingle, Grieg, Kemeny, McConville, and Troy, among others – the set of interlocking crises we face today demands a repurposing of the field. Housing history is poised for thorough re-imagination: but what should its agenda be?

Isochrone map of Melbourne travel times to the city centre by tram or train.

There were three key discussion sessions held throughout the day aiming to begin to provide some insight into this complex question. In the first, attendees shared and explored how they came to housing history. Crucial to understanding how we might reinvigorate housing histories at this critical juncture and what should be the field’s priorities, we then aimed to identify the strengths and limitations of earlier waves in the historiography of housing. In the second session we discussed: What are the urgent questions that historians of housing should be posing today? What kinds of sources and methodologies should they be embracing?

These sessions proved to be lively, enthusiastic and invigorating, as scholars generously shared their insights and thoughts. The depth and breadth of ideas on histories that have not yet been written was exceptional. It is not simply that the work of some seminal texts could be re-visited in order to add the history of the decades since, but that new and urgent questions are emerging as we consider the periodisation of housing history and identify what is unique about this critical moment.

In the third and final session, the group unanimously and enthusiastically agreed that this discussion must continue. With the tentative name of New Housing Histories Network, the group aims to run a symposium in 2023 and/or a stream in a major Australian history/planning conference. Goals for the future include a special edition of a journal where research output from the group can be showcased. It was agreed that ECRs should be encouraged to participate as the group offers wonderful opportunities for mentoring.

If you would like to be added to the mailing list for the New Housing Histories Network please email:

Stephen Pascoe (UNSW): stephen.pascoe@unsw.edu.au

Dr Rachel Goldlust (La Trobe): R.Goldlust@latrobe.edu.au

Fiona Gatt (Deakin): gattfiona@gmail.com