Concerns over housing affordability inspire 2015 The Big West Festival

The Big West Festival is a biannual festival celebrating life in Footscray in Melbourne’s west. When artistic director Marcia Ferguson started consultations for the 2015 festival, the overwhelming concerns coming from artists and residents were around housing and the impact that rising prices are having on communities in the area. Discussions with the elders of various communities revealed similar problems – they were having trouble keeping their communities together, because families were being priced out of the area. It is now common for younger generations to move further west to areas like Truganina and Tarneit where rents are cheap but they lack key infrastructure like public transport, parks and hospitals. According to Ms Ferguson this was causing major concerns for elders in particular.

“Elders are responsible for keeping their community together,” Ms Ferguson said.

“When the younger generations move away, especially to areas that aren’t well serviced by public transport, it becomes harder for extended families to support each other as they’ve traditionally done.”

Another problem that was facing the area is the rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness, particularly women. Ms Ferguson says this is the result of two major trends: the breaking down of traditional patriarchies combined with a shortage of affordable housing.

“Patriarchal structures are being challenged in many CALD communities,” she said.

“Women are now realising they don’t have to stay in unhappy or abusive relationships and they’re moving out, but the problem is that they have nowhere to go because of high rents in the area.”

As a result of all this, Ms Ferguson was inspired to make the main performance area a low cost, easy to assemble house. The house/performance space was designed by architect Nigel Bertram after lengthy consultations with residents of Women’s Property Initiative houses. Given that they had experienced homelessness, they were able to provide invaluable insight into what is genuinely important in a low-cost home.

“It was a very interesting process for everyone involved and lots of these ideas hadn’t been raise before in the context of building a house,” Ms Ferguson said.

“Lots of the things people pointed out were so simple, like good ventilation so that cooking smells could move out of the house, and having certain Islamic designs on the walls, for example.”

The nature of the house, which was built by Victoria University TAFE students, is almost lego like – rooms can be added and moved around easily depending on the needs of the family. The organisers are hoping that after the festival the house can be used by a not for profit group to house a family.

Running from 20th – 28th November, The Big West Festival will operate around central Footscray, with the house located on the corner of Paisley St and French St, Footscray. The full program of music, visual art and performance is available on the festival website. Most of the events are free.