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Housing crisis: property industry finds some solutions but how well do they work

Dr Heather Holst, Launch Housing
Dr Heather Holst, Launch Housing

Pop-up youth shelters in empty hotels. Portable homes on vacant land set aside for roads. Innovative solutions are appearing to tackle the affordable housing crisis in Sydney and Melbourne. But do they work and how well do they work?

Should we be opening up additional buildings and land across our cities? Or should we be concentrating on more long-term solutions?

In Sydney, Australian property group TOGA, in partnership with joint owner Qualitas, has made the former Addison Hotel in Kensington available revenue-free for a minimum of 12 months to be used as Australia’s first pop-up youth shelter.

Community housing provider My Foundations Youth Housing will run the Addison Project, providing accommodation for more than 42 vulnerable youth. Family and Community Services have 14 rooms for those who need temporary accommodation, while the remainder will go to young people needing a safe space to live and study while they secure more permanent solutions.

As part of The Addison Project, OzHarvest will open Australia’s first-ever rescued food supermarket – OzHarvest Market – in the building’s retail space. Social enterprise Orange Sky Laundry will make weekly visits while Thread Together will provide vital on-site services re-distributing surplus apparel.

My Foundations Youth Housing chair associate professor David McKenzie says the project is not intended as a solution to homelessness.

“It is a positive step in the right direction while we work towards addressing the provision of housing in a practical and immediate way,” he says. “The Addison Project is an excellent example of seizing an opportunity to provide a bold and innovative solution.”

NSW Council of Social Service chief executive officer Tracy Howe says the pop-up shelter concept is really exciting but just one piece of a multi-faceted approach.

“Ultimately you want to get permanent housing for young people but the positive about this is it’s going to be run by an organisation which is a youth specialist housing provider.”

Artists impression of Footscray portable

As a result, Howe says the organisation will be more focused on the wellbeing and the transition of the young person rather than just the temporary accommodation aspect.

“I’m heartened and optimistic about the opportunity that this project or trial provides,” she says. “I’m hoping that it might encourage others think in similar ways. It might be a model for others to use for other cohorts say older women in poverty or other types of needs – domestic families.”

Although more long-term housing solutions are needed, Howe says it’s important not to discount the opportunity.

“The problem of housing affordability and homelessness inequality is really prevalent so I’m never going to look a gift horse in the mouth,” she says. “Hat’s off to them for doing something new … I’ll watch with interest.

“If there is anything that doesn’t quite work out within the project, they can learn from that.”

Portable housing on unused public land

Meanwhile, independent Melbourne-based homelessness organisation Launch Housing is in the final stages of delivering 57 new affordable one-bedroom homes to be located on vacant land in the inner west.

The portable housing will be located on nine parcels of vacant land in Footscray and Maidstone that have been set aside for the widening of Ballarat Road, which is unlikely to happen for several years.

VicRoads is leasing the land at a nominal fee to Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services for five years. The department will sub-lease the land to Launch Housing.

Philanthropists Brad Harris (who co-owns the Sporting Globe Bar and Grill chain) and his father Geoff Harris (co-founder of Flight Centre and early investor of Boost Juice) have provided a $4 million donation to fund most of the building costs.

Launch Housing deputy CEO and director of services Dr Heather Holst says Maribyrnong City Council has approved six of the nine blocks for housing with the final three going before council this month.

Singles and couples with low-incomes are expected to move in later this year.

“There is just a huge need for single people to get housing, their buying power is pretty low,” Holst says. “If you’re on a Centrelink income but you’re in a family or a group of people you can pool your money and buy more rent basically, but a single person on a pension or a benefit – there is very little money they can put towards rent.”

While acknowledging that the housing initiative is a temporary measure, Holst says it’s actually a fairly long-term solution and this will benefit the residents.

“It will really be only when VicRoads require the land back for road widening and there are no plans presently,” she says. “We’re building the units to last much longer than five years … we hope they’ll be there for 15 to 20 years if they want to be.”

With any sort of housing, the evidence shows if people move into a home where know they can stay and build connections, there’s a more positive result.

“It’s much better for people moving in to know that they’ve got a much more long-term place to stay,” Holst says. “And we’re quite a big organisation, this is just one project, so we’ll rehouse people. We won’t just give them eviction notices.”

Private land owners become early adopters

Big World Homes founder and architect Alexander Symes hopes the Melbourne project will act as a precedence to give public and private land owners the confidence to open up their vacant parcels of land.

“There are so many big, underutilised parcels of land in close proximity to goods and transport infrastructure that we could be smarter with how we think about our systems,” Symes says. “And therefore be able to provide not THE solution but part of a bigger solution to creating a transitional affordable housing solution.”

Big World Homes provides flat-packed structural, thermal and waterproofed building systems for use as affordable housing. However, when the company started talking to people about their vision for creating pop-up communities on under-utilised land they began hitting hurdles.

The not-for-profit Big World Communities has since been set up to form partnerships with developers, councils, community groups and landowners to locate these off-grid communities.

“We have been quite fortunate to have quite a few meetings with government bodies,” Symes says. However, they are yet to secure any public land.

“I think it’s great that Launch Housing has been able to provide that precedent down in Victoria and hopefully that will give confidence and precedent for other public bodies to be able to take that first step,” he says. “However, everyone in any form of innovation is always cautious to be the early adopter.”

Big World Communities has had more success with private land owners who are willing to accommodate communities ranging in size from six to 20 movable dwellings and up to 30 dwellings on one Newcastle site.

Inspiring property owners and land owners

TOGA Group of Companies managing director Allan Vidor says he hopes The Addison Project will inspire other property owners to consider utilising their vacant assets.

“Together, the private and public sectors must work toward meaningful planning reform which has the potential to unlock many opportunities to make empty buildings across Sydney immediately available to those who are experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness,” he said.

“No single level of government or service can tackle youth homelessness – innovative solutions must be borne from innovative collaborations between public and private sectors.”

Indeed, NCOSS is working with different stakeholders in Sydney about using vacant land to address affordable housing and homelessness.

“That is something we have discussed not only with members but also with government as a possibility,” Howe says. “There is unused land that might be subject to a caveat on time but it doesn’t mean that for the next five years you couldn’t put something up that actually looks pretty good. So any opportunity like that we’d definitely support.”

We need to be innovative and actually ask communities what they think.

“I bet there’s some communities that could think of amazing things to do with parcels of land,” she says. “Some new ideas we haven’t even though of yet.”

Agencies should assist property owners

Meanwhile Launch Housing is watching The Addison Project with interest.

“It’s a great idea,” Holst says. “It has to be done with good agencies involved, which is what they are doing in Sydney but the private sector – or non-traditional sectors – do have unused resources.

“We are part of discussions here as well about whether there are buildings or facilities that could be repurposed for 12 months to two years for interim housing while we work with people on getting long-term solutions.

“We can’t have people sleeping on the streets when they could be staying in much better situations like the Addison hotel.”

Launch Housing is working with Robert Pradolin, a former Frasers Property director now working actively in this space, on potential Melbourne sites. “There are a lot of people in the property industry who are thinking about this but we haven’t got anything that’s really viable yet in Melbourne,”Holst said.

Previous analysis conducted by Launch Housing has suggested that more than 20,000 homes in metropolitan Melbourne and 220,000 across Australia are vacant.

Holst hopes Victoria’s recently announced vacant property tax sends an important message that buildings are there to be used.

“I hope some of the owners really do that,” she says. “But it’s also for agencies like Launch to make it possible because people in the private sector might have the idea but not know how to bring it about.

“It’s a big deal to understand how to do that without big risks or just more trouble than its worth. It’s an ideal opportunity for the private sector to partner with agencies and government to make these things happen.”

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