As many as 50 churches owned by the Uniting Church in metropolitan Sydney alone lie dormant and unused. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of crisis and affordable accommodation. 

The Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Potts Point is a multipurpose community centre in inner Sydney that provides support services for people in housing stress, including low cost meals, hot showers, laundry facilities, and places to gather and take part in social activities. 

While these social service functions are important, the Uniting Church that owns the chapel found that next logical step was for the organisations such this to supplement traditional social and low income housing provided by government.

So it was no surprise that when the chapel’s minister and chief executive Graham Long stepped down, he planned to dedicate his retirement to the idea of converting churches, or church land, into housing.

According to architect Tone Wheeler whose practice Environa Studio has been involved in the award-winning Wayside Chapel for almost 15 years, the shortage of crisis accommodation occurred alongside a shift in the way members of the Uniting Church congregation practised their religion. 

This included less regular, formal congregations and people opting for modern forms of worship more in tune with their busy lives.

The result has left many Uniting churches sitting unused – as many as 50 in metropolitan Sydney. 

According to Wheeler, the Church wanted to see these buildings reimagined for social purposes, with one of the most compelling options to use church land to build social housing.

His practice has been involved in several “church-to-social-housing” schemes for Uniting, with the most recent being an affordable housing project in South Strathfield in Sydney that will replace an existing disused church. 

Uniting Church Affordable Housing project, South Strathfield NSW, that replaces an existing but unused church, approved by the local Council, designed by Tone Wheeler of environa studio, commencing construction early 2021

The project has been approved by the local council with construction expected to start in early 2021.

Other projects include the conversion and extension of the Methodist Hall in Leichhardt into a variety of housing types, including large “share houses” (called “Intentional Christian Communities”) and other innovative types of housing. 

Environa Studio is also designing a 14-storey building in the city that will function as low cost accommodation for a Buddhist group.

Wheeler’s practice has also been involved in cooperative housing developments over the years, such as STUCCO in Newtown, a democratically managed housing cooperative run by students.

Housing for the fifth quintile

According to Wheeler church-owned land is ideal for housing those who fall into the lowest 20 per cent of households by income. These fifth quintile households make a little over $24,000 a year on average (compared to over $280,000 for the top 20 per cent) and represent just 4 per cent of Australia’s total income.

This equates to less than $500 a week. To keep these people out of rental stress – paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent – they can afford to spend about $150 a week on rent. 

The only way to feasible way to deliver crisis housing for the lowest 20 per cent of earners, Wheeler says, is to remove the price of land, which really only leaves religious organisations, governments and philanthropists to deliver this kind of housing.

The next step is to reduce the size of the standard 50 square metre apartment to around 25 sq m, which Wheeler says is possible to do without any serious sacrifices in comfort and liveability. 

The microapartments in the crisis accommodation he has designed are “better than hotel or motel rooms”, with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes. 

Most dwellings have balconies so that people have access to private outdoor space, and shared laundries. 

“It’s amazing how important fresh underwear and clean clothes are for people who are living in cars or couch surfing,” he says.

It’s important to have communal spaces to help create a sense of community and social cohesion, with the ideal number of people to be living in each development around 40.

Wheeler says this is the ideal number of people that a full time counsellor can confidently help to  find permanent housing or assist with issues such as the fallout from domestic abuse.

The medium sized facility also stops the aggregation of large numbers of people from low socio economic backgrounds that can “reach a critical mass, creating issues of loneliness within a big group and antisocial behaviour and so on.”

“The goal is dispersed, medium sized micro apartment buildings for providing housing at the lowest quintile”.

The next piece is structuring rent on a pay-what-you-can basis to cover the cost of construction.

With each one-bedroom, 25 sq m* micro apartment costing, say, $200,000 on average to build, the church will aim to get back, on average, $200 a week, with the expectation that some people will be able to pay $300 and others less than $100.

He says this covers expenses, such and water and electricity bills.

The expectation is that people will stay in the crisis accommodation for anywhere between a month to two years, until they get back on their feet and find permanent homes.  

Strathfield South social housing 

The Strathfield South social housing development involved knocking down an existing church to build 17 micro apartments.

He said frequent and transparent community engagement, and a familiar design, appealed to the community and council.

“The key is replacing the existing church with something familiar in materials and form,” Wheeler says.

“It’s quite inoffensive, it’s just another apartment building.”  

The building makes the most of natural ventilation and light, with PV on the roof to provide clean energy.  

It’s also important to be close to shops and other services, Wheeler says. 

Designing for the end user

Wheeler says it’s important to approach this type of housing from the end user point of view.

“That’s what I learnt from the Wayside Chapel, you need to see it through the user’s eyes and not the providers. That’s why I talk about how much money people can pay.”

*An earlier version of this article stated that the micro apartments were 25,000 sq m, not 25 sq m.