Emma Telfer
Assemble director, culture & strategy Emma Telfer

AustralianSuper’s 25 per cent share in Assemble Communities has buoyed the innovative Melbourne-based developer that offers renters the option to buy after five years in some developments. In 2020 it’s brought on a massive 17 new staff.

This included 15 additions to the team during Melbourne’s protracted lockdown – while the more common business strategy throughout this period was a hiring freeze.

As a “housing developer trying to be better”, as described by Assemble director, culture & strategy Emma Telfer, the company has big plans to start delivering its boutique design-led housing communities on a larger scale.

According to Telfer, the cornerstone investment from the biggest super fund in Australia will allow the now 36-person company to grow its portfolio of “Assemble Model” residential developments, which allow residents to rent apartments for five years with an option to buy.

The unique model is intended to help solve housing affordability issues without disregarding the appeal of home ownership to Australians, with prospective residents invited to sign up to a five-year lease with the option to purchase their apartment at a pre-agreed price. Residents also get financial coaching free of charge to help them reach their saving goals.

393 Macaulay Road

The model also seeks to rectify some of the community-eroding effects of the rental market through longer leases and other strategies to lengthen stays. Rather than moving every few years as year-long leases end, people will likely stay long enough to get to know their neighbours.

There’s already a 73-home development following the model and a second 210-home development in the works, both in Kensington in Melbourne’s inner west.

The anchor investment will also go towards the creation of a second portfolio for the developer in the build-to-rent (BTR) space. Telfer says the BTR products will have an affordability and social housing bent, with the majority of the BTR market entrants focusing on the premium end of the market.

Telfer says the hope is to fill a gap in this space, and at a scale.

“What we’re really trying to do as a business to scale to have a real impact in housing security and affordability.

“From smaller design-led developer roots, we want to hold onto the core values of the early days and now set a bigger agenda to bring the best of both worlds.”

The company needed to grow its capabilities in a few areas to make it happen, with new hires including design advocate and urban designer, Andy Fergus, who has joined as head of urban design.

Andy Fergus, Assemble

Other notable hires include Simon Denny as senior development manager, who has broad development experience in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and Maggie McKeand, in the role of community engagement & partnerships manager.

“We’re in a building phase so preparing for the future, there are number of projects in the works, so it is about scaling for the future.”

The company also recently created a board, with former HESTA board chair, Angela Emslie, appointed as independent chairperson.

While securing more Melbourne sites will remain the focus in the near future, Telfer says the company will be actively looking at other capital cities in the medium term.

The Assemble model in action

The completed development on Macaulay Road was balloted a year ago, with the residents offered a financial coaching course. It’s now a year into the plan.

Telfer says the financial coaching sessions have got “some really lovely feedback”.

“Everyone should definitely have [a financial coach].”

The Macaulay Road community is also taking part in independent research to see how resilient the community is to shocks and stressors, such as Covid and climate change.

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