A lot of the noise around supply in the housing argument is around market based housing, not meeting the needs of those who “through no fault of their own” can’t access this generally unaffordable segment of the market, argues former NSW planning minister Rob Stokes, as he takes up a new honorary role as chair of Faith Housing Alliance.
The famed Nightingale Housing group from Melbourne had tried over and over to get one of its highly regarded sustainable apartment projects off the ground in Sydney.
Time and again the stumbling block was the cost of land.
So when a faith based organisation offered its land at Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west free of charge, things were looking up, so to speak.
The local council initially flagged that the old church on the site was not a problem. But at the last minute an interim heritage order was slapped on the property.
Former NSW planning minister Rob Stokes says, at best the church was the “31st best example of Queen Anne architecture in the Inner West – out of a total number of 32”. To be clear: second worst.
On Tuesday Stokes announced his decision to become chair of Faith Housing Alliance, the peak body representing faith based community housing providers, organisations and individuals.
He says the fight to provide the Marrickville community with affordable rental housing for 50 families is now won, and the apartment block is close to completion.
But it cost the Fresh Hope church group “more than $1 million” to take on this battle with people determined to stop the development and preserve the church building, he says.
(The Fifth Estate wrote extensively about the project at the time, and inspected the building in person to better understand what was at play in the fierce debate that ensued over the project.)
Stokes says the experience is a “cautionary tale”.
“As a planning minister developers often told me that getting a great development through, at the end of the process that they will never do that again. My encouragement is that ‘now you know how to do it, do it again.”
And that’s exactly what could happen if plans by the faith based coalition of would be housing providers he now leads has its way.
The coalition he now heads includes Anglican, Baptist, Muslim and Jewish organisations.
“They’re all looking at this.”
And there’s a lot of opportunity in play here, he adds.
Tens of thousands of new homes possible
“The wise stewardship of unused church or faith based land resources could unlock potentially tens of thousands of new homes.
“I’m not saying we don’t need churches or heritage. But surely when you look at some of those properties they are incredibly well located – historically at the centre of town.”
And wouldn’t it be amazing if they could also provide a wrap around service around the housing on sites that are usually very well located near transport and other services?
“It raises a really interesting social point. We value heritage because it tells us something about our community but what better way to respect heritage than respecting the mission of the church?”
The congregation around Fresh Hope moved out a decade ago, Stokes points out, but their vision to provide affordable rental accommodation remained.
These groups build social and affordable housing on other sites, along with facilities such as aged care accommodation. But they also have vast land holdings.
It might be a “difficult conversation” at times but these organisations were, not just custodians of heritage buildings – they have a mission to serve their community in need.
“What better way than providing housing?”
And yes, he will be helping any faith group that need it, he adds.