Property Industry Foundation Kate Mills

You could say the Property Industry Foundation is the property industry’s favourite charity. It runs regular events that blend serious socialising with charity and pro bono work. Everything from the well known PIF regatta to Hard Hat Day, Sleep Outs and the humorously known Tour de Pif cycling events.

But behind the fun and the practical help the industry offers are some serious concerns.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 44,000 young Australians under 25 (including 16,000 under 12) are homeless. That’s a lot of individuals without stability or even a roof over their heads, at one of the most significant and vulnerable stages of their lives. 

Kate Mills, the vivacious chief executive officer of PIF who took on the job in 2018 after a career as a business journalist thought the disconnect with the property industry’s regular activities was stark.

“You come out of these amazing towers in the city, and there are young people sleeping under the awnings outside,” Mills says.

What the foundation tries to do is change the trajectory that many young people can find themselves on without a stable home.

It brings together members of the property and construction industry to build and refurbish homes for homeless youth, as well as support to help young people rebuild their lives.

Since it was established in 1996 the foundation has built 232 bedrooms for homeless youth across the country – including 103 in the past five years. 

It works closely with around 15 charities to refurbish or knock down and rebuild housing. It underwrites the build, meaning that project managers and professionals are involved pro bono, with carpets and paint donated from other companies. 

The homes are what is called “transition accommodation”, which is the middle-ground between crisis accommodation and permanent homes. In Australia, a lack of transitional housing means that young people are coming out of the care system at 18 years old having no network or support, Mills says. 

“You need a network to get on your feet. For young people exiting the care system, they have no network, so they can make poor decisions. 

“For most people, our benchmark is a safe and normal home. If you haven’t grown up with that benchmark you don’t know what it is you need to work towards. 

“It can take a few years of transition to learn how to live with others, to pay rent, to cook and have life skills. [Transitional homes give homeless youth] the opportunity to thrive in their twenties.” 

Image: Property Industry Foundation

The goal is to build housing for half the usual cost. Half of this is achieved through donations, and the remainder is completed pro bono. 

This means a $500,000 house can be delivered for just $250,000.

“Our aim is to increase the supply of houses – a ‘housing first’ approach,” Mills says. “Of course, it’s not the only thing that needs to be done to solve homelessness. But it is the first thing that needs to be done. Without the house the other issues cannot be solved.” 

The foundation has around 200 supporters including large organisations such as Frasers Property Australia, Colliers and JLL. But it is not only financial aid that helps the foundation achieve its aims. The pro bono support, the relationships, network, volunteer board and building committees also play a large role. 

“It’s head, heart and hands,” Mills says. 

Frasers Property, who’s CEO Anthony Boyd was recently appointed to the PIF board for a three-year term has also sponsored and delivered a new home for four disadvantaged youths and two live-in carers in Melbourne’s south east, called Clayton House, in partnership with the Lighthouse Foundation. 

It’s the third home Frasers Property has delivered as part of the Haven Project, following Bonbeach House in Victoria, and Blacktown House in NSW.

“We want to build 20-25 bedrooms a year. Get larger and more ambitious,” Mills says.  Its latest project is 18 bedroom transitional home in Sydney, to be announced later this year.

For Mills the most important part of her job is changing the perception of homelessness.

“We want to bring ideas around homelessness to the fore. I feel that the property industry has to have solutions to homelessness. How can we get more private investments into social housing; how can we get policy changes that deliver affordable housing models to people in Australia?

“Local governments have the land, but it can take a long time in negotiation. We can fundraise, and we can build, but we don’t have the capacity to produce land. We rely on other people to deliver it. 

“On a more macro level, for Australia and affordable housing, it’s about changing the perception of a house to a home, and how everyone is deserving of a home.” 

Housing in Australia has traditionally been more “asset focused”.  

“We need to have those conversations with people to change the way they see housing.” 

Mills hasn’t always been in the social impact space. She came to it from a background in business journalism. 

“I was attracted to putting my energy somewhere where it would do the most good,” she told The Fifth Estate. 

As part of her career change, Mills has also appeared on the ABC’s The Drum and on QandA.

In addition to building houses, PIF is also working to foster networks and relationships in the industry that can benefit the world in other ways.

The foundation organised end-of-lease office fitouts from a Mirvac building to be redirected from landfill by Egans, an organisation that  buys and sells quality “rescued” furniture from office fitouts, with the proceeds donated to PIF.

Around 80 per cent of office and retail refurbishment waste goes into landfill every year, generating over 55,000t of waste every year in the Sydney CBD alone.

It seems that by working together, the industry has significant leverage to be able to change the world. 

– Rose Mary Petrass with Tina Perinotto

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