Community housing provision has always been about more than bricks and mortar. It offers  people a supportive environment where help is on hand to find jobs, advise on benefits, improve physical and mental health and build social networks.

Nicola Lemon, chief executive officer of Hume Community Housing, chair of PowerHousing Australia and vice chair of the International Housing Partnership, says that it’s no longer just vulnerable people who are seeking community housing. 

“We have people coming through our doors for the first time who had never heard of community housing previously. The pressure of Covid has been particularly hard on young people and people in casual professions such as hospitality where income is unstable.” 

Not just bricks and mortar

Hume Community Housing, which services around 9000 people in NSW, is typical in how it partners with multiple local agencies to provide services and support to its housing communities. 

“When we go into a community, we consult with stakeholders, including specialised not-for-profit organisations and homelessness services about what is already being provided and where are the gaps. It could be there is a need for English language education or Women’s health provision,” says Lemon.

A good example has been Hume Housing’s partnering with the Benevolent Society following the transfer of 2200 homes and around 4000 customers in the Maitland and Port Stephens area from the Department of Family and Community Services. 

Aware that there was a high prevalence of children at risk in these areas – and therefore likely existed within their customer base – the two organisations collaborated on services responding to this particular social need.

Covid-19 presented additional challenges for social housing tenants and the Community Housing Industry Association. Resources to identify and respond to seniors feeling lonely and isolated were put in place, such as buddy programs and training and access to computers for seniors to stay connected with families.

Customers can eventually prosper and move on

An end goal of community housing is to see customers prosper and eventually achieve independence, says Lemon. “While there will always be some vulnerable tenants who remain long-term, others will eventually move into affordable housing or private rented accommodation freeing up space to meet the high demand from other applicants.” 

There is little doubt that the fallout of the pandemic that has seen job losses, a rise in homelessness and increased incidents of family violence, has made the community housing model more important than ever. 

Investors think so too. Social bonds issued by the National Housing Investment and Finance Corporation (NHIFC) have been massively over-subscribed. The most recent issued by NHIFC in July 2020, saw the $562 million raised going to support 10 community housing providers (CHPs) across NSW, SA, Tasmania and Victoria, financing 2736 properties including 775 new dwellings.

Controversy can emerge over redevelopments

But the financing of social housing is not without its controversy. In developments currently in gestation in Sydney’s southern suburb of Waterloo and Telopea, near Parramatta, thousands of social housing tenants are to be displaced and their properties demolished. (Glebe in the inner city is another (smaller) newly targeted for redevelopment of public housing, amid already rising community concern.) 

The new developments that will take their place are based on a mixed tenure model that sees 30 per cent allocated for social housing and 70 per cent sold off to private buyers to fund the new or upgraded public housing. 

But mixed tenure can work well

Concepts for the Waterloo redevelopment

The argument goes that schemes combining public, private and social housing create diversity and help to reduce anti-social behaviour while lifting tenants out of disadvantage. 

Lemon supports this view. “The renewed properties are more appropriate for those who live there and those on the social housing waiting list.

I have seen improvements for social housing customers and their children in educational attainment and employment rates following renewal, increasing the likelihood of moving out of social housing. It is essential that all renewal must have a diversity of tenure and incomes.”

But the whiff of gentrification hangs over some of these developments. In the UK, in particular, demonstrations have rallied against developers such as Lendlease at its Elephant and Castle project, which has been seen as form of social cleansing. Similar accusations followed the opening of art galleries in Los Angeles in the US. 

Replacing public and social housing estates with a mix of luxury and “affordable” housing which end up being out of reach for most people has served to create a culture of mistrust. 

The same pushback is being felt around the housing programs at Waterloo and Telopea.

Waterloo Public Housing Action Group – WPHAG
Protests at Waterloo

“It’s gentrification and social cleansing, of course it is,” Waterloo Public Housing Action Group chairman Richard Weeks, told the Sydney Morning Herald. 

“Why are they hell bent on giving 70 per cent of it away to private? The City of Sydney doesn’t need more private housing, we need more affordable housing.” With official figures predicting that by 2036, NSW alone will have a shortage of 213,200 social housing homes, Weeks’ sentiment is likely to be shared by the 60,000 people currently on housing waiting lists in NSW.

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