Long-awaited and long-needed, the announcement by the Andrews government in late 2020 that Victoria will build over 12,000 units of social housing worth an estimated $5.3 billion, cannot come soon enough.
In the face of social, economic and environmental issues, this news is a welcome boost that will hopefully provide some solace in what will undoubtedly remain a hard hit, COVID-affected economy for some time.
However, many have been suffering the plight of insecure housing and housing affordability well before the pandemic arrived. In fact, 57 per cent of lower-income households who rent privately are in rental distress, while 50,000 Australians are in urgent need of social housing, with another 116,000 experiencing homelessness as of the last census.
Defined as secure and affordable housing for people on low incomes with housing needs, these government assets include Indigenous housing and community housing, managed by non-government organisations. While this Victorian government program will create a significant number of jobs in construction, most importantly, it presents countless opportunities to truly cultivate housing that is liveable now and into the future.
On the path to meeting the national shortfall in social housing (estimated at a horrifying 433,000 dwellings), one of the most fundamental opportunities is the engagement of communities, stakeholders and project teams willing to welcome and invest into high-quality sustainable design and construction to guarantee health and equity.
Learning from leaders in Australia’s housing industry, research institutes and academics during an extended webinar series I hosted recently, the emerging perspective is the need to make Australian social housing regenerative, thinking about each project in terms of designing for communities and working towards restoring equitable environments where people can thrive.
With “home” playing a pivotal role in the way we are and how we live in a community, a common theme voiced by these leaders is the need to look at more co-operative models for housing; ones that look to dissolve or reposition values and mindsets around ownership, emphasising and responding to community, connection and care.
Globally, we are witnessing a sharp rise in the interest and adoption of co-housing and co-operative housing models, build-to-rent and co-living schemes, with the thread that connects each, architecture and interior design conducive to creating and connecting communities.
From shared spaces such as community facilities, co-working spaces, working sheds, toy libraries and community gardens, all function as a method to bring people together, overcoming some of the horrific social isolation issues that so many have been facing in recent times.
Looking at emerging perspectives directly from the community, as well as industry leaders, it is as though the tide is turning, people are wanting to return to a community setting, putting down roots in a place they feel connected to or in the hope of raising children with a sense of belonging, care and respect for others.
With this change of mindset, it has certainly opened up the conversation around the best approach to the future of social housing and what this could mean for our most vulnerable Victorians.
What if every new social housing project could bring communities together to celebrate, share food, rejoice, and contribute to the shared stewardship of their place? Imagine the future then.
What if every design team sought to not only take inspiration from the natural environment but gave the natural environment a seat at the table, considering Mother Nature in every design decision made? What if the local urban landscape could be brought back to life through these developments, setting biodiversity objectives upfront to invite native species back home? Imagine the learning that would take place then.
What if housing worked to enact a new, more conscious way of being, reconnecting people with themselves, each other and other forms of life through environmental stewardship and community growing programs? Imagine how the world might look.
What if housing worked to dissolve the colonial structures and values of ownership, competition, modernity, individualism and linear progress, replacing them with a re-localised, regenerative consciousness that holds life sacred and embraces community?
Undoubtedly, all of the above is possible – there are already projects working to achieve these sustainable outcomes for housing. Designing for community can be done and is being done, proving it does not require new technologies or green bling.
Rather, an increased appetite and genuine willingness for co-design, collaboration and working with a broad group of community stakeholders to make these visions a reality.
But we must act now. Bridging the gap and unrelenting economic disparity needs our attention desperately, far beyond the simple construction of additional dwellings.
Claire Bowles is the sustainability lead at one of Australia and New Zealand’s leading design firms, i2C Architects. An expert regenerative practitioner and accredited Green Star professional, she is passionate about approaching our built environment as an opportunity to create positive buildings and places that act as educational, inspiring acupuncture points for a new way of living, being and working.