Unoccupied commercial buildings are providing dignity and security for those in need.
We’re one of the richest countries in the world, but Australia can’t pretend we’re one of the most equal. One in every 200 Australians is homeless, a jump of 14% in the five years to the 2016 census.
While there are multiple causes, one of the most obvious is our record housing prices. Despite having come off the boil a little this year, Melbourne and Sydney prices are still among the least-affordable in the world. Sydney held the dubious honour of second-most expensive housing in the world at the start of the year, along with 10th most-expensive city to live in.
Many people have simply been priced out of the housing market, left behind by a system that favours investors over first home buyers and prices that are out of the reach of huge swathes of the population.
Our housing bubble has been fuelled by debt – we have the highest household debt levels among G20 nations – and when combined with both wages that have been stagnating or falling for most workers and lending practices sometimes so dubious they sparked a royal commission, it’s easy to see why mortgage stress is at near-peak levels in much of the country. While rents have also come down slightly this year, they remain impossible for families on the average income in many suburbs, and out of reach for people on minimum wage in most cities, despite a rising rate of vacant properties across the nation.
At the same time, the decades-long housing boom has seen many former crisis accommodation and long-term boarding houses and hotels in major cities redeveloped into new dwellings well outside the reach of their former tenants.
The result has been more and more people in cities and towns living in overcrowded accommodation, in their cars, and even on the streets, with young people and women over 65 making up the fastest-growing sets of homeless.
Meanwhile, our governments have stepped away from the tradition of Australian social housing. Construction of public housing is currently at its lowest level in 40 years, and public housing wait lists are tens of thousands of people long. Rural and regional centres that do have excess housing, such as Mackay, are unable to attract low-income tenants due to a combination of few jobs and restrictive travel conditions for those on benefits, which penalise recipients who move to an area with lower employment prospects with non-payment periods of up to six months.
In a cruel irony, Homelessness Australia, the national peak body for homelessness, was defunded by the federal government in 2015.
A win-win for developers
Two years ago, former developer Robert Pradolin spoke with the ABC about his idea for pop-up housing shelters. His aim was to find buildings slated for development, but for which there would be a 12- to 18-month gap between decommissioning and development. “Buildings are another form of society’s wastage. We should not allow that to happen while people are sleeping on our streets or on couches or in cars,” Pradolin told the national broadcaster.
He proposed using that lag time to turn the buildings into temporary crisis accommodation. “What we do is take out all the partitions so the floor is actually vacant, [then we] come in and pop up the shelters, 30-35 dwellings [per floor]. There are existing toilets and showers.”
It was an elegant solution and met with a lot of in-theory approval, but finding property owners willing to back him took longer than Pradolin had hoped, despite the fact that occupancy protects the buildings from vandalism and allows the owners to claim some tax breaks for their charity. Late last year, CaSPA Care made a former aged-care facility in the Melbourne City of Port Phillip available for up to two years at a peppercorn rent of $1 per year.
The Victorian YWCA was brought in as managers for the project and the building was cleaned and refurbished by home builder Metricon, which installed an industrial kitchen and laundry.
Interior decorating company Guest Group supplied brand-new furnishings, and Two Good – a social enterprise company that donates one meal for every one of their meals purchased by Melbourne business lunchers – provides the food.
Now called the Lake House, the shelter provides a safe and comfortable home for 38 women, but it currently receives 40 applications per week.
Just the start
A similar project is currently underway in Sydney and more are planned, but Pradolin sees a long road ahead. “Pop-up shelters are not a solution. It’s a response by the property sector to a city in crisis,” he says.
“It’s in our country’s long-term interest to house everyone,” he says. Accordingly, he is a founding member of Housing All Australians, a private-sector interest group using its influence to challenge the housing status quo. Their strategies include short-term direct action, such as the pop-up shelters; medium-term plans including quantifying the consequences of continuing to not provide housing and increasing the supply of rental housing on government land; and long-term goals of a financial mechanism for private sector developments to provide low-income affordable housing mixed with private rental.
Working with partners across business and government, Pradolin is goal-focused and pragmatic, but there is a palpable sense of urgency to his actions. As he told the ABC, “This transition housing is a response to a crisis. We have to be building much more social, affordable housing that the private market does not deliver. And my generation, if we do not do something, we are leaving an intergenerational time bomb for future society.”
For more on Housing All Australians, visit www.linkedin.com/company/housing-all-australians
For more on Lake House, visit www.ywca.org.au