Co-op housing: an affordable housing solution?

Cooperative housing in Australia can conjure images of the hotbeds of radicalism associated with the squatter movement of the 1970s.

Cooperative housing in Australia can conjure images of the hotbeds of radicalism associated with the squatter movement of the 1970s.

But the sector says the model has come a long way.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Common Equity NSW is a not-for-profit organisation that supports cooperative housing in NSW.

The group is pushing for a change in the state government's approach towards co-op housing to meet what it says is the growing demand for the social and economic benefits it can provide for people, including those from different ethnic backgrounds.

It's a Sunday afternoon at the Kapit-Bahayan cooperative in Sydney's southwest and the residents are unwinding after a tough week.

And it's all unfolding in the communal space - the carpark that doubles up as a patio.

Cen Amores is one of the founders of the co-op catering to Filipino families.

"We're glad that we have this common space which is primarily used as a parking space but then Filipinos, you know, we are very resourceful people. So you see it's a huge area and we need a huge area where we don't have to pay. We love gathering together as part of our way of relaxing after work."

Among the tenants enjoying the BBQ is single mum, Ferlin Babac.

She moved into the co-op last year and she says before the move she thought she would end up homeless with her two kids as she struggled to pay the rent.

She says she clearly remembers the moment she became a single parent following the death of her husband to liver cancer.

It was a grief that was made worse by not having any friends or family here in Australia.

"He passed away and I was two months pregnant at the time with my daughter and [it was] so very, very hard for me. And then I'm just eight months here in Australia so I don't know about anything, so it's very hard for me."

She says being part of a co-op with neighbours from her home country has helped her to feel a sense of belonging in her new home in Australia.

"We are very close we're the same...Filipino. Especially when I'm working I can ask my neighbour to leave my children to them and they'll be the one to bring them to school. Because I don't have a family here so I feel this housing here is - Filipino housing is my family already. They're already my sister, brother or my aunty that's what, yeah, I treat them [as]."

Under the common equity co-op model, practiced in NSW and Victoria, each tenant pays rent that is no more than 24 percent of their income plus any Commonwealth Rent Assistance up to the market rent payable for the property.

Regulation of the sector varies between states and territories, with state governments requiring the majority of co-operative residents to be on low incomes.

Co-op tenants are selected by the individual co-ops themselves through community callouts and from a central database.

The criteria is based on the tenant's ability to fit the right income band income, agreement to co-operative principles and approval by existing members.

But tenants also have to take on voluntary office bearer roles to manage the property under the oversight of not-for-profit organisations like Common Equity NSW.

Ian Sinnett is the chief executive of the organisation.

He says about half of the groups across the 450 properties overseen by Common Equity NSW are from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

And he says the co-ops meet a number of needs of members of different ethnic backgrounds.

"Families are changing. Some groups want to live together, but increasingly, perhaps with seniors is a good example. They want to live close to their families so they can access that level of support, speak their own language, share their own customs and culture. And what we do find is that as time progresses there is a significant benefit for those people in terms of less dependence on health and social care services. They're able to have confidence and security in terms of where they live. And once those needs are met, they participate more widely within their community."

Thurai Sivasubramaniam, one of the founders of the co-op for Sri Lankan Tamil seniors in Sydney's inner west, says the shared knowledge of culture and language among co-op tenants has been the key to building the support network that enables them to live outside nursing homes.

"This is [a] godsend to us. This Tamil senior citizens housing co-operative because here we live with our community. When I say community, please don't misunderstand me because all are Tamils here and for any emergency. I can't cook at all to be frank, so if my wife can't cook, I have to depend on my neighbours."

He says the co-op was established to cater for seniors who found themselves in the difficult situation of wanting independence but having difficulty breaking with the cultural and familial tradition of being cared for in old age by their children.

"Earlier I could have had [relied] on my children but they're having other difficulties with children in schooling and other things and I had to think of going out. Not that they chase me out. Not that they ask me to go out. But I had to think of leaving them with their problem."

But he admits co-op living is not for everyone.

"All those who are working here are volunteers so that's a hard job. You know we were having some teething problems at the start because most of use are getting old. We don't have young people to take over the work from the seniors, but gradually now we've got some youngsters. They've picked up the work and we are on the correct way. I think this should go on forever. We will do it. We will not handover to anybody."

The take-up of the model across various states has been uneven across Australia, with the biggest clusters in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

Currently, co-op housing accounts for 10 percent of the community housing sector and 0.05 percent of the housing sector nationally.

Affordable housing expert Dr Tony Gilmour, who was recently commissioned by Common Equity to do a survey of co-op housing in Australia, says the model remains a hidden success story.

"It's been a remarkably successful model on a moderate scale, but little is known about it. Surprisingly, there has been virtually nothing written at all about the Australian co-operative sector. Other parts of the housing sector in Australia have been written about in great detail not the co-ops. That is really interesting. The model has been particularly successful in Victoria because I think of a lot of initial government support."

He says the housing affordability crisis has hit a critical turning point and that new government policy approaches will be required in the future.

"We've stuck to the same old models for many, many years and we just need to have a bit of innovation. And we need to give opportunities to different ways of housing and write them up, research, see what works. If it works let's do more of it. Rather than it being just entirely a standardised state handout approach."

As the sector expands, Common Equity NSW is pushing for property titles to be held by not-for-profit providers rather than state governments.

Ian Sinnett from Common Equity NSW.

"We're looking to receive title of a number of properties in our portfolio so that we can lever those properties and create greater equity for us to reinvest in growth. That decision is awaiting from government. And we would very much encourage the government to view our proposal positively based on our recent successes."

Back in Kapit-Bahayan cooperative in Sydney's southwest, Ms Babac reflects on her journey over the past year.

She says while she has not fully realised her dreams, she has come a long way from arriving in Australia as a stranger with no family or support network.

"I'm confident that this housing gives us all the opportunity that my family dream [of]. Because my situation is still hard so I don't know where I start, but I know one day I'll be there."

Source SBS

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