The Ache for a Home and Community
In 2016, St Vincent’s de Paul draw attention to the crisis of homelessness facing Australia’s most vulnerable people—
- the unemployed on what we now call Job Seeker, set well below the poverty level and forcing people into homelessness
- older single women over 55 and those escaping domestic violence, the fastest group facing homelessness
- those living on pensions: single parents, the disabled, the aged—priced out of the ownership and private rental housing market
- the working poor on low and insecure work—priced out of the ownership and private rental housing market.
They called their report, ‘The Ache for a Home’, a vivid reminder that we all want a secure place we can call ‘home’. In a country such as Australia, one of the richest societies in the world, that so many people ache for a home that they cannot find is a national disgrace.
As the COVID epidemic has demonstrated, we also want to be part of a community, connected to others for mutual support and friendship. Along with housing, the other social crisis facing our society is loneliness and an epidemic of anxiety and depression across all age groups. Between 2016 and 2021, the overall situation has progressively got worse.
The cost of housing has skyrocketed favouring the already wealthy, and the value of welfare support has decreased. Increasingly Australia has become a society of haves and have-nots, with major implications for social harmony and a functioning democracy.
And, as we look into the face of climate change, all our housing needs to be ecologically sustainable, particularly when it comes to energy efficiency through passive solar and insulation—particularly in the Greater Blue Mountains with its cold winters.
The Affordable Housing Challenge
In response to the increasing housing crisis impacting low income people, BMCAN’S Wild Mountain Collective has joined forces with OWN (Older Women’s Network) Blue Mountains to explore options for creating eco-affordable housing for creative engagement by low income people living in the Greater Blue Mountains.
Our focus is on two groups: older single women facing homelessness – the focus for OWN, and low income people in the creative arts sector – the focus for BMCAN’s Wild Mountain Collective. The project will be led by Julie Ankers of OWN Blue Mountains, and Barbara Lepani of BMCAN’s WMC.
The latest ABS survey data shows 57% of lower income private tenants in Greater Sydney were paying an unaffordable rent (i.e. more than 30% of total gross income). Meanwhile for 41% of lower income owner-occupiers with a mortgage, housing costs were unaffordable on the same basis (ABS 2019).
There were no Greater Sydney Commonwealth Electoral Districts that recorded levels of financial stress below 30%. The most stressed constituencies are towards the western and south-western outskirts of the city, where rates are above 60% (Housing Financial Stress, Digital Finance Analytics & City Futures Research Institute, UNSW, September 2021).
In 2020 there were 52,752 applicants on the NSW social housing register, with wait times in Greater Sydney of between 5 – 10 years. While it is estimated that NSW requires 212,000 social and affordable housing properties over the next 25 years, the NSW $1.1 billion Social & Affordable Housing Fund (SAHF) will deliver only 3,400 affordable house dwellings over this same period—a tiny achievement against the level of identified need (NSW Homelessness Strategy 2020).
The Greater Blue Mountains
The Greater Blue Mountains is a peri-urban area on the western edge of Greater Sydney, encompassing six national parks in its World Heritage Area—Blue Mountains, Wollemi, Gardens of Stone, Kanangra-Boyd and Nattai—and the 26 urban villages of the City of Blue Mountains (80,000 people), the City of Lithgow (13,000 people), and the City of Hawkesbury (60,000 people). The City of Blue Mountains has two major commercial centres: Katoomba serving the Upper Mountains villages that stretch from Mt Victoria to Lawson, and Springwood serving the Lower Mountain villages that stretch from Hazelbrook to Glenbrook. The more remote community of Mt Wilson on the northern edge of the Blue Mountains National Park accesses services in Lithgow, Katoomba and Richmond.
Historically, the Greater Blue Mountains has been an area offering affordable rental and ownership housing to low income people, particularly for the aged living on pensions, people of all ages in the creative sector whose average incomes are half that of the national average, and many single parent families and those on other welfare payments such as disability pensions and jobseeker allowance. This is no longer the case.
The exponential rising cost of housing has combined with the tree-change movement of people retiring from the city to peri-urban and regional areas, fuelled by the impact of COVID, leading to a decline in affordable housing in the Greater Blue Mountains Area.
While the increase in rental costs for housing rose by 1.3% nationally over the last year to September, it rose by 6.7% in the City of Blue Mountains to an average weekly rent of $510, and an astonishing 16.2% for rental units to an average $379 per week. The vacancy rate was recorded at the very low 0.6% (SQM Research).
Link Wentworth, which supplies affordable and social housing to low income people reports that the new rental climate has made it especially difficult for them to secure tenancies for their clients. As reported in the Blue Mountains Gazette 22 September 2021, their CEO Andrew McAnulty declared:
“Link Housing has two Homelessness services in the Blue Mountains. Currently we’re finding it next to impossible for our clients to obtain appropriate and affordable rental accommodation in the area.”
Link Housing is finding that this situation is also happening in the City of Lithgow, once a location with plenty of affordable rental housing. It means that people dependent on jobseeker and other welfare payments are being pushed into homelessness.
Below is a picture of tenants moving into St Vincent de Paul’s new affordable housing complex commissioned in 2019 at a cost of $16.7 million, funded by the NSW Social and Affordable Housing Fund (SAHF), for the 55+ age group. It has been developed on land owned by St Vincents de Paul in Katoomba on the corner of Lurline and Waratah Streets. It follows from St Vincent’s de Paul’s ‘Ache for a Home’ 2016 report leading to their strong commitment to social and affordable housing for the most vulnerable.
St Vincent de Paul Affordable Housing for 55+ in Katoomba
Overview of Our Project Scope
Our particular focus is on the needs of low-income people working in the creative arts sector and older single women, the fastest growing group at risk of homelessness. We will cover the following topics:
- The scope of the challenge
- The imperative for joined-up policy that links housing solutions with eco-sustainability, energy efficiency and creative engagement in community, food security and associated services
- International best practice
- Innovative solutions for creative affordable housing across Australia – personal stories from the front line
- An overview of the NFP affordable housing and social housing sector in NSW
- Needs, solutions and opportunities in the Greater Blue Mountains community.
Our People in the Greater Blue Mountains Community
Local employment is concentrated in the education and training and health care and social assistance sectors, with significant employment through local tourism in accommodation and food services. As a tree-change destination for many people transitioning to retirement, the Greater Blue Mountains has:
- An above average ageing population
- An above average population on low incomes
- A high proportion of its working age population who travel outside the region for work
- An increasing percentage in white collar jobs able to work from home or local co-working centres
- The need for tertiary students to travel outside the area for education
- A high demand for low cost (affordable) rental housing and home ownership among people working in the creative arts sector, and older single women living on social security and/or dependent on low paid insecure work.
The Greater Blue Mountains features a vibrant creative arts sector—home to many artists, writers and musicians of national and international reputation, and a strong locally engaged creative arts community who support a range of creative arts organisations, art galleries, theatre groups and the Radio Blue Mountains community radio station that provides a platform for local musicians and creative initiatives.
Eco-Living in the Greater Blue Mountains
Blue Mountains City Council has recently launched a Planetary Health initiative as part of its vision that the City of Blue Mountains become recognised nationally and internationally as a creative model for sustainable living and learning about sustainable communities.
The Blue Mountains community welcomes this Council initiative. We recognise that we need to adopt a social-ecological systems approach that emphasises that people, communities, economies, societies, and cultures are embedded parts of the biosphere and shape it, from local to global scales. Our creative eco-affordable housing project is shaped by the ambition that we can begin to map out ways of moving from the destructive forces of what scientists have called the Anthropocene era, marked by massive deforestation and destruction of life-giving sustainable eco-systems, to a Symbiocene era, whereby we learn to embrace ancient Indigenous wisdom that recognises the interconnectedness of life and all living things being able to live together for mutual benefit.
This requires our community to take advantage of transdisciplinary and cross cultural and cross-organisational collaboration and systems thinking as we search for solutions that meet the needs of all of our community: people of all age groups, all life forms and our precious world heritage environment across our six national parks.
Consistent with this, eco-living not only includes care for the natural environment, but a commitment to housing and urban development that supports ecologically sustainable and connected community across all age groups and income levels.
The collaborative co-housing movement seeks to have people engaged in the design and development of their housing solutions that deliver these results. It seeks to combine the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living.
Planet X – Cooperative Housing Village in Camperdown
The Creative Eco-Affordable Housing Project will explore how to create a vision and possibilities for eco-living in the Symbiocene era for the people of Greater Blue Mountains.
It will work collaboratively with major Affordable Housing providers, such as Link Wentworth, Bridge Housing and other NFPs and Cooperatives to explore a range of options to suit the needs of our two priority groups: low income people in the creative arts sector, and single women over 55 years facing homelessness.
The Sharing with Friends Project
One exciting development in the field of a form of affordable housing that also offers friendship and community, is the Queensland-based ‘Sharing with Friends’.
Looking like a regular suburban house from the street, the first Sharing with Friends project has been designed as an affordable, safe, secure home for five older women to live privately and with dignity as they age. The key element of the design is to incorporate essential elements – one’s own kitchen, bedroom, a landscaped courtyard, and privacy.
The central garden pavilion allows for a convivial space for sharing cups of tea, late afternoon drinks, home theatre and a shared meal, if so inclined. Each unit has its own private, lock-up one bedroom unit with living area, kitchen and bathroom and a private courtyard. The front deck opens onto an attractively landscaped common garden area. The garden pavilion has a shared laundry, entertainment space, kitchen, and toilet. And there is a garden shed. This is illustrated in the architectural drawing below.
Designed for an 800m² block, and placed close to public transport, shops and medical facilities, the residence incorporates all the universal design guidelines for ageing in place-wide doorways, on the ground, wheelchair access etc. Below are architectural drawings of this approach.
Sharing with Friends Foundation Workshops
The Sharing with Friends Foundation offers free workshops to help people interested in this solution to affordable housing to come together over a cup of tea and work through the following topics:
- Pros & Cons of co-housing
- Sharing with Friends – how much will it cost?
- Title Deed vs Company Shares
- The Co-Housing Contract
- Exiting and recouping one’s investment
- Roles and Responsibilities
- Older Women’s Co-Housing Association’s ongoing role.
Here is a link to a video of participants discussing why they got involved in this approach to solving their housing problem.