Growing support for innovative responses
The current housing and homelessness crisis has brought into sharp focus the need for innovative thinking such as ‘change of use’. Meanwhile use and ‘change of use’ projects refer to the innovative activation of vacant or under-utilised buildings to provide critical housing. They are currently small scale but have big potential to deliver much needed housing in the short term. They are one of the many approaches we need to help reduce homelessness and housing insecurity, especially at a local community level.
Internationally, councils are looking at ways to reimagine underused buildings to respond to housing shortages. In Australia, we have thousands of people sleeping rough, living in cars and caravans and poor quality, often dangerous, motel and rooming houses. At the same time the COVID pandemic has had a lasting impact on the use of office space across our commercial property sector, as work-from-home and flexible working become the norm. The result is that Australian office vacancy rates are now 13%, the highest rate since the 1990s, and offices that are leased are under-utilised, with actual office use down to as low as 25-35%.
These trends offer opportunities and the recently elected NSW government is openly discussing converting empty offices and unused government buildings into much-needed social housing. NSW housing Minister told The Guardian Australia that providing incentives to developers to convert surplus office space presented a “good opportunity” for the state as it struggles with the current housing and homelessness crisis.
Not only do we need to look at larger buildings and projects, we also make sure that the housing stock we have is actually put to use efficiently. Research over the past decade has indicated that we have over a million empty and under-utilised homes. Now, there are good reasons why properties can be empty in the short term, but we also know that too many are left empty for many years. We need policy and tax settings that encourage and incentivise better occupancy of our current housing and building stock.
Back in 2019 StreetSmart provided grants to Women’s Community Shelters (WSC) for the redevelopment of Beecroft House and Mosman House to create emergency accommodation and a housing pathway for 38 women over 55 years of age who had experienced financial insecurity, or a crisis event in their lives leading to housing insecurity and homelessness. An important part of these projects was to provide ongoing support to help identify permanent housing solutions. The former aged care facility and private hospital were lying vacant and were no longer in use for their former purposes.
”‘Meanwhile use properties, and making use of the already built environment to provide extra housing, are pragmatic responses we can use in the current housing crisis. The grants provided by StreetSmart has assisted us in providing housing at beautiful Beecroft House for up to 38 women over 55 at risk of homelessness, a group significantly at risk in an overheated rental market.’Annabelle Daniel OAM, Women's Community Shelters
StreetSmart’s latest meanwhile use funding helps youth into housing
One of our latest grants has been given to another ‘meanwhile use’ project, this time in Melbourne. We have just provided $15,000 of seed funding to homelessness organisation Bridge It. Their current Cocoon model in St Kilda includes well located and affordable housing for young women for 12-18 months, life and living skills development, therapies such as acupuncture, coaching lived experience peer mentoring.
They intend to transform an unused property in a bayside suburb of Melbourne into a second Cocoon. This property is set to be redeveloped in the next 5-10 years but in the meantime will become a home for up to 11 young people experiencing homelessness or at risk. Housing All Australians will facilitate the pro-bono renovation and Bridge It will lease the property on a peppercorn rent arrangement for a minimum of 5 years with the intention of a longer lease.
Certainly ‘meanwhile use’ and ‘change of use’ projects are not going to solve the homelessness crisis alone. They are not a replacement for governments committing to building more public and social housing, but they can provide a fairly rapid response to the critical lack of housing, by providing short-medium term, safe, secure and supported housing for people experiencing homelessness.