Author: Adam Carey. This article first appeared in The Age
A wealthy Melbourne family is putting up $4 million to build more than 50 portable homes for disadvantaged people on vacant VicRoads properties, in a unique project to tackle the city's homelessness crisis.
The social housing project is mostly being privately funded by philanthropists Brad Harris, who co-owns the Sporting Globe Bar and Grill chain of nine restaurant-bars, and his father, Geoff Harris, who co-founded Flight Centre.
‘Having a roof overhead and food in your stomach is fundamental. It's unacceptable that in a wealthy society like ours we've allowed this problem to grow worse,’ Mr Harris said.
Philanthropist Brad Harris at one of VicRoads' vacant plots in Maidstone. Photo Jason South
The plan is to build 57 studio-sized units on nine disused housing blocks in Ballarat Road in Footscray and Maidstone, where a public acquisition overlay is in place should the government one day choose to widen the road. VicRoads has bought several properties along Ballarat Road in recent years in anticipation of the road widening project.
A VicRoads-owned vacant block on Ballarat Road. Photo Launch Housing.
The Harris family has a history of supporting projects that tackle disadvantage, including buying a $2.5 million mansion in Collingwood to be used by youth homelessness organisation Streat.
The social housing scheme requires approval from Maribyrnong City Council in coming weeks. If granted, it is expected residents will begin to move in from the middle of this year.
The proposed units are unique for Melbourne. They would be built off-site at a Melbourne factory then transported to Ballarat Road, an arterial road that carries up to 30,000 vehicles a day.
The units have been designed by Melbourne architects Schored so that they could be built and installed rapidly and inexpensively, at the rate of one a day and a cost of $80,000 each.
They could also be moved elsewhere if VicRoads acquires the land. Plans submitted to Maribyrnong Council say this might happen in 15 years.
Mr Harris said he hoped the project would become a template for building social housing on state-owned land.
‘Utilising vacant government land at no cost, I see this project as essentially the trial for a new economic model to provide fast, large-scale affordable housing,’ he said.
People who moved into the units would be on the state's public housing register and referred by homelessness organisation Launch Housing, a key contributor to the idea.
Commenting on the initiative, the Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria, Denis Fitzgerald, said, ‘all parts of the community have a role to play in ending homelessness.
‘This is a good example of cooperation between Government – VicRoads and the Department of Health and Human Services – the community sector – Launch Housing – and individual donors. Innovation is an exciting part of this initiative – congratulations to all concerned.
‘Let’s hope that more of us can rise to the challenge of making a difference to the more than 100,000 Australians who are homeless on any one night. Structural changes to increase housing supply and to increase affordability are also needed, but one hopes that initiatives like this strengthen the resolve of Governments by demonstrating the depth of commitment across the community.’
An artist's impression of the transportable units planned for Ballarat Road. Photo Launch Housing
Deputy chief executive of Launch Housing, Heather Holst, said it was an all too rare opportunity to provide affordable housing in an inner-city area that has good public transport, for people who mostly do not own cars.
‘Land cost kills a lot of social housing projects before they start,’ Ms Holst said.
Jenny Mikakos, the Victorian government's acting Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing, said all Victorians deserved a home.
‘Homelessness is a confronting and complex issue. We are currently experiencing unprecedented demand and a first-of-its-kind project like this will help adults and families have a place to call home,’ Ms Mikakos said.
Brad Harris says homelessness is Victoria's No. 1 issue. Photo Eddie Jim
The lease of land will be managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and will be set at a period of five years with a 12-month notice to vacate should VicRoads require the land. Launch Housing will guarantee the rehousing of tenants if they need to be relocated before the end of the five-year lease.Author: Adam Carey. This article first appeared in The Age