Member Profile: Co-operation Housing

| By Royceton Hardey. 

As I typed “co-operative housing” into Google’s search engine I was impressed that the first listing which floated to the top was for the not-for-profit I would be profiling. 

Co-operation Housing, established in 2010, is the only registered community housing provider in WA specialising in housing co-operatives (co-ops). They have the co-op space pretty much to themselves and from a tiny office in a residential part of Fremantle they are getting the word out. 

Eugenie Stockmann is the CEO of Co-operation Housing, and she gives me an idea on how the model is being received. “Perceptions are shifting,” she said regarding co-ops. “People would say ‘this is really difficult’ but now they are seen as a real solution on how we can run our economic systems differently.”

Under the common equity co-op model, a member (or tenant) pays rent that is no more than 25 percent of their total household income plus any Commonwealth Rent Assistance up to the market rent payable for the property. The property is owned by the Housing Authority, and individual members pay rent to live there. Members have no personal ownership of the homes they rent; they put no money in when they join, and they take no money out when they leave. Housing co-operatives generally take on the responsibility for tenant selection and day-to-day operation and management of the properties.

“This is what we call the co-op difference,” says Eugenie. “I honestly believe it’s the only form of doing business that has values and principles embedded in what we are about.”

While Eugenie flies the flag well for the co-op system she knows it’s not perfect.

“There will be issues at times in co-ops like there can be in any other strata complex but generally, people in co-ops are better off.”

Some of the criticisms of co-ops range from member commitment through to slow decision-making processes.

The success of a housing cooperative is dependent on the input from the members. In a time-poor society, members may not participate leading to undemocratic decisions. In the long run this can lead to discontented members and mistrust. Another argument points to how in a strata title body corporate scenario the centralisation of power allows decision-makers to quickly respond to issues as they emerge, but under a cooperative model, all owners would weigh in on the decision-making process, which will take more time.

Eugenie Stockmann, Chief Executive Officer at Co-operation Housing

Despite the cons interest is growing, slowly.

In 2012 Affordable housing expert Dr Tony Gilmour, released a report titled ‘We’re all landlords and tenants: Contemporary housing cooperatives building sustainable communities’1.

Dr Gilmour identified 4,350 cooperative properties, and concluded co-ops comprised around 10% of the community housing sector.

“With the exception of Victoria and NSW, housing cooperatives have remained as small-scale operations similar to when founded in the 1980s and 1990s,” he said.

Eugenie is working hard for WA which is playing catch up.

“We are in a bit of a funny sector in WA, we are (Co-operation Housing) the registered community housing provider for the co-op sector, but we don’t have control over any of the housing co-operatives; the lease agreements or deeds of trust are between the individual housing co-operatives and the State”, Eugenie said.

“It means we operate in a very different environment compared to our Victoria and NSW counterparts.”

In NSW, all member co-ops handed over their lease agreements to Common Equity NSW, the peak body for housing co-operatives. Some member co-ops did this reluctantly, but it enabled Common Equity to grow thanks to a strong asset base and income stream.

The challenge is to increase or acquire housing stock.

“A couple of years ago we were offered a unique opportunity to take on a management contract for a retirement village in White Gum Valley,” Eugenie said. “It is not officially a co-op, but we’ve managed it following the co-op principles. We have seen a real shift in the self-management and responsibility and satisfaction of those residents. It showcases how we can make a positive difference when responsibility for housing stock is transferred to us.”

When it comes to social and affordable housing the co-op model can provide real solutions and pathways to keep people in their homes. Eugenie believes empowerment is the key.

“For people’s wellbeing I think it is very important you have stability, a home, the opportunity to be part of a community long term. What really bugs me is that under the current system for social and affordable housing you need to move on when you get back on your feet, get a job and earn too much,” Eugenie said.

“I would love to see the co-op model providing diversity and pathways, where an individual can pay more rent, and potentially we could look at part or full ownership options. If we are really concerned about the wellbeing of people, of building strong communities, then I think we need to look at housing solutions very differently to what we do today.

“There are much bigger conversations to be had with the sector around what the co-op model can offer when you do look at housing issues from a social perspective more broadly.”

With the issue of remote housing particularly in a state as big as Western Australia the co-op model provides solutions. Eugenie argues that administrative costs to send staff to remote areas could be dramatically reduced if people were trained to operate the day to day operation of the co-op themselves.

The skills factor is another benefit often forgotten about. “Co-op members learn skills from communication to what it is like to being on a committee, to taking minutes and making decisions together,” said Eugenie. “A lot of these skills you transfer in other parts of your life. It might be skills you can put on a résumé or you might gain the confidence to become involved as a board member of a local sports club.”

In the next year or two Eugenie sees a growth path for Co-operation Housing.

“We recently purchased an 11-unit retirement village in White Gum Valley from the City of Fremantle, which is a big step for us. We are now working on additional housing stock being transferred to us, and also new co-op housing developments,” she said.

Membership is also growing.

There are currently four-member housing co-operatives: Alternative Resource Community Housing Incorporated, First Fremantle Housing Collective Incorporated, Inanna’s House Incorporated and Subiaco Leederville Housing Collective Incorporated.

“We maintain very strong links with our eastern state counterparts who we share knowledge, expertise and resources with. An example is co-op training materials and resources, and new development models for housing co-operatives” said Eugenie.

Shelter WA plays an important role in bringing together, conducting research and being an important voice for the social and affordable housing sector in Western Australia. I love their strong commitment to diverse, affordable housing choice for all, including the co-operative housing model. - Eugenie Stockmann, Chief Executive Officer at Co-operation Housing.

For more information visit: www.co-operationhousing.org.au
Or phone 9336 5045.

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