Australia is one of the most unaffordable places to live in the world. And with limited affordable housing options, it’s renters who suffer the most.

Enter housing co-operatives. Democratically run, a housing co-operative is managed by its residents, who take on the responsibility for its operation. My experience as a member of a housing co-op, at least, is they work.

In a recent report by the Housing Action Network, Dr Tony Gilmour pinpoints housing co-operatives as the “hidden success story of Australian affordable housing”. He claims co-operatives are well-suited to meet the growing challenges in Australia’s difficult housing markets.

For one thing, in co-operatives where members actually own the property (what Gilmour refers to as “full equity” co-operatives), members are in a better position to pool resources. Under the co-operative model, any profits gained by the organisation are ideally distributed back to members.

Co-operatives also have the advantage of allowing residents a greater degree of control over decision-making processes in terms of managing rent, property, etc. “We’re all landlords and tenants,” as one member of the Ningana co-operative in Sydney’s Annandale said.

Gilmour’s report found housing co-operatives provided added support to members and helped develop “stable, functional communities” — often within niche groups. Van Lang, a Vietnamese co-operative, runs weekly community activities for its senior residents: English classes, Tai Chi and computer lessons. There are also aged care and student co-operatives, and co-operatives for people with disabilities.

So if housing co-operatives are well-equipped to “fill the gap” between “high-need social housing and unsubsidised market housing”, as Gilmour argues, why are they often overlooked by policymakers?

Few would associate co-operative arrangements with housing. Yet The Australian Institute reports eight out of 10 Australians are members of co-operatives — from motoring groups like the NRMA to super funds — but only a quarter are aware of it.

State and territory governments are looking more closely at housing co-ops. The NSW government recently pledged to transfer the titles to over 6000 houses to Common Equity NSW, a not-for-profit organisation that manages housing co-operatives in the state. This promise has not been fulfilled, to the frustration of CENSW board members.

A 2012 report by the ACT Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Education, Training, and Youth Affairs recommended the government “explore developing student co-operative models, along the lines of the Sydney University model, with ANU [Australian National University] or UC [University of Canberra] and report to the Legislative Assembly on this matter”. That was welcome news to members of the Canberra Student Housing Co-operative, established in late 2011 to address the housing affordability concerns of ANU students.

“If you’re studying full time and you’re getting the full amount of Centrelink Youth Allowance, there’s still a pretty big shortfall,” CSHC director Tom Stayner told Crikey.

For single students living out of home, the maximum fortnightly rent payment under Youth Allowance is $407.50. Compare this with the $618 UniLodge (Lena Karmel) charges every fortnight for a single studio room, or $534 for a six-bedroom multishare, and it’s unsurprising students are having trouble finding an affordable place to live.

While some are sceptical the co-operative model can help, others are hopeful. Peter Quinton, the ACT’s registrar for co-operatives, concedes it’s unlikely co-operatives will entirely displace unit-titled schemes in the near future — but that doesn’t mean the model can’t be integrated into existing ownership structures. He sees university colleges and community housing as two areas that could benefit by adopting the co-operative model.

As Gilmour puts it, co-operatives can at the very least play a “boutique” role in Australian housing. After the UN named 2012 the international year of the co-operative, it may be time.

*Farz Edraki is a member of the Canberra Student Housing Co-operative and editor of ANU Student Media

Peter Fray

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