Questions over delays to council housing initiative

By Sean Car

A scheme announced by the City of Melbourne more than a year ago to convert a building it owns in the CBD into accommodation for rough sleepers in collaboration with the corporate and philanthropic sectors has become beset with delays. 

The initiative, which was announced on World Homeless Day on October 10 last year, has seen the council partner with a number of groups to find, assess and redevelop suitable buildings for homelessness shelters and support services. 

In a press release announcing the program, the council stated, “the vision is to provide a greater supply of supported accommodation to help people off the streets and provide the wrap-around services required to build pathways into secure housing for people sleeping rough in Melbourne.”

Major corporate supporters include developer Lendlease, philanthropic groups such as Housing All Australians (HAA), service providers The Salvation Army, VincentCare, Melbourne City Mission and Launch Housing, as well as the professional services such as those of PwC Australia. 

The first site earmarked to kickstart the program, a six-storey council-owned building believed to be valued at around $20 million, was to be converted into housing for rough sleepers in coordination with HAA.  

While HAA secured the professional services of a range of private sector organisations free of charge to redevelop the building fit-for-purpose, the City of Melbourne is still yet to finalise service arrangements for the building more than a year later. 

It’s understood the council has selected a preferred operator to manage the building, but delays have set in surrounding a service provider, which is being run under a separate tender by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

CBD News has contacted the City of Melbourne for comment on several occasions but has received no response to date. But sources within the council have said it has unnecessarily tied itself up in procedural delays and intricate details in delivering the program.   

HAA founding director Rob Pradolin said his organisation and the companies involved were still firmly committed to the project. 

“The time for talking is over. We to take action and to take action now,” he said. 

“HAA is still committed to assist the City of Melbourne in creating long term accommodation for vulnerable Victorians. We have offered, over 12 months ago now, the assistance of an amazing group of value-aligned corporates, that have committed using their skills to assist in constructing this accommodation, on a pro bono basis.”

“The companies that have made this commitment includes Kane Construction, Cox Architecture, Rider Levett Bucknell, Gallagher Jeffs, Umow Lia, Hollerich Town Planning, Bonaci Group, de Chateau Chun, Irwin Consult, Marshall Day and Norton Rose Fulbright. The total value of this philanthropic gesture by these entities is in the order of $3.5 million.” 

Under the program, the council will partner with Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and a giving account within the foundation’s tax-deductible fund will be established to take pledges and accept donations for this homelessness initiative.

This partnership will allow corporate supporters and individuals to contribute to the initiative for the urgent need to repurpose buildings to provide appropriate accommodation and house essential support services.

According to a 2014 report, the City of Melbourne owns 74 properties across inner Melbourne worth more than $2.5 billion. The idea behind pop-up shelters is that an under-utilised building is converted for a period of 20 to 30 years until it is sold or the site is developed.

The importance of the program has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, with recent data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) showing that social housing stock in Australia has continued to decline amid soaring demand. 

Homeless Australia chair Jenny Smith said October’s federal budget failed to include stimulus investment in social housing urgently needed to respond to growing homelessness and included a $41.3 million cut to homelessness services from July 2021. 

Speaking on budget night on October 6, Ms Smith described the budget as “senseless and cruel”. 

“Tonight’s budget is devastating,” she said. “In a year with huge increases in unemployment creating a surge in rental stress and homelessness, the federal government has chosen to slash homelessness funding.”

“The Treasurer had a choice to make, and he has chosen homelessness for tens of thousands of Australian families. Without increases in social housing and with even less resources for homelessness services, many families will become stuck in homelessness for a long time.”

“The government has ignored advice from all corners: from top economists, property industry and community sector leaders, as well as popular support from the community; all calling for the government to invest in social housing to both create thousands of new jobs each year and to deliver enormous social good.”

CBD News understands that the Victorian state government is due to announce $5 billion for housing over the next 10 years as part of its state budget, which has been deferred until November due to COVID-19. 

Premier Daniel Andrews has recently indicated that the budget will be “unprecedented in the scale and the nature of the investments” the government plans to make.

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