We are slowly beginning to realise there is only one degree of separation in Tasmania. We were introduced to Lesli, a resident at the Cohousing Co-op in South Hobart, by a mutual acquaintance. She’s invited us to come visit and, curious to learn about this resident managed cooperative, we’ve arrived in time for the common meal later that evening. Mona (another resident whom we’d met previously) and Lesli are busy cooking the common meal, so we chat while they cook.
A number of cohousing options were explored in the Hobart area when a local resident (Ian Higginbottom) returned from a trip to the USA and spread the word about the cohousing model. The Cohousing Co-operative is part of Tasmania’s social housing and was funded under the community housing program. Anyone can apply to live here, but there are strict selection criteria and an interview process to help determine eligibility and suitability. To be able to live here you must be eligible for public housing, which means being on a low income, not owning a home and having assets less than $35K. They also favour people who are experiencing housing stress, and who support the concepts of cohousing and co-operative living and who are willing to ensure financial viability through active participation.
This is the first time we have come across this model, where a housing complex is owned by a co-operative and managed by the renters. Once someone has qualified to live here, they are guaranteed a place to stay till they are ready to leave. In Australia, it is rare for renters to have housing security so those who find themselves lucky enough to be a resident are keen to contribute to its upkeep. Houses are allocated according to the size of your family, with the number of rooms being equal the number of people in your family.
The co-op was formed in 1991 but it took them about 10 years to obtain funding, find a site, then design and build their dream in consultation with an architect. It cost approximately $1.2 million to build the 12 houses and to purchase the house next door. Currently it provides housing for 16 adults and about 17 kids. The rent is very affordable and varies but is capped at 30% of your income. For example a 3-bedroom house would cost a maximum of $415/fortnight. The rent goes towards paying for rates, insurance, maintenance, running the common house and other expenses but also pays for things like childcare and personal development courses for the residents!
Lesli & Mona are done cooking so we go for a walk. Mona leads us inside her house. It’s a nice cosy house with a large open plan area downstairs and the bedrooms upstairs. The bedrooms are not large but you also have access to the common house, the gardens and a fire bath outside! The common house has a dining room, a large kitchen and lounge area, a common laundry, guest flat and office. This is where common meals are enjoyed twice a week if you wish to participate. Each resident has to contribute a minimum of 40 hours over a 4-month period, which includes doing odd jobs, gardening, cleaning, cooking communal meals, and participating in one of the committees responsible for the management of the community. The gardens are spacious and connect with the adjoining bushland, giving residents opportunities for long bushwalks. The houses are at the foot of Mt Wellington but the day we visit is foggy and the mountain is hidden from view. I can imagine that it is quite spectacular on a clear day.
It’s time for dinner. We head back to the common house and the rest of the residents join us for a common meal. The conversation flows easily and we ask more questions and share a little of our own story. There is a buzz in the air and I sense a beautiful camaraderie. We are curious about how decision making in such a big group is achieved and Lesli shares that it is done through consensus. They talk through the issues till everyone’s concerns are satisfied. It can sometimes be a slow process but they achieve outcomes that every resident is happy to live with. A mixture of formal training, everyday interactions and well-developed group processes means that the community’s residents can improve their communication and co-operation skills, as well as experience a deep sense of empowerment.
What a great model for affordable living. Options such as this give people a breather and a chance to improve their financial circumstance and be in a position to purchase a house if that is their wish. We’ve built a few more connections in Tasmania and say our goodbyes, knowing that our paths will cross again.
First published by www.polisplan.com.au 18 March 2016