In Summary

  • This article originally featured in Swinburne’s Venture magazine.

Melbourne might regularly be named the most liveable city in the world, but each year the Australian government spends hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with the effects of homelessness. Its full cost to the community, particularly to the individuals and families involved, is enormous.

Swinburne is making a difference to homelessness across the nation by working with key industry groups and non-profit organisations in research that will help develop government policy.

Affordable apartments

Dr Andrea Sharam, from the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, is a recognised expert in the Victorian housing market, specialising in housing and apartment affordability.

“I was having the perennial conversation with a colleague one day and asking ‘why can’t we make housing affordable’? It was a light-bulb moment. It suddenly occurred to us that there was a real issue around how buyers come into the apartment development process,” Dr Sharam says.

The result of that conversation was a three-year research project that aimed to identify ways to reduce the cost of apartments.

An Uber solution

Dr Sharam and her team conducted extensive field research in cities throughout Australia and identified the changes needed. The team found about 10 per cent of an apartment project’s cost was due to spending on presale strategies, such as marketing and display units. But Dr Sharam says a presale contract is not a guarantee a buyer will settle.

“We realised that buyers of apartments need to be matched to development opportunities earlier in the development process and for them to be more wedded to projects to guarantee settlement,” she says.

Game-changing e-commerce platforms such as Uber and Airbnb have shown how buyers can be matched to suppliers in a way that was impossible before the internet. Dr Sharam and her team realised establishing a “smart housing market”, where a manager is responsible for recruiting buyers on one side and developers on the other, could resolve the costly issue of presales.

Both groups would need to be registered participants, and the market manager would be responsible for recruiting them and matching development opportunities to buyers.

“Essentially, this would take the process from looking for needles in a haystack to shooting fish in a barrel,” Dr Sharam says.

Demand for density

Melbourne has a geographical spread of nearly 9000 square kilometres. As the price of housing rises,  people are being pushed further out from the centre, potentially into rural areas of Victoria.

“As people begin to move to these areas, they are often moving into housing of a poor standard,” Dr Sharam says. “It’s expensive to heat in the winter. It’s damp. It causes health issues. Their health makes it hard for them to maintain jobs. It really becomes a vicious cycle.”

Dr Sharam says homelessness will become more of an issue unless apartments are recognised as a serious alternative housing solution.

“What we need to do is open up Melbourne’s middle suburbs and consider more dense housing options. Most of our middle suburbs are at a stage where houses are being knocked down or renovated. Now is the time to be having these conversations with the planning authorities,” she says.

“We need quality, affordable apartments. If we are smart about how we plan and engage with developers, we can implement a smart market and ultimately, we can prevent a housing crisis that would send many people into homelessness.”

Built for life

A group of Swinburne building pre-apprentices recently built wall frames that will become part of an important house in the Victorian town of Yea.

The project, a collaboration with non-profit group Habitat for Humanity Victoria, helps low-income families achieve the dream of building and owning their own safe, secure home.

The Swinburne students got real-world experience from the project, which was based at the university’s Croydon campus, as well as contributing to a worthy cause.

Habitat for Humanity builds affordable homes for families in need, with help from sponsors and volunteers. Swinburne’s involvement in the project saved time and money in the building schedule.

Safe houses

“Victoria’s homelessness system is a kind of postcode lottery: first, as to whether you will be able to access any kind of homelessness service at all; and second, as to what kind of service will be provided.” Dr Angela Spinney

Homelessness caused by domestic violence can be dramatically reduced through programs to make women safer at home and by removing perpetrators, Swinburne research fellow Dr Angela Spinney says.

Dr Spinney presented her findings to the Royal Commission into Family Violence earlier this year, stressing the need for financial assistance from support agencies to help women make their homes safer.  Measures could include motion sensor lights, stronger doors and secure letterboxes, she says.

“Often when a woman experiences domestic violence, she is forced to flee the family home, leaving her with nowhere to go. There are some refuges out there that can house women and children temporarily, but they really vary across the state,” Dr Spinney says.

“Victoria's homelessness system is a kind of postcode lottery: first, as to whether you will be able to access any kind of homelessness service at all; and second, as to what kind of service will be provided.”

During her presentation, Dr Spinney stressed the need for leadership from the Victorian government to ensure that safe-at-home schemes become available to all women in the state.

“Safe-at-home schemes cost less to run than refuges, but they do require support. They require support in the form of government funding and the right people working with the victims to make these services available,” she says.

“I am hopeful that my presentation to the royal commission will make a difference in the way Australia addresses domestic violence. Policy changes need to be backed by strong evidence and research, and we have worked hard at Swinburne to make that happen.”

The school link

“We need to work on equipping schools with the resources to support students and integrate homeless youth services into schools, as well as educating staff and students about the services available to them.” Dr Monica Thielking

Swinburne research has found many young Australians don’t recognise homelessness, even when it’s part of their own experience.

Psychologist Dr Monica Thielking worked with Anchor, the Outer Eastern Local Learning and Employment Network and the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Social Impact this year to learn more about the homeless experiences of secondary-school students in Melbourne’s outer-eastern suburbs.

“We were shocked to find that 48 per cent had never actually considered themselves to be homeless, even though they all had been,” she says. “They didn’t consider staying with friends or extended family temporarily because home was not a safe place to be a defining feature of homelessness.

Dr Thielking said the research highlighted the need for more to be done – particularly in secondary schools – to help young people dealing with homelessness.

“We realised that schools have an important role to play in identifying homelessness and intervening early. Teachers and support staff reported that their students often approached them before seeking help from homeless youth services, because of established relationships and because they saw school as a safe and familiar place,” Dr Thielking says.

“We need to work on equipping schools with the resources to support students and integrate homeless youth services into schools, as well as educating staff and students about the services available to them.”