Family stumps up $4m for unique plan to tackle homelessness

71

A wealthy Melbourne family is putting up $4 million to build more than 50 portable homes for disadvantaged people on vacant VicRoads properties in a unique project to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis.

The social housing project is mostly being privately funded by philanthropists Brad Harris, who co-owns the Sporting Globe Bar and Grill chain of nine restaurant-bars, and his father, Geoff Harris, who co-founded Flight Centre.

Boy drowns in Lake Hume

Brad Harris said homelessness was the No. 1 issue facing Victoria.

“Having a roof overhead and food in your stomach is fundamental. It’s unacceptable that in a wealthy society like ours we’ve allowed this problem to grow worse,” Mr Harris said.

The plan is to build 57 studio-sized units on nine disused housing blocks in Ballarat Road in Footscray and Maidstone, where a public acquisition overlay is in place should the government one day choose to widen the road. VicRoads has bought several properties along Ballarat Road in recent years in anticipation of the road widening project.

The Harris family has a history of supporting projects that tackle disadvantage, including buying a $2.5 million mansion in Collingwood to be used by youth homelessness organisation Streat.

The social housing scheme requires approval from Maribyrnong City Council in coming weeks. If granted, it is expected residents will begin to move in from the middle of this year.

The proposed units are unique for Melbourne. They would be built off-site at a Melbourne factory then transported to Ballarat Road, an arterial road that carries up to 30,000 vehicles a day.

The units have been designed by Melbourne architects Schored so that they could be built and installed rapidly and inexpensively, at the rate of one a day and a cost of $80,000 each.

They could also be moved elsewhere if VicRoads acquires the land. Plans submitted to Maribyrnong Council say this might happen in 15 years.

Mr Harris said he hoped the project would become a template for building social housing on state-owned land.

“Utilising vacant government land at no cost, I see this project as essentially the trial for a new economic model to provide fast, large-scale affordable housing,” he said.

People who moved into the units would be on the state’s public housing register and referred by homelessness organisation Launch Housing, a key contributor to the idea.

Deputy chief executive Heather Holst said it was an all too rare opportunity to provide affordable housing in an inner-city area that has good public transport, for people who mostly do not own cars.

“Land cost kills a lot of social housing projects before they start,” Ms Holst said.

Launch sees 16,000 new clients each year who are at risk of homelessness.

Jenny Mikakos, the Andrews government’s acting Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing, said all Victorians deserved a home.

“Homelessness is a confronting and complex issue. We are currently experiencing unprecedented demand and a first-of-its-kind project like this will help adults and families have a place to call home,” Ms Mikakos said.

The lease of land will be managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and will be set at a period of five years with a 12-month notice to vacate should VicRoads require the land.

Launch Housing will guarantee the rehousing of tenants if they need to be relocated before the end of the five-year lease.

Comment has been sought from Maribyrnong mayor Catherine Cumming.