Inner West Council jumps in to help ‘proof of concept’ affordable housing development
By ROBBIE MASON
At a Tuesday night meeting, Inner West Council voted to waive the development fee for a 52-unit affordable housing project in Marrickville, previously held up by heritage protection debates and red tape. The move represents an about-turn for the local council and the extension of an olive branch.
Inner West Council had previously halted the project over a lack of onsite parking and the perceived heritage value of the church that occupies the Illawarra Road site.
Speaking at the council meeting, Labor Councillor Chloe Smith condemned the council’s vexed history with the project. She said that “it shouldn’t have gotten to this point” where “a fantastic social justice project” has had to overcome “years of obstacles and opposition” and “layers of expensive red tape and bureaucracy”.
Dan McKenna, the CEO of Nightingale Housing, the not-for-profit housing provider delivering the project, told City Hub, “this is really positive step”.
“It’s a really strong signal from the Mayor and all the councillors that they understand there is a crisis right here and now and there is something they can do about it,” he said.
Instead of paying a development fee in the vicinity of $1.1 million, not-for-profit housing provider Fresh Hope Housing Incorporated has now entered into a Works in Kind Agreement, meaning it will fund neighbourhood amenities at an estimated cost of $346,000. The housing provider will pay for additional street trees, footpath paving and the asphalting of the laneway behind the plot of land.
The project is a collaboration between Fresh Hope Communities, a Churches of Christ community group who own the land, and an acclaimed Melbourne-based not-for-profit housing developer, Nightingale, who prioritise the triple bottom line.
A ‘proof of concept’ for affordable sustainable housing
Addressing Inner West Council on Tuesday night, Nightingale CEO Dan McKenna described the specialist affordable housing development as a “proof of concept”.
It is Nightingale’s first venture into NSW. While the housing provider has already expanded beyond Victoria, NSW had long been a step too far due to poor public transport and “really significant land prices”, McKenna told City Hub. (The housing provider actively looks for land near public transport hubs to encourage residents to take public transport, cycle and car-pool.)
Rather than selling the land to a private developer for profit, Fresh Hope supplied the land, in this instance, for no charge at all.
“For us this is about showing what can be unlocked on land owned by faith-based organisations,” McKenna said before Council.
He added that bureaucracy has been “a more substantial challenge” than anything else since the project began in 2018. Reconstruction costs and legal fees have ballooned.
McKenna told City Hub, “we aren’t typical for-profit developers who have deep pockets and can ride these waves and bumps. These are significant challengers for organisations like ours.”
John Engler, CEO of Shelter NSW, believes the Nightingale/Fresh Hope development is a prime example of what affordable housing should look like. He expressed approval for the council’s decision, telling City Hub, “this is as good as it gets… This is the type of affordable housing we need to see more of.”
Underlining the threat of gentrification in Marrickville, Engler said, “we want people to have as much concern for protecting ‘heritage communities’ as they do for ‘heritage’ buildings.”
In January 2020, Inner West Council placed an interim heritage order on the church building that occupies the site. Media reports at the time highlighted community sentiment that heritage concerns over an old derelict church, otherwise unremarkable, were obstructing the construction of much-needed environmentally-friendly affordable housing in the area.
In November of that year, Inner West Council voted to reject proposed heritage listing for the church. That vote went down to the wire with Greens Councillor Tom Kiat voting against both the listing and fellow Greens councillors. On 15 December 2020, the Land and Environment Court overturned the council’s rejection of the development application.
Greens Councillor Dylan Griffiths said, “if I had been on council when the original decisions were made around this I would have absolutely been on the side of affordable housing.”
Cr Griffiths said he supports the development because it is “very unique” and “Nightingale has a really good track record”.
The development offers affordable housing in perpetuity. Currently, 100 percent of units – which are soon to be inhabited as construction has almost finished – are affordable housing. A condition of consent imposed by the Land and Environment Court dictates that a registered community housing provider must manage the property.
Inner West Council now appears keen to collaborate with faith-based organisations on solutions to the housing crisis. The Nightingale/Fresh Hope motion was amended to ensure Inner West Council consults other religious organisations and charities in the local government area about the possibility of similar affordable and community housing projects on surplus land. Labor Councillor Chloe Smith suggested the alteration.
Nightingale CEO Dan McKenna said that he is “optimistic”. He hopes that other Sydney councils will be receptive from the get-go.
“The first project is always the hardest,” he stated.
“Creative and innovative models with like-minded organisations is how we will do this.”
Differing opinions among Greens councillors
Greens Councillor Marghantia Da Cruz, who voted against the motion, pointed out to City Hub that waiving the developer contribution was not standard policy and could set a damaging precedent for past and future housing developments. She believes the council should have sought further legal advice before making a decision.
“This group has cherry-picked an item to have the developer contribution waived for a project approved under the old [Housing] SEPP [State Environment Planning [Policy]. It’s not compliant under the new SEPP,” Cr Dr Cruz said.
“It’s set a precedent now for any affordable housing that was approved under the previous SEPP. Those people can come back and ask for their money now,” she continued.
“It’s a planning matter, and quite a serious matter… I don’t think we were briefed satisfactorily on it.”
Cr Griffiths, meanwhile, stated that it is important for the council “to make sure our processes aren’t too obstructive or a hindrance to what is actually going on.”
The enthusiastic support of younger Greens councillors for the Nightingale/Fresh Hope development – Cr Griffiths this week and then 28 year old Tom Kiat in 2020 – suggests there may be a generational shift within the political party. Greens members in Sydney have traditionally favoured strict heritage protection.
In June this year, Cr Griffiths broke ranks to block the heritage listing of 15 electricity substations. He told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time that he supports loosening heritage rules to enable home owners to subdivide properties and install solar panels in heritage zones more easily.