By Mayor Rosie Annear, Mount Alexander Shire Council HOUSING (Castlemaine Ward)

As the housing pressures continue to affect communities, Mount Alexander Shire Council Mayor, Rosie Annear, shares how her council has brought together councillors and community to deliver solutions to provide affordable and safe housing.

One thing I’ve learned, in my last three years as a Councillor for Mount Alexander Shire Council, is the power of alignment. Alignment between Councillors, Council and the community has enabled us to work collaboratively, to try new things, and to explore exciting projects.

It’s this alignment that is giving us the best chance possible to help address the housing pressures in our community, making genuine and lasting change.

Mayor Rosie Annear

Making room for affordable housing

One of the most important things that Council has done to address our shire’s housing crisis is appoint a Housing Solutions Broker.

Since their appointment in 2021, the Housing Solutions Broker’s work has led to the progression of several initiatives. We are one of only two regional Councils in Victoria to have a role like this, and it has been invaluable.

Council has identified two sites in the centre of Castlemaine that are suitable for affordable housing. After a unanimous decision, Council is progressing plans to develop these sites into medium density affordable housing which will offer 42 new apartments for our community.

Two other parcels of Council-owned land in surrounding towns are being explored for development, and we’re working with the State Government to explore several sites of State-owned land for housing development, too. The former secondary school site is a priority we are pursuing with the state, to use for social and affordable housing.

One major struggle we are facing when it comes to funding housing projects is that we are ineligible for many government funding streams. Again and again, we stress to politicians that there is a big difference between regional and rural areas, and that they need to be funded differently.

We know that the economic and social impact of a single job is magnified in a small community. It has a much larger impact than in regional cities. Through anecdotal evidence, we can assume the same is true of a single house.

We know that the lack of housing in our area –affordable, social or otherwise – impacts residents. It also affects our shire’s ability to attract and retain key workers across a range of industries, including healthcare, education and manufacturing.

Spring into action

Several years ago, as the housing crisis worsened, with rentals becoming scarce and unaffordable, house prices soaring, and an influx of people escaping the city, our community sprang into action.

My Home Network was formed in 2019 in response to the lack of affordable, safe, secure, and sustainable housing in our shire, and the resulting impacts of housing insecurity and homelessness.

It’s now coordinated out of Dhelkaya Health, our local health service, and comprises community members with lived experience, as well as those with experience and expertise in the housing sector, community organisations, and housing and health organisations.

This group is highly engaged, active and empathetic, and is currently working on a number of innovative initiatives. From their inception, a key piece of advocacy work that My Home Network championed was to make it easier for people to live in tiny homes on wheels – a practical solution in the wake of dwindling housing opportunities.

Council listened, and proposed changes to Local Law 13, which relates to camping on private property. There was an overwhelmingly positive response from our community to the proposed amendment – over 1,600 submissions, our largest engagement to date – with 91 per cent of submitters supportive of the changes.

In June 2023, Council unanimously voted to amend the local law. This change means that people can now camp, or use caravans or tiny homes on wheels, on privately owned land where there is an existing dwelling without the need for a permit.

The decision was met with support and gratitude from the community. Council recognises that while this change won’t solve the housing crisis, it provides another option for people in need of temporary housing.

Self-sustaining trust

One last initiative, that Council will soon consider, is establishing a charitable trust for affordable housing. If established, this trust will exist independently of Council and will be overseen by a Trustee and informed by a delegated advisory committee of Council. Its sole purpose would be to provide affordable housing in Mount Alexander Shire, in perpetuity.

An indicative initial capital base of $3 to $5 million has been identified to make the appointment of a Trustee and operational commencement feasible. If the proposed Trust Deed is adopted, a fundraising campaign will begin, seeking pledges for donations of funds or assets to the Trust.

This is perhaps one of the most exciting initiatives we’re pursuing as, if successful, the Trust will be self sustaining and long-lasting, growing a body of land and housing in the shire, and building permanent protections against the kind of shocks we’re experiencing now. Watch this space!

Council and community working together

Finally, as the housing crisis continues, we’re noticing more visible homelessness and rough sleeping in our shire than we’ve ever experienced. But anecdotally, we know that what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. The number of people living on the brink of homelessness or in unsafe or unsuitable accommodation is rising rapidly. Not doing anything is not an option.

Subsequently, our Director of Corporate and Community Services produced a piece of work that mapped all homelessness services offered in our shire. It includes shower vouchers, soup kitchens, free laundry services, mental health support and housing options.

This piece of work has been incredibly informative and has also given us a much clearer picture of what is needed. Council is now exploring ways to help coordinate existing services, as there are many duplication’s and gaps. Mount Alexander Connectors Network (a fantastic group of local organisations led by Council) will take up this task, with a possible short-term position within Council in support. Again, watch this space.

I hope this has given you a taste of the ways our small Council and community are working together to address the housing crisis in our shire. Stepping into the housing space as Council has required creativity, curiosity, courage and empathy – plus that alignment between Councillors, Council and community, which I believe is the strongest ingredient of all.

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