Is there a role for ‘meanwhile use’ in responding to the NSW housing crisis?

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As the housing crisis grows in New South Wales, experts say thousands of vacant homes awaiting development could be transitioned into “meanwhile use” accommodation.

“Meanwhile use” refers to the concept of activating vacant or underused buildings to meet social or community needs.

In June last year on a busy regional street in Albion Park in the Illawarra, four homes were fenced off to be demolished to make way for a petrol station, gym and other retail.

The homes on Tongarra Road have since been vandalised and the development application [DA] is still being processed by Shellharbour Council.

Affordable housing researcher Dr Judy Stubbs said the homes were examples of how “meanwhile use” could have worked.

“It’s a shame to see homes lying vacant, particularly where they are awaiting some redevelopment decision which could take a long time,” she said.

“We need to be thinking much for creatively about how we use those homes, as private rentals but also as a meanwhile use.”

The developer Brown Build said it had hoped for a faster approvals process and while it had received good support from the local council it still working through some details.

For its part, the council said the DA was in the final stages of being assessed but the “maintenance of the site is the owner’s responsibility”.

Shellharbour Mayor Chris Homer said the concept of “meanwhile use” was worth considering but needed to be evaluated.

“The vandalism is disappointing, the infrastructure in the community that could be used for a common good,” he said.

“The idea [meanwhile use] has merit but would have to be spoken through and considered by experts.”

Dr Stubbs said in a situation like this, before the properties became damaged, councils could consider working with community housing providers and sympathetic real estate agents.

“Potentially they could run some kind of brokerage or pilot scheme and put the word out to developers that they are willing to take on some of these buildings as community or private rentals,” she said.

“There are a range of short-term options that could be used, three- or six-month leases say for key workers that come into the region, that would be really valuable.”

She said it was an option that could be used across the state.

“Particularly in regions where the rental markets are very tight.

“Pressure on housing in the regions up and down the coast and better located inland regions is at unprecedented levels and we need to be looking at solutions like this.”

Brown Build said it would be willing to consider such a scheme but would need safeguards so the tenants could be moved out once the development was approved, in order for construction to start.

More reliable methods

ShelterNSW Senior Policy Officer, Cathy Callaghan said “meanwhile use” was more frequently associated with larger buildings converted for transitional housing.

“Sometimes not-for-profits will team up with women’s shelters and go to the owners of a vacant aged care centres and say could we rent this site for a peppercorn rent while you work on your plans,” she said.

“While anything is possible, if we are at the stage where we are relying on private developers to hand their sites over to a not-for-profits for transitional housing — that would be a really hard thing to pull off.

“We would say there’s more reliable ways to make sure we have housing for people.”

Ms Callaghan said the organisation wanted the government to commit to building more social housing and give councils more power to regulate short-term or holiday rentals including Airbnb.

‘Meanwhile use’ framework recommended

In August 2022, a Coalition-led parliamentary inquiry found ‘meanwhile use’ options could ‘assist in the short-term to complement long-term solutions’.

It recommended:

 

“The Government develops a framework to guide ‘meanwhile use, which would include important factors such as suitability of the property, support services for tenants, minimum time frames, types of buildings, conversion costs and factors, and local community consultation.”

 

It suggested government work with councils to reduce the barriers to the provision of “meanwhile use”, social and affordable housing.

It said the government wanted to partner with Wollongong City Council to “look into vacant buildings and land in Wollongong to deliver safe housing using the meanwhile use model”.

The government response is due in February.

(Original ABC Article)