Published: 03 December 2012
Rob Wardell interviewed
Extracted chapter from Griffiths, David (Ed.) Co-operators - Co-operation and Co-operatives, Southeast Housing Co-operative Ltd, 2012, pp 40-42.
The United Housing Co-operative provides safe, secure and affordable long-term housing options for low to moderate income families with the objective of assisting them to develop an improved quality of life. Since 1983, the Co-operative has grown to include some 94 properties in north and west metropolitan Melbourne. Whilst the Co-operative has a professional staff, members are involved in all aspects of governing and developing the Co-operative. They also provide member support services, run a social club and undertake advocacy work on behalf of community housing.
The Footscray Rental Housing Co-operative (FRHC) was established in the early 1980s by a group of community-minded people who responded to the Victorian Government’s initiative that encouraged the development of rental housing co-operatives. The Government provided a community worker to help initial members establish all areas of business, including finance, property maintenance, and tenancy management. Members were taught how to conduct meetings and manage the Co-operative.
By 1985, the Co-operative had become a registered business, with a Committee of Management in place. Property management was separated into four groups of 11 properties each, with members responsible for all works, including inspections, quotes, tradespeople, painting and gardening. Members participated in the running of the Co-operative. Within five years, the Co-operative was self-sufficient.
In 2006, the Office of Housing adopted a new housing policy framework in which it established a five-year Housing Provider Framework (HPF) lease. That same year, the Essendon Co-operative closed and joined FRHC, creating a much larger housing co-operative.
During this period, the Victorian Government decided to introduce a regulatory system for community housing that required co-operatives to become Registered Housing Providers. FHRC was registered in October 2008. This significant change in regulation meant that the Co-operative had to establish a Board of Directors and a professional management structure to govern and manage the Co-operative.
In recent years, the Co-operative has seen significant membership and property growth. Business Manager Rob Wardell recognised that members had been subject to considerable organisational and cultural change, and saw a need to refocus the Co-operative’s identity and foster a sense of community. He also wanted to be sure that United Housing had a ‘unified identity’ and the appropriate communications structure in place to inform and empower members.
The first step along this path was a name change. In July 2010, the Co-operative changed its name to United Housing to reflect the merger of the Footscray and Essendon co-operatives.
Rob then contacted goodcompany, a group of young professionals who volunteer their expertise to assist not-for-profit organisations. In April 2011, he initiated a project request for rebranding and strategic communications planning. He found two ‘consummate professionals’ in Anu Srinivasan and Meera Jethmal, with the skills, interest, and the commitment to support this project. Anu, a National Australia Bank employee, was excited at the opportunity to apply her change management skills. The three met and established a project plan, which outlined specific milestones and key decision points, and provided a time-line for the project. Anu and Meera conducted a series of information gathering and assessment activities. Anu documented the current environment and culture of the housing Co-operative and developed a communications plan. Meera’s branding strategy work included crafting a brand value message and conceptualising a logo for future development to be used on the website.
In September 2011, the United Housing Board was presented with a final report of branding, change management and communications strategy recommendations, including a ‘framework’ to follow.
Having conducted focus groups with members, they found that whilst the Co-operative had a forward thinking Board with the desire to grow and extend its services to members, there was no ‘common culture’ and ‘members had not been brought on the same journey’. The Board had passion and vision that wasn’t shared by its members. Many did not have a sense of belonging to the Co-operative and did not feel they were part of key decisions made about its future. There was a clear need to address this dis-empowerment and give back some control to members.
With the rebranding, Rob hopes that the Co-operative will nurture a renewed spirit of community and a sense of pride, to empower members and to create an environment where members are proud to be associated with a community that is socially aware; friendly, open and supportive to other members; curious and genuinely interested in contributing to the Co-operative; ‘community activators’; and switched on and socially aware.
Now, almost a year later, Rob continues to see the positive impact that these activities have had on the United Housing Co-operative. He knows there is long-term value in the strategic activities they undertook, and is interested to look back again in a few years to see what else has come to fruition.
As the organisation evolves, the United Housing Co-operative will continue to advocate for an increased role for community housing, seek to be a ‘model’ housing service provider and to develop projects and services aimed at meeting the needs of its members.
Rob Wardell is Business Manager at United Housing Co-operative. He joined United Housing, one of Melbourne’s larger community housing co-operatives, in 2009. Although relatively new to the housing industry, Rob has over 20 years experience in senior management and organisational development roles across the community sector as well as the sport and tourism industries. With significant practical experience in strategic leadership and organisational governance, Rob has been a board member of Community Housing Federation Victoria (CHFV) since 2010.