Published: 03 December 2012
Extracted chapter from Griffiths, David (Ed.) Co-operators - Co-operation and Co-operatives, Southeast Housing Co-operative Ltd, 2012, pp 32-34.
Before I talk a little about myself, I will relate what I consider to be a few important observations. The Macquarie Dictionary defines a co-operative society as a business undertaking owned and controlled by its members and formed to provide them with work or with goods at advantageous prices. There is no specific reference to a housing co-operative, but by changing a few words it can also apply. It remains, however, a clinical explanation and doesn’t tell us a great deal.
In a slightly different context, a practical demonstration of co-operation is the delivery of your morning paper. It takes hundreds if not thousands of people to bring us the bad news and gossip of the day. This happens when the foresters plant and care for the trees that form the pulp for the paper, to the lumberjacks who harvest the trees, the factory that makes the pulp that forms the paper, the writers of the copy that is checked by the sub-editors, the printers that print the paper and finally those who deliver it to your door or nearby shop.
This is co-operation on a grand scale and it happens all over the world every minute of every day in some form or other, from making a table to making war, or better still, to making peace and even managing the money markets of the world. Humanity as a whole and each person’s very life depends on it. Without being co-operators the world, as we know it, would not survive the anarchy that would result.
All of this might seem far removed from the world of housing co-operatives, but is it? In the examples I have given there remains a competitive spirit despite the co-operation required. In the case of housing co-operatives I like to think of it as the famous phrase in the Alexander Dumas classic, The Three Musketeers, ‘one for all and all for one’. This is I think the true meaning of ‘co-operative’ it allows for the best possible outcome of an endeavour in which everybody wins. If we hark back to the opening paragraph we can define a housing co-operative as a business undertaking run by its members to provide secure and affordable housing for its members.
We might even take it a step further and provide a mission statement such as, ‘To increase and provide secure, affordable and environmentally sustainable long-term community housing managed by and for low income people that delivers excellent services to improve the quality of housing of residents’, as espoused by SouthEast Housing. Isn’t this a worthwhile goal and a lifesaver for many people? This, without too much imagination, also covers the dictionary definition. Personally, I like the mission statement quotation; it really spells out what it’s all about - co-operation and community, people all helping each other and themselves to a worthy end.
But what does it mean to those that, fortunately, are members of a co-op? I’ll tell you what I believe it means for families in a housing co-op property. As a member of a co-op they occupy a privileged position in the housing market whereby at affordable dollars they are able to rent a decent well-maintained property close to public transport with almost absolute security of tenure. This means that families can have a much better quality of life. There is no need to be concerned about greedy, unsympathetic landlords, unfit premises in which to live or those far from public transport, shops and schools.
It means that Mum and Dad or maybe one or the other may not have to work such long hours to afford an exorbitant rent, put food on the table or pursue the near impossible dream of buying a home of their own; there will be more quality time for family life. Apart from the young or middle-aged parents, there are we, who have seen our youth and middle age pass into the great beyond but who are still sensible, upright, mobile and might I say useful. Older people such as me also benefit from housing co-ops. It can be very difficult for an older person to have the quality of life desired and deserved by every one of us. As we know much quality of life is measured by the amount one has to pay for a home in which to live with comfort and security at an affordable price. This is where co-ops come to the fore.
There are other models of various types but none offers the advantages of a co-op with the opportunity to be involved in the organisation at grassroots level or much higher, and make a genuine and major difference without participation being onerous. People need to be needed and it makes better people. It also provides the opportunity to make friends in similar circumstances and affords a sense of worth for everyone. When I joined a co-operative some years ago from another similar organisation this became most evident.
My story with SouthEast Housing Co-op began around 2003 when my partner and I applied to be considered for housing after an unsatisfactory experience with another organisation and the private rental market. It took quite a while, some three to four years; eventually I received a telephone call from one of SouthEast Housing’s mainstays, the wonderful Joy Haines. Strangely, that very day I had decided I would ring her to see how our application was progressing and I told her so when she rang. Joy had rung to let me know that a new two-bedroom unit had become available in Frankston and would we be interested?
I of course vacillated endlessly as one does and said would it be possible to see it now, this very moment? Joy in calmer fashion suggested perhaps early the following week. In high excitement we inspected the unit, I think on a Tuesday. True to her word it was brand new. It also had split air conditioning, a large living room, two sizeable bedrooms with built-in robes, a well appointed kitchen with huge cupboard space, a toilet, bathroom and laundry. All rooms were fully blinded with fly-screens on windows and security doors, there was an intercom system and a garage with a remote controlled door. The rent we found out was considerably less than we had been paying privately. We decided to take the offer! We could not occupy it immediately as we still had about three months on our private rental property agreement. But the unit was ours for about $25 a week until occupation. I mention this point for it is typical of the consideration and generosity of SouthEast Housing Co-op to all of its members, as I came to know in the years to come. I must also add that it is a solvent well run organisation, likely to be in business for many years to come. It is an organisation with heart as well as business acumen. You cannot beat that.
My association with SouthEast Housing is not as a member now, due to my own circumstances having changed, but because I believe passionately in the model and the wonderful ordinary people that form the organisation, people who are intelligent and dedicated to their cause, I am happy and proud to continue my association with this worthwhile organisation. As it becomes more difficult for ordinary people to afford a home of their own or private rental accommodation, I see this as a signpost for the future. There can be more and larger such organisations. We all need to make the effort to keep this model alive.
Terry Brown is retired. He was a member of the SouthEast Housing Co-operative Ltd between 2007-2011 and a director from 2010 until he resigned from the co-operative. Previously Terry had a gardening business for about 20 years and prior to that he worked in the public service.