Housing All Australians with Greg Usher

Dr Greg Usher, Executive General Manager for Project Management (Buildings and Property) for RPS, talks about his involvement with the charity Housing All Australians, whose mission is to harness the ability of the private sector to address the chronic shortage of low income affordable housing.

How long have you been in the development industry and why are you passionate about it?

I have been in the development and construction industries for over 20 years. During that time, I have taken on roles as Development Manager, Design Manager, Construction Manager and now Project Manager. My passion is really working with people – in particular development and construction people. I like working with them because, by and large, they are people of action. They like to get stuff done. I also like that we make a real difference. Whether it’s creating new social infrastructure or developing communities to build a better future, there is something meaningful, something of real value, in doing that.

Who is Housing All Australians?

Housing All Australians (HAA) was established in 2019 as a ‘for purpose’ organisation, to facilitate a private sector voice, and re-position the discussion and action on social and affordable housing for those on low to very low incomes. Our commercial lens is like no other charity in this space.

We are a group of private sector individuals and corporates with a shared vision that is in Australia’s long term economic interest to house all Australians, including those on low incomes. At HAA we believe that if we fail to address this rising social crisis, we will be leaving a significant burden for future generations that will inevitably result in disastrous economic and social consequences.

We are dedicated to providing solutions in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term. In the short-term our ‘pop-up housing’ initiative re-purposes vacant properties awaiting redevelopment to provide transitional accommodation for vulnerable groups such as women over 55. In the medium-term, we are finalising an Economic Study for Australia that quantifies the economic costs of not providing housing for all, rich or poor. We have a housing crisis on our hands, and we cannot wait for government to solve it. It needs to be led by the private sector.  In the long-term we are working with local government to create a Permanent Rental Affordability Development Solution (PRADS) where local government works with developers to create affordable housing solutions.

You mention your involvement with HAA, what does your involvement look like?

Currently I am on the National Board for HAA. In addition, I have taken on the role of Queensland State Chair. In the State role, I am raising awareness of the homeless issue; working to dispel some of the stigma that is associated with homelessness; and trying to build a network of sponsors, corporates, and development professionals who want to make a difference. However, the two key areas taking most of my attention at this moment are; a) Identifying assets that can be re-purposed and re-furbished for a period of 3-5 years and b) Building the state management committee to help drive the HAA mission in Queensland.

Can you tell us a success story?

Since 2019, HAA have been working with developers and service providers to create a new type of accommodation solution in response to the homelessness crisis. We call this solution ‘pop-up housing’. Since 2019, we have completed two of these facilities: The Lakehouse, and The Gardenhouse.  These buildings have been re-purposed from existing assets that were sitting vacant. Using our network of professional services firms, suppliers, and contractors HAA have been able to adaptively re-use these facilities to create safe and affordable housing for women over 55. At the Lakehouse, for example, in the last 3 years HAA and YMCA have housed 99 women. On average the women stay 9 months and use this time to stabilise their lives and then plan and create a new future for themselves and their families. We have been working with owners across the country and now have some new have “pop up opportunities” in Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne.

What has the response been like from the development industry to date to take part?

In a word, fantastic. The private sector are keen to help wherever and whenever they can. Most often, the issue is that they simply don’t know how to help. When we explain something like our ‘pop-up housing’ solution to them they immediately grasp the concept. The problem is a complex one, but the solution doesn’t have to be. When the property owners/developers see how we can activate assets that are lying dormant, and re-purpose these at no cost to them, and then release those assets back to them so that there is no impact to their development plans, they love to get involved. The solution is simple and practical, it has minimal impact on their development plans, and fulfils many of their corporate and personal social responsibilities goals and values.

As you said, HAA relies on the generosity of the development industry. How can UDIA members help this cause?

Your members can help in a multitude of ways. We are looking for like-minded, value driven organisations who can assist with pro-bono services, materials, and labour here in Queensland. We have established relationships with national companies such as Quest Apartment Hotels, Metricon, Dulux, Programmed, the Australian Institute of Architects, Linen House and many more. We have a myriad of professional services and suppliers waiting in the wings ready to apply their time, resources, and finances to creating pop-up housing here in Queensland. What we don’t have, and what we desperately need, are the empty buildings. The key resource to unlocking the pop-up housing solution here in Queensland are facilities that can be re-purposed for a period of 3-5 years to create high-quality short-term accommodation. There are many women (and children) out there sleeping in cars and couch surfing. Is this the Australia we want? If we don’t, then let’s do something about it and not wait for government.