Group persevere to create multigenerational co-op living space

LONDON: A group has succeeded agaisnt the odds in creating a multigenerational co-op on a stream in a green belt.

When a group of Melburnians banded together with a plan to build their dream homes, they did not envision the barriers they would face from local council.

The proposed development of 21 townhouses overlooking a creek in Eltham, on Melbourne’s fringe, promised environmentally-conscious design, plenty of shared space and respect for heritage and the local neighbourhood.

According to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, it was the type of project that “could and should have been supported and fast-tracked”, an “exemplar of an innovative approach” to dealing with the state’s housing crisis.

Instead, the Brougham Street co-housing project was “met with substantial delays and opposition” from the local Nillumbik Shire council and residents group, in what Vcat said was a growing issue across the state.

“[It] is part of a wider trend we are observing, that will fail to produce appropriate housing projects that can start to address the existing shortfall of housing supply presently being experienced across metropolitan Melbourne,” Vcat said.

After a three-day hearing in mid-April, Vcat overturned the council’s decision to deny a planning permit.

Magnus Irvine, one of the initial founders of the project, hopes Vcat’s decision will lead others to consider embracing the co-housing model.

“It has been hard to get across to people the benefits of this sort of village-style development,” Irvine says.

“But just wait until they see it.”

Since gaining popularity in Denmark in the 1960’s, co-housing has spread across Europe and the US. In most instances it involves a small community who live in privately contained homes but share common spaces and resources.

Irvine says he first became interested in the concept several years ago when studying in South Australia, where he visited the Aldinga Arts Eco Village, a 350-resident development in south Adelaide where 60% of the land is community-owned shared space, including a farm and shed for gatherings and workshops.

“The idea of living in a community really appealed to me,” Irvine says.

“I often spend a lot of time by myself at home … with co-housing, all I have to do is walk out my door and there’s people around.”

During Melbourne’s Covid-19 lockdowns, he found others who were interested in bringing the approach to Melbourne’s fringe.

In 2021, Irvine came across Tim Riley, the director of Property Collectives, who is now overseeing the project.

Riley has worked on 10 projects through a co-operative model. The first was with a group of friends looking to buy their first homes about a decade ago in Northcote, in Melbourne’s inner north. They shared the costs of construction and ended up with a townhouse each.

“It got me thinking, maybe other people will be interested in this sort of approach,” he says.

Riley says in many cases, co-housing is cheaper than standard construction by about 10% as it “essentially cuts out the middle man”.

“I’m not aware of any other model in Australia that’s actually delivering more affordable housing on the private market,” he says.

Within months, Irvine and the group found their 6,600-square metre site – a former nursery and cafe – about 250m from the Eltham railway station, and bought it.

“This was before I knew it might possibly be a challenging council to work with,” Irvine says.

For Riley, whose projects have been in inner-city suburbs such as Brunswick, Northcote and St Kilda, navigating the council’s planning restrictions was a “change”.

While the site is a mixed use zone, which is specifically set out for housing at higher densities, it is also covered by multiple planning controls.

In Vcat’s decision, it found the Nillumbuk council had “misinterpreted” the role of the design and development overlay, which was intended to protect the “special character of the natural and built landscape” of part of the suburb.

Vcat also found it failed to “to engage with the communal approach that drives the design” of the project.

“This was by no means a half-baked idea. Instead, the group engaged highly respected professionals in a range of fields, including architecture, to design a series of dwellings that responded to the site’s constraints in an informed and clever manner,” Vcat said.

“In a system where a development only needs to meet an appropriate or reasonable standard in order to gain a planning permit, it is our view that this proposal goes well beyond such measures.”

Nillumbuk council said it respected the Vcat decision. It said its main concern was the site sits on a flood zone, with the issue having been resolved prior to the hearing.

“We hope our further concerns are addressed through the conditions of the Vcat decision,” a spokesperson said.

They said despite Vcat’s comments, fast-tracking the application was not possible due to “multiple planning controls”.

Once completed in 2026, Brougham Street will consist of townhouses varying from one to four bedrooms. Heritage-listed existing mud-brick buildings will be retained for communal space, complementing a communal kitchen and dining room, and garden.

The project isn’t cheap – it works out to roughly $1m a household.

But Riley hopes with state government support the concept can be expanded to include first home buyers, via a shared equity arrangement, and could work with community housing developments.

“These projects have been really amazing to work on and impactful in their own right, but with some support it could really change things,” he says.