When co-founders and directors of TANDEM Design Studio, Tim Hill and James Murray, made the decision to work pro bono for the Lions Club of Footscray to develop a new social housing scheme, they had no idea of the twists and turns the project would take on the road to securing funding.

The practice stuck around for the journey of discovery required to bring their concept to fruition, learning some valuable lessons along the way.

Their scheme, which has recently been funded by the Victorian state government’s  Big Housing Build, will see a deteriorating 1960s era social housing site in West Footscray redeveloped, taking the total number of units from 21 to 49. 

Chief among the challenges this project has faced is a lack of a clear pathway from concept through to funding. From the outset, the project has relied on a lot of goodwill, a little luck and a few leaps of faith.

“We first found out about this project years ago now. We thought it was interesting, but being pro bono, we just didn’t have any kind of capacity to do anything about it”, explained Tim Hill. 

“Initially, we did a little bit of work and thought we could double the number of units, and then we just put it down – until Covid hit. Everything we were working on just went, stop! So, with support from JobKeeper payments we thought, how do we use this opportunity to do something useful, rather than just sit here? We decided, let’s have a go at this because we think one of the growth industries on the other side might be social housing.

Past Lions Club of Footscray president and Lions Village caretaker Bert Jessup felt that having a concept for the site could be a strong catalyst, providing “an idea that could help galvanise our club… that would set the ball in motion.”

This hunch proved to be correct, providing a way forward for the site that spoke to the organisation’s legacy and values. As Tim Hill pointed out, “They could have just sold the site for $4 million and walked away, investing the proceeds in other worthy causes.” Instead the club has rallied behind the new scheme. 

Having established the scheme, Burt and Tim thought the best way forward would be to secure a community housing provider (CHP) partner who could manage and maintain the site into the future, as well as provide access to federal and state government funding pathways. 

What they found was that the social and commercial remits of the CHP’s varied widely, and finding a good fit was not straightforward.

“Some were very commercial, some were much more socially minded. For some, it was just about the numbers. For others, it was just about the community. So, there was a broad cross-section,” explained Tim.

“And there’s no guidebook or introductory service. Coupled with that, the CHPs’ core expertise is in managing property, not developing it. Now that funding is suddenly available, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are all equipped with the in-house property development experience to successfully get new projects off the ground. 

Eventually, the ideal partner came through the Lions Club of Footscray’s own network in the form of Peter Sibly from United Housing Cooperative. 

“He had loads of enthusiasm, and unbeknownst to us, he had been pushing for United to get into building projects separately, but the projects he was looking at were much smaller in scale. He’d identified land as the bottleneck.

“When this opportunity emerged, it was larger in scale than the projects they had been working on – but to their credit, they took it and ran with it. Sometimes you just have to be willing to just take a jump and put it all on the line.” 

At around this time, the Victorian Big Housing Build was announced and the prospect of applying for funding became the way forward. This required taking the scheme from a concept to a buildable reality – a process which again required goodwill and a huge leap of faith from the United Housing Cooperative.

TANDEM continued the design development process to support the funding application at a rate of two thirds of their usual commercial fees. A skeleton crew of sub-consultants also contributed much goodwill. Michael Dunn at Metropol Planning provided planning advice pro bono. Alex Strickland at Legata Projects provided pro bono advice in order to get the bid up and running and has ultimately been appointed project manager based on the project being awarded funding. 

Despite the in-kind support, and no guarantee of a positive funding outcome, United Housing applied a significant portion of their modest savings to develop the scheme, in line with requirements of the funding application. This exercise came at significant personal risk to General Manager, Peter Sibley. 

“A failed application could be seen as mismanagement of funds, and could potentially put my role at United in question,” Peter said, prior to the announcement of the positive result.

Happily, the Footscray Lions Co-operative Village redevelopment has received funding under the first round of the Big Housing Build, which will see $739 million invested in 89 projects, creating 2,352 homes. It is also one of four projects that have been highlighted in announcements by Housing Minister Lily D’Ambrosio, as exemplary examples of great social housing outcomes.