Meet the Members – Helen Wood

Meet the Members – Helen Wood, Uniting with Donna Easthorpe

I met Helen Wood, Director of Independent Living and Affordable Housing for Uniting NSW/ACT, late in 2017. Helen is currently tasked with the leadership, management, and realignment of the Uniting portfolio of an impressive 79 communities, spanning seniors’ housing, retirement living and affordable housing for over 55s. Until 2016, Helen also spent 14 years as a volunteer director of Bridge Housing.pic WOOD Helen headshot

Helen grew up in the UK and did an undergraduate degree in psychology. She worked in real estate then property management at British Rail. She found her passion at Notting Hill Housing Trust where she worked closely with councils to clear West London slums and begin a rolling program of new and refurbished housing.  During this time she qualified as a chartered surveyor and later became CEO of the Soho Housing Association in Westminster, where she worked in partnership with the GLC and developers to build social and supported housing in the centre of London..

Community housing providers have been a huge part of the housing continuum in the UK for the last 50 years. Helen and her family migrated to Australia in 1998, but as a Housing Association developer, she found there was almost none of that type of work here. So, Helen took a stint as a project director for Housing NSW, which she found rather personally unsatisfying. Following this, Helen began working for Catholic Health Care developing age-appropriate housing for seniors, and managed retirement villages until a redundancy saw her take a position at Uniting – where she has served in various capacities, including developing and operating retirement living and seniors’ housing, ever since.

Due to her psychology degree, Helen has long looked at humans and their needs. A great part of why she does what she does is to address people’s most basic needs in the hope that it will give them a stable base for more interesting and socially productive pursuits. She explained to me that according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safe, secure, affordable housing will underpin the ability to satisfy all five of the hierarchies of human need (physical, safety, belonging, esteem, self-actualisation). With this basic need met, people can move through to the peak level, self-actualisation, and become productive members of society. See simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
pic Maslow for Helen Wood
Community housing funding in the UK has had good bipartisan support for decades. In Australia, areas for which we need to cater include LGBTQI+, young people exiting care, people living with a disability and older hidden homeless – especially women. Helen is advocating levels of 15-20% affordable housing across all jurisdictions to promote a more equitable society. NRAS (National Rental Affordability Scheme), SAHF (Social and Affordable Housing Fund), matching federal funding in the 1970s –all enabled churches’ involvement in housing and aged care villages. Using the Residential Tenancy Act allows Uniting to provide for a mixed tenure community in all retirement villages – Helen has so many wonderful stories about its ability to change lives and is very proud of Uniting’s Rainbow Tick accreditation.

Uniting has had a long association as a member of Churches Housing, culminating in the recent advocacy with the State government in partnership with many other faith organisations and the Sydney Alliance. Helen said Uniting is well-resourced in assets and has many opportunities to develop so-called ‘lazy’ land and property holdings for housing. The future is full of opportunities and challenges, with densification and rezoning constantly providing opportunities for new developments.

Uniting is using development surpluses to cross-subsidise affordable housing, although there is a struggle to balance floor size for Liveable Housing Design Standards, versus break-even or profit-ratio. Uniting currently has 10 NRAS projects fully occupied and ticking over very well. Looking at greater scale for development into the future, Helen expects to see 20% of 1,000 units in the pipeline being devoted to affordable housing.

Uniting is working to provide health and wellbeing services, along with tailored support coordination to assist in personal issues and sustaining tenancies. The organisation also provides support services for people living with disability. Uniting has already housed 66 SAHF clients, and is looking at experimenting in one of their villages with piloting a shared village-car scheme (like GoGet) to reduce the need for individual residents to own vehicles. This may work by charging residents a nominal fee to access a well-maintained car and petrol.

In closing our interview, I asked Helen what her perfect world would look like, and she said that the issues are simple – there is currently not enough housing or funding. If Helen were Queen For A Day, these items would be on her wish list:

  • social housing seen as essential infrastructure and properly funded
  • bi-partisan support for a predictable and long-term funding stream
  • negative-gearing targeted to low-value properties with tenants on low incomes as in US, and
  • compromise on over-sized dwellings, but without opting for tiny houses.

Practically, the government does not have to do it itself, but it does have to fund it. Housing our citizenry must be essential infrastructure, viewed in the same way as schools, roads, sporting stadiums and hospitals.

Thank you for being so generous with your time, Helen.

Check in our next newsletter to meet another Churches Housing member organisation.