St Mary’s Village, Smithfield

“Living within St Mary’s Village has transformed my life. We were struggling to  pay our household bills prior to moving in. Not only is this a home for  us, but we also feel strongly connected with the community. I would like to thank the church for the compassion that they have shown us by building these units.” – A resident in St Mary’s Village

What was delivered?

In 2011, the Assyrian Church of the East completed the construction of 50 apartments in Smithfield. The apartments are targeted towards the older members of the community with low to moderate incomes.

The apartments are adjacent to one of their parish churches in Smithfield (Western Sydney). The complex consists of 37 two bedroom, 6 one bedroom and 7 studio apartments.

This project was one of the first projects approved under the federal government’s National Rental Affordability Scheme.

What was the need?

The Assyrian population has increased greatly over the past decade, with much of the growth triggered by the turmoil surrounding Iraq. They have primarily settled in the western suburbs of Sydney, and form a significant portion of the community. In the 2011 census, the Assyrian people accounted for around 9% of Fairfield LGA population, and had increased by over 60% in the last 10 years.

Coinciding with this increase in immigration, housing affordability was also emerging as a significant issue in Sydney. For people that had recently escaped from their homeland, their financial resources were severely limited and they were prone to significant hardship.

How did the church respond?

The church approached their congregations to seek their views on the idea of providing affordable housing for seniors. The response was overwhelming and within weeks, 120 families sought to be placed on the waiting list.

In the early stages, the archbishop approached Derek Yule from Churches Housing, to seek his advice on how they should proceed. Derek’s initial advice was to obtain the land that they required. From this point, the church progressively acquired the land and moved towards commencing the project.

With the land purchased and plans drawn up, the church obtained their development approval under the Senior’s Housing SEPP.

The problem now facing the church was how to make the project viable. Interest rates were high (pre-GFC period) and the numbers were indicating that maybe the project would be delayed. In 2008, Churches Housing approached Archbishop Zaia with news that the federal and state governments were partnering to provide financial assistance through the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS).

With an annual incentive payment of $8,000 per unit, NRAS provided the additional funds required to allow the project to proceed.

With the assistance of Churches Housing, an application for funding was made and the project was one of the first projects approved under the National Rental Affordable Scheme.

The development process

With construction underway, there was an increasing level of excitement within the community.

Despite the construction process preceding well, the onset of the Global Financial Crisis caused additional issues for the church. Finance for the project had initially been sourced through a smaller foreign-based bank. With the restrictions of credit, the bank experienced difficulties in providing the funds when required, which in turn had further impacts on the development timeline.

The solution for the church was to re-finance the project – this time with one of the major Australian banks.

The project was practically complete by late 2010, with the final approvals for occupation granted in early 2011.

The project was officially opened on 27 September by His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, His Beatitude Mar Meelis Zaia and the Hon Chris Bowen.

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Tenancy and Community

With the completion of the apartments, the next 3 weeks saw a flurry of activity as the tenants began to move into their new homes. The church engaged Ecclesia Housing to manage the tenancies and has formed a successful partnership with them. Ecclesia Housing visits the site each fortnight with their mobile office, allowing the tenants to readily access the services required.

A notable aspect of the project is the sense of community that has been created, which is integrated with the church next door. The parish priest, Father Gewagis Atto comments that the people are always looking out for one another and making sure that they are well.

Archbishop Zaia is pleased with the success of the Senior’s Accommodation project – yet realises that this is just the beginning. His desire is to be able to help families that are struggling.

He recognises that one of the products of the success of the project is to have long-term access to sustainable finance – and is currently exploring ways that this may be achieved.