Members and families celebrating the United Housing Co-operative 40th Anniversary.

Members and families of the Co-op celebrating the United Housing Co-operative’s 40th Anniversary.

On International Co-operatives Day, Saturday 1st July 2023, United Housing Co-operative (UHC) celebrated its 40th Anniversary. Approximately 60 tenant members came together to celebrate their survival and share many of the good stories of how the Co-op had assisted tenant members and their families achieve great things, which otherwise may not have happened.

From its humble beginnings, UHC has evolved into a strong viable rental housing co-operative that has assisted many hundreds of low income families in previous years and has its sights on assisting many more in the ensuing 40 years. Its current property portfolio ins 137 properties plus another under 40 properties for survivors of family violence under a management agreement.  UHC also was the recipient of a Victorian Labor Government Big Housing Build grant, and has commenced construction of a 50 apartment Co-operative Village project in West Footscray.

A small group of single parents working with local community workers and activists, commenced their campaign for housing justice, back in 1981/2, which through a series of difficult negotiations and hard work eventually resulted in the formation of a number of small housing co-operatives under the Victoria Government Rental Housing Co-operative program.

Historical documents from the early days of UHC’s foundation co-operatives, present an amazing record of Housing Action Groups, demanding more public housing and alternative affordable rental housing programs, which offer some of the benefits of home ownership.

UHC current long-term member, Janet Liersch re-calls way back in 1982, as a young single mother, she became involved in campaign meetings and bus trips to Canberra with other public and private tenants, and community workers, who banded together to work towards the establishment of Rental Housing Co-operatives in the inner metro west.

In response, Governments boosted housing funding and the Victorian State Government initiated the “Victorian Rental Housing Co-operative Program”, in the early1980s, calling for expressions of interests and submissions from local communities.

They were truly heady days indeed and direct action was the name of the day, both at campaign level and also in the formation of housing co-operatives –  protests and squatting became the focus of raising housing justice issues for low income people and forcing Governments to act, meanwhile women like Janet set to work to develop the foundations of Rental Housing Co-operatives, developing rules, policies and identifying houses for purchase.

Mary Gemmel another long-term UHC member also re-calls those amazing early days, where a group of low income people at risk of homelessness, with variable levels of education, rose to great heights with enthusiasm and passion to form the co-operatives.

The group consisting of largely single parents were focused on providing secure affordable homes for themselves and their families and for other people in a similar position and were attracted by the added advantages of the housing co-operative model.

“Safety, security and a good home are the ultimate foundations of a good life and the Co-op offered the added opportunity to have some control of where and how you lived, and that’s why I’m still here today,” Janet commented, who has since downsized to a smaller Co-op home in her later years.

Similar stories from Footscray, Essendon, and Sunshine / St. Albans, who now form the United Housing Co-operative, attest to this story, where Rental Housing Co-operatives grew out of community activism, on the backs of committed tenants and activists.

The benefits provided to tenant members of the Co-op model are considerable.

Janet recalls’ “Co-op housing enabled me to study and pursue work as a Financial Counsellor, and my daughter was able to go pursue her education which led to her obtaining a great career”.     And Janet’s story is not unique, many Co-op tenant members have been enabled to achieve great things benefiting from secure, affordable housing, and the opportunity to grow confidence and develop skill through the opportunities provided by involvement in the Co-op.

And today 40 years later, most United Housing Co-operatives like a number of other Housing co-operatives has survived and remain community-based registered community housing providers.  Boards of Directors are almost exclusively run by tenant members, with lesser number of independent Directors and while reliant on Housing Workers, they have largely stuck to their modus operandi which is ‘tenant control over their housing’.

Changes to Government regulation and legislation has challenged member control, and Co-ops have had to evolve but retain tenant-controlled Board of Directors and continue to strive to maintain their Co-operative principles, and reach out and supporting the broader community.

United Housing Co-operative’s new Co-op Village development will build on the many positives of the Co-op model and also draws on the European experience, to ensure that rental housing co-operatives will be a critical part of social housing growth and development for the future of our nation.

The Co-op model is more relevant than ever in the current housing crisis. It provides great outcomes for tenants and Governments and is adaptable and could follow international examples, where rental housing co-operatives and also mixed equity Co-ops, where tenants invest in their Co-ops, are thriving and providing real sustainable response to low and middle income housing demand.


Peter Sibly
United Housing Co-operative Ltd.
3 July 2023