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Could collaboration living be a solution to climate change and the housing crisis? Some people believe so

Could collaboration living be a solution to climate change and the housing crisis? Some people believe so

A selfie of a woman wearing glasses and a blue striped collared shirt. She has short white hair.

Donna Lavell has a history of sharing her home with others. In her 20s, she lived in share houses in Sydney’s inner suburbs; later, after buying a home in Newcastle, she offered up her spare rooms to friends in need, housemates and Airbnb guests.

Now, at 61 years old, she has decided to build a house with three women that she met less than one year ago.

She says, “I have such an amazing experience of sharing spaces and people.” “It just makes sense to me.”

Donna — along with her future housemates Joanne, Lisa, and Sarah — has secured a plot of land inside Narara Ecovillage — an “intentional community” of more than 100 people on the NSW Central Coast.

A selfie of a woman wearing glasses and a blue striped collared shirt. She has short white hair.
Donna, 61 years old, believes sharing her home and life with others “just makes sense”.(Supplied: Donna Lavell)

“We’re all very clear that we don’t want to put all our money into a house,” Donna says, adding that she hopes to use the profits from the sale of her current home to support her in retirement. “The benefit of more people means that there are more people who pay for the land.”

She’s not the only one trying to cut costs. After a year with the fastest pace of growth, Annual growth in national property values since 2004More people are searching for creative ways to enter the property market.

This is happening alongside a growing awareness of climate change, making ecovillages and other forms of collaborative living an attractive alternative. 

What is collaborative living?

The term encompasses many different models; from ecovillages, where multiple people live on a single piece of land, often owned by a cooperative, to urban co-housing developments, where everyone has their own apartment but shares common space. 

They all reject the traditional model of property ownership. This is typically a single or couple buying a separate property with a mortgage, and not focusing on the surrounding area. 

Joanne Hunt, one among the three women sharing the Donna’s home, said, “It is a very friendly process.

“The criteria [for finding housemates] was not so much that you had to be the same person, but that you are an honest and open communicator and willing to navigate through the whole process while considering each other’s needs along the way.”

Prospective buyers must first purchase shares that permit them to participate in decision-making as well as use the village’s facilities. The four women met through their involvement in the community.

They’ve since agreed to split the cost of the membership, their land, and now an architecturally-designed home and granny flat that will allow all four women — and Sarah’s young baby — to have their own space.

The home will split into two wings and Sarah and her baby can live in the granny flat at the back. Inside, Joanne and Sarah will share one wing — with two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and two bathrooms — and Donna will take the other one. In the middle of the house will be a shared dining area and a garden.

Joanne states, “There’s no way that I could have gotten into the ecovillage except sharing with somebody.”

“It means I can have this small space down here in ecovillage to stay in, but I get my house in Lismore which will see me through my old years with a supplement of my pension.”

Multi-generational communities

Built on the site of an old horticultural institute, Narara Ecovillage is surrounded by dense bushland home to endangered plants and wildlife. It is located in easy reach of Sydney, unlike other similar communities.

Lyndall Paarris, the founder of the community, said that this was intentional. “We attract the IT people (the plumber, the electrician and the doctor. We’re very lucky.”

There are currently 50 houses on the property. Ten more are being built. The oldest inhabitant is in their 80s, while the youngest is only months old. 

An aerial shot showing Narara Ecovillage surrounded by bushland.
Narara Ecovillage houses approximately 50 households and more than 100 residents. (Lyndall Parris)

Lyndall emphasizes diversity within the community, but Lyndall says that older women make the largest group. Outside the village, older women are often the fastest-growing category of homeless people in Australia. This is often because they have significantly lower superannuation than the average Australian man. 

Lyndall states that everyone needs some space to hide, but not a lot. There’s plenty of stuff around that we can share.

This spirit of sharing extends beyond living spaces. Residents have donated boxes of clothes for their children that are stored in the common room. As shared office or studio spaces, you can use the communal buildings that were left behind by the former owners. 

Lyndall states, “You don’t necessarily need to have two bathrooms and toilets. There’s a couple around the place if your needs are really dire.” “There’s a shared laundry so you don’t necessarily have to have one.” [in your own home].”

Lyndall describes it as an “intentional village”. While environmental principles are the foundation for the development, the primary thing that all members have in common is the desire to live with others.

A close up headshot of a woman with short grey hair, black earrings and a orange collared shirt.
Lyndall Parris had the idea for Narara Ecovillage after two of her friend’s husband’s died: “I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we all lived in a village together, wouldn’t I be able to support them better?”(Lyndall Parris)

Because the village is entirely self-funded members will need some money to get involved. Lyndall states that they are more flexible because it is a cooperative. “How can you stretch, or mold?” [rigid planning rules]Because there are many people who need houses but can’t afford the house prices in Narara. “How can we get around this?” She answers.

“Officially, dividing a lot among four is totally different from dividing it among two. It’s amazing to see the creativity of the human spirit working things out.

Banks need to catch-up

Chris Riedy from the University of Technology’s Institute for Sustainable Futures says collaborative living could be an avenue to address housing affordability — but it will require Australia’s financial institutions to get on board. 

He says that banks are used to lending mortgages to individuals and couples. This can make it difficult for groups to obtain financing for a property.

Professor Riedy says that although there are banks that are comfortable with this approach, most mainstream banks aren’t ready to adopt it.

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However, collaborative living projects are becoming more popular. In 2015, when the centre first began its research into collaborative living, it hadn’t “really got going in Australia”. Since then, there have been many more options.

A five-floor apartment building with large glass windows and a shopfront on the bottom floor.
The Nightingale 1 co-housing development in Brunswick, Melbourne.(Supplied: Peter Clarke)

“We’re finding more and more examples popping up, and certainly a lot of people we talk to being very interested in it,” he says, “and certainly increasing government support and policy interest in it as well.”

He suggests “co-living models” for younger people who want to get into the market. These are small, individual apartments or dwellings that share significant common spaces. They “almost resemble a modernized version of university campus living.”

Nightingale Housing is one option. It has recently completed its first developments in Sydney and Melbourne.

A variety of studio apartments, multi-bedroom apartments, shared laundries and gardens, as well as shared work sheds, are all part of the sustainable apartment buildings. The apartments are sold at their cost and the indexed property value of the suburb is capped at their resale values. 

The model is also affordable for those looking to enter the market. Small studio apartments — called Teilhaus, which means “part of house” in German — are cross-subsidised and available only to first-home buyers and people with limited financial means.  

People who live in these communities claim that they offer other benefits as well as affordability.

Lyndall says that Narara Ecovillage was born out of friendship and community. Two of her close friends had recently lost their husbands and she was seeking a way to support their children and their families.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to live in a village with them all, wouldn’t I be better able to support them? My husband would be able to watch and play with the kids. She says. “It began in the social realm.”

Similarly, Donna and Joanne say they don’t see living with other people as a downside to saving money — in fact, it’s exactly what drew them to the village. Donna says that COVID helped her to realize her 60th birthday and realized how important it was to be around people who share the same values. 

Joanne regards the wider ecovillage and her share house as two support networks that will allow Joanne to continue living independently into old age. She says, “Obviously the ecovillage is a community, but you can help each other informally within the house.”

“So you have both a smaller support network and a more extensive one.”

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