Local Initiative for Low-Impact, Affordable, Resident-Planned Eco Housing

My name is Gabi Bohnet and I am currently heading a local initiative in the Byron Shire to address the severe shortage of affordable housing in our region. My background is in green architecture, town planning and sustainable design, and over the past few years I have been researching and regularly giving talks on ways a local tenants’ alliance could be formed to establish small, affordable, low-impact community planned neighbourhoods here in the Shire.  As a result, a steering committee has been formed to look at ways to take these ideals through to actual implementation.

The aim of our project is to re-unite what should have never been separated in the first place – nature and humanity, the eco-system of a particular terrain and those dwelling in its environment.  In the world today a mass shift of awareness is occurring and we are gaining greater insight into the fact that our sustainable existence as a species depends wholly on a healthy, functioning environment – on the ‘microcosmic’ scale (individual properties), a bio-regional scale, and on a global scale.  We are realizing that we must be firmly connected to the earth to make wise decisions and become solidly empowered to practice responsibility for our precious environment.

Our vision is to create an initial prototype process to design an affordable, low-impact and (if possible) ‘zero carbon’ village-style neighbourhood here in the Byron Shire. If we the residents – as aware, eco-sensitive individuals – are involved in the planning of our village neighbourhood right from the start, we can collectively co-create a unique authentic space that is innovative, imaginative, caring and environmentally responsible.

There are many successfully established ‘eco settlements’ in the world already, of which some also provide affordable housing. In Germany, for example, a Tenant Syndicate was birthed in the late 1980’s which sought to collectively purchase land and buildings that could be removed permanently from the speculation market in order to create tenant-organized affordable housing communities in perpetuity. The Tenant Syndicate then became a platform supporting the wider political struggle for affordable housing, with an ever growing number of individual tenant-organized projects linked up under its organizational structure.  (See: http://www.transitionbyronshire.org/housing/living-space-for-everybody/ )

Together with the Syndicate, the future tenants of an affordable housing project establish a ‘limited liability’ company (Ltd) which then collectively buys a property, or acquires a long term lease of government or private land.  The tenant collective will source their financing mainly through private direct loans from people who are interested in investing in socially ethical projects. To access such investors, the project promotion will be continuous and wide spread, generating the general concept on a worldwide scale. On the level of tenant contributions, the tenants pay rent to the company, but are simultaneously responsible for all aspects of running the company, overseeing the development of the property and the building of their individual dwellings.

This is how affordable housing has been created and protected from future exploitation by real estate speculation in other parts of the world thus far. The German Tenant Syndicate has successfully implemented 33 tangible projects thus far, with dozens more in the works throughout Europe.  In August 2009 the Syndicate made the decision to link up with, and support, other equivalent projects world-wide. Our local steering committee has recently formed in response to this potential opportunity.

One option we are considering is the possibility of securing a long-term lease of either council or private land which could be utilized for the building of our first neighbourhood.

As part of ‘Transition Byron Shire’ (www.transitionbyronshire.org), the ‘housing’ steering committee has begun consulting with the Byron Shire Council in light of the Council’s own suggested affordable housing strategies (see http://www.byron.nsw.gov.au/affordable-housing), and are looking in particular at two council properties which have been earmarked for small affordable housing projects in Suffolk Park and in the Byron Arts and Industry Estate.

Economical and low-impact modes of building, such as rammed earth, mud brick, bamboo, hemp, straw bale – and semi-permanent dwellings such as domes, yurts and state of the art retro-fitted shipping containers – are also being scrutinized, along with the possibility of ‘recycling’ old buildings.  I am personally really interested in getting one or more green roofs built in this project.  I’d also like to invite inventors from the ABC Inventors program to showcase their inventions, such as a test building for ‘solar paint’. (See: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/newinventors/txt/s3008638.htm).

The envisioned eco-neighbourhood will be open to a variety of living styles, from shared/extended houses (4-5 or more bedrooms), apartments (in townhouse style), row houses, and co-housing in a permanent or semi- permanent set-up with communal facilities – (kitchen, living spaces, bathrooms and laundry), etc.  Housing will be nestled amongst food producing native and permaculture gardens. Roads and parking will be kept to a minimum, and (where possible) away from the living spaces, especially if the project is close to existing town infrastructure.  The residents will be encouraged to car pool or share, rather than everyone owning/using their own vehicles.

We recognize that the main ingredient of the German Tenant Syndicate recipe for success has been to include the future residents in the planning process. This is quite different to any housing development planning processes undertaken in Australia thus far.  In his book The Future of Sustainability, chief UN- habitat researcher Marco Keiner emphasizes that sustainable outcomes imply the participation of the people, just as reading of a book implies a reader. “The concept of planning for the people has changed to become planning with the people, or sometimes even planning by the people.  Only if the people agree and are serious about sustainability will it be achieved”.  In the UK this process has been named ‘planning for real’. There have been a significant number of affordable housing options within German eco settlements which have adopted this planning method.

If you are ready for this paradigm shift, then involvement in this project is for you.

One thought on “Local Initiative for Low-Impact, Affordable, Resident-Planned Eco Housing

  1. Hello,

    I´m an architect / designer and creative superhero with German background. Whats written in the article above represents my way of designing and thinking 100%. I published an article on that topic a few months ago in African newspaper (West and East coast) – http://www.whatson-gambia.com/exclusive/307-guest-article-brand-new-slums.html

    I´m based in Brisbane and would love to get involved and hear more about the Byron shire idea. I´m working as a consultant for GBI (Green Building institute Australia) and due to that role work closely together with Byron Bays Green Building Centre. Its time that we combine our resources and start building really sustainable to change people´s thinking ASAP!!!

    With optimism

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