A Career in Housing: Jeanette Large

Jeanette Large is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Property Initiatives (WPI), one of the many roles she has assumed in a career spanning more than 30 years in the community and social housing sector.  

Jeanette’s professional trajectory began with her first role working with young, unemployed people in Melbourne’s western suburbs in the early 1980s: “I worked in that region for about three and a half years, and in a position attached to a youth refuge. ”

It didn’t take long for her to realise that housing – or, more precisely, the lack of it and the kind of insecurity this fosters – was a fairly keen issue for young people, even in an era before economic rationalism and neo-liberalism dominated Australian public policy-making.

“There weren’t many women’s refuges or youth refuges around at that stage,” says Jeanette. “Young women who were experiencing domestic violence were finding it really difficult and literally had nowhere else to go.”

“I’ve worked in other parts of the social and community sector for many years, but even when I worked in other areas – some in government – I was always connected with community housing services somehow. I was on management committees for emergency accommodations services; I was on the committee of a women’s rooming house group and so on. Then, in 1996, I became the manager of a women’s homelessness service, which was Women’s Information, Support and Housing based in the north of Melbourne. I worked there for nine years before coming to Women’s Property Initiatives and I’ve been working here for 12 years.”

Improving access to services and tenure security for people seeking housing assistance is something that Jeanette has concentrated on intensively. Consistent with the view that many in the field argue, this is essential in alleviating the issues surrounding homelessness.

“When working with young, unemployed people, we’d question trying to get them into work or go back to study if they didn’t have that security of good, affordable housing. There was no point,” she says. “You see, the women we house, once they’re in the housing and their kids are settled, they just develop and move forward with their lives in ways you wouldn’t believe. Getting secure housing is absolutely fundamental to them moving on with their lives.”

Getting secure housing is absolutely fundamental to them moving on with their lives

If you’re already thinking that not much has changed between then and now in terms of the conditions and challenges homeless people face, welcome to Jeanette’s world.

“When I hear people advocating for getting rid of things like negative gearing, I think, ‘Yep, we were talking about that back in the 1980s’,” Jeanette explains, equally frustrated and resigned. “Key decision-makers just didn’t listen all those years ago. If some of the things that we had been advocating for back in the 1980s had been taken into account, we probably wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now. We’re in a worse position, absolutely, as far as affordable housing goes. There was just no investment – in Victoria in particular – in community housing or public housing. The amount of public housing just kept being depleted.”

We’re in a worse position, absolutely, as far as affordable housing goes

Despite the frustrations, it’s the small victories (as it is for so many others) that keep Jeanette going: “Maybe the situation’s got worse but when you see the housing that you are able to provide – and you see the women and children moving into the houses and the difference it makes in their life – you just think, well, we have to keep battling away.”

It is not as though Jeanette finds little to be positive about in terms of social housing – far from it. There is an undeniable optimism that underpins her thoughts on where the industry is heading.

“There are some incredibly different and innovative things that are out there now because the government hasn’t done it and other people have had to,” she says. “There’s some really innovative models of getting investment for community housing and, when they roll out, it could provide significant funding, which is fantastic. I find it absolutely energising and inspiring. It makes me think, ‘Well, there’s hope out there’.”

“I’ve been critical about government but the current State Government with the recent release of their Homes for Victorians is to be congratulated,” she continues. “They’re really trying to do something, and really trying to make some investment during difficult times so they’re to be congratulated for what they’ve done in the last year or so. But it’s still tough.”

Jeanette admits it is hard for her to single out just one project or professional achievement of which she is most proud. However, the longevity and resilience of youth housing groups she helped establish that continue to exist, as well as her commitment to establishing shelters and supports for domestic violence survivors, are high up on the list.

“I believe they may not be exactly as I formed them but all of those youth housing services still currently exist in some way or another,” she says. “Back in the 1980s, I was the chair of the Youth Accommodation Coalition, and there was a real need for a youth refuge that was for young women only – because of different experiences that young women were coming from – and it wasn’t really okay for them to be accommodated in youth refuges.”

They may not be exactly as I formed them but all of those youth housing services still currently exist in some way or another

Her focus on services for women and successes in establishing supports throughout Melbourne also led her, eventually, to her current role with Women’s Property Initiatives (WPI); an organisation committed to improving the lives of women and children by developing quality, long-term affordable housing.

“When I joined, WPI was Victorian Women’s Housing Association,” explains Jeanette. “We’re still one of the smaller housing providers in Victoria but we’ve grown significantly from when I started. We’ve increased from 11 properties to more than 80, and we’ve got even more coming on-board so that’s all very positive. We’ve continued to do some different and innovative things, and working here’s been fantastic. I’ve just loved it. I mean, really loved it.”

I’ve just loved it. I mean, really loved it

Away from the pressures of work, Jeanette’s most happy in the water, with a love of scuba diving, snorkelling and boogie-boarding. Catching up with friends for languid brunches at some of Melbourne’s finer cafes is a cherished part of her weekends, as well as spending time with her family. But she’s also an avid skier and, perhaps ironically, her love of the water almost cost her the skiing experience of a lifetime in Europe only a few years ago.

“Prior to the National Housing Conference in Perth in 2015,” she tells. “I decided to go to Coral Bay and have a bit of a break to do snorkelling because I just love it. That was all fine and, on the day I was to fly back down to Perth for the conference, I went for a walk along the beach. I slipped on this incredibly, obviously slippery, flat rock right on the water’s edge and put my arm down and thought, ‘My god, that hurt!’ I got up and did it again… and broke it!”

If that wasn’t bad enough, six weeks following that accident, Jeanette was supposed fly to Austria for a dream skiing vacation.

“I was asking the osteo surgeons [whether I should go or not] and there were varying responses, depending on whether they were skiers or not. Some of them were saying, ‘All booked in and paid for?’ and I said, ‘Yep,’ and they said, ‘Well, I know what I’d do,’” she recalls, laughing. “Others were saying, ‘Don’t you even think about it – how ridiculous!’”

“I got my arm out of the sling the day before we left, but I had no strength in it,” she recalls with some humour. “I couldn’t lift it off my leg in the plane. I just thought, ‘I cannot do it,’ because there was not an ounce of strength in it. Anyway, that was sad, so that’s my broken bone and I… Well, I’ve actually broken a rib as well, but yeah, you know I wasn’t doing anything adventurous, really, other than walking along a beach early in the morning.”

As far as her legacy goes, it is commitment and passion that Jeanette hopes she will be remembered.

“I think my colleagues would say I am pretty passionate and committed about housing. What else would they say? Who knows? Do you want me to ask them?” she laughs. “No, look, that’s the main thing I think they’d probably say is that I’m, yeah… They see me as someone who doesn’t give up easily and who was a strong advocate – hopefully, still a strong advocate – for trying to get social justice in housing happening. So an advocate for women and children – and gender equality. Yeah, I think that’s it.”

Women’s Property Initiative won the Leading Housing Development and Inspirational Team Member categories at 2017 Victorian AHI Awards for Professional Excellence 2017