A Career in Housing: Phil Fagan-Schmidt

Phil Fagan-Schmidt is Executive Director of Housing SA but did you realise he knows a thing or two about grapes? HousingWORKS uncovers his career trajectory and finds out, like a fine wine, Phil only gets better with age.

Airports are stressful for people at the best of times. The list of things that can get your hackles up when flying is pretty big so we’re under no illusion that conducting a phone interview with Phil Fagan-Schmidt as he’s waiting to board a flight home is far from optimal. Thankfully, when we get him on the line, Phil sounds relaxed and refreshed, although with only 20 minutes until boarding. So let’s get to it…

Phil Fagan-Schmidt’s time in housing spans more than 20 years. After studying Social Work at university – and completing an Honours thesis on Community Housing – he kick-started his career via a six-week contract as an intake worker in an emergency housing office. From that first contract, it’s been onwards and, invariably, upwards in a journey that has led him to the position of Executive Director of Housing SA.

After a number of years working in the service delivery side of housing and starting a family, Phil could hear study calling him again.

“I developed a growing interest in the reasons behind our housing problems so I returned to studies, eventually gaining a Masters in Public Policy,” he explains. “This opened an opportunity for a part-time teaching role at two of the local universities and also opened the door to my first executive position in the Premier’s Department.”

After five years in a diverse range of infrastructure, environment and resource management roles, he was recruited to the Human Services Department to establish a policy capacity across health, community services and housing.

“I returned to housing about a decade ago,” says Phil. “And I really feel this wider experience has prepared me, in part, for my current role.”

The challenges are often intense for people working in the housing sector but the sources of inspiration for Phil are many and varied.

“I am motivated by the reckless generosity, hope and optimism of people who have done it tough. They often have the most remarkable stories. I think it is a great privilege to work with disadvantaged families and communities, travel their journey, hear their stories and try to make a difference.”

The hardworking housing officers and case workers who, day-in and day-out, encounter very difficult circumstances also inspire Phil to push himself to greater heights.

“In some ways, it’s difficult for [housing workers] not to be motivated because you’re making a difference to people’s lives,” he remarks. “To have a decent house, it makes people more confident, makes them better connected in the community.”

That opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others is something that Phil has really been able to sink his teeth into over his career. As part of the Nation Building Stimulus Program, Housing SA constructed 1,400 houses in less than three years from announcement to completion. In hindsight, that challenge ended up being one of the highlights of his career, particularly the development of a 17-storey residential tower in Adelaide. Seventy-five percent of the tower is private housing, with the balance reserved for social housing and a 30-bed youth accommodation facility.

“It was really an opportunity to test all of the new thinking about how to create strong place management and mixed communities,” says Phil of the project. “And how to locate disadvantaged people, find the right services and break down some of that disadvantage.”

As well as the opportunity to put conventional wisdom to the test, it also provided Phil and his team with a significant partnership management test.

“What I really liked was pushing into many partnerships,” he explains. “We were partners with the developer, and we partnered with a 24-7 youth crisis facility. We were also partners in selling the property so it was important to create a community. That was a practical example of putting all your ideas into a big melting pot and working for people, having a shot.”

While the residential tower would go on to win state and national awards*, it was also a high-risk venture. We might all be blessed with 20/20 hindsight but Phil remains adamant that not proceeding with the project would have been more disastrous than the project never going ahead. For him, a calculated roll of the dice is essential to future successes in social and community housing.

“In this instance, I think it was successful but you don’t always have to be successful,” he says. “I think it’s really practical things that make a difference and pushing the boundaries. We have to not fear failure if we’re going to push the boundaries.”

Having been very hands on at the start of his career, Phil acknowledges that remaining in touch with ‘the coal-face’, so to speak, has been something to consider in his transition into executive roles.

“I think there’s always a risk of getting drawn into the bit of the business you manage,” he notes. “I think it’s a challenge for all of us that you can never do enough. You always love when you get out into regions and start chatting to staff and tenants and the like. My partner works in community mental health. She is very hands-on so I get to chat to her about what’s happened in her day.”

Phil is also a member of South Australia’s Youth Parole Board, which he believes helps him stay grounded, as well as giving him some unique insights into the bigger challenges facing housing workers in certain sectors.

“You read files, you read psychological reports, you have a look at their plan of getting into housing, and jobs and training and the like. It’s really practical and eye-opening to be involved with the parole board.”

Commenting on the future of housing in Australia, Phil believes the debate on affordability getting more oxygen in political commentary is a positive step: “Housing is so fundamental to the economy now. We need fundamental reform in this country in housing, and we should not be satisfied with what we have got.”

“Our colleagues in the disability space have really showed us how to reform,” he continues. “They’ve generated a national movement for reform that will see an extra $12 billion or $15 billion invested in disability with the roll-out of the [NDIS]. We probably need something of around that order in housing. It really only starts by public debate – whether it’s debate about policy on negative gearing or young people getting home ownership, it’s all part of the housing debate. It’s all-important and it’s all opportunity for the nation to start talking about housing.”

In his spare time, Phil likes to escape into his garden or cook from it. But his favourite escape from the day-to-day pressures of work is his membership with an amateur wine group.

“There are six of us, and one of us has been making wines for 50 vintages. Two of [the club members] are over 80 years-old so I’m very much the apprentice of the group,” he laughs.

The group produces its own wines from vineyard to glass. They pick their own grapes, de-stem and crush them, before allowing the grapes to ferment. One of the club members draws from his Italian ancestry having contributed a 70-year-old basket press to the winemaking equipment. They then mature in oak barrels for about a year.

“You ‘rack’ those barrels about three times – take a wine out and clean the lees from the bottom of the barrels,” explains Phil of the winemaking process. “At the end of 12 months, hopefully, you’ve got wine that’s good enough to go into a bottle, and then you have a big bottling day where you invite all the partners around for a bottle and a long lunch. Then you organise a ride home,” he laughs again.

As one of the more junior members of the group, Phil is still biding his time by getting his hands dirty and demonstrating his worth.

“I’m not allowed to do the more technical jobs yet like preparing yeast, measuring Baume and acid levels – I have to learn and prove myself before I’m allowed to,” he admits jovially. “But it’s lots of fun. At the end of every day – or every winemaking day – my ribs hurt from the laughter of having fun with a bunch of blokes who do something very different.”

In terms of his career in the housing sector, ask Phil how he would like to be remembered and he says he would hope to be thought of as a contributor.

“We’re part of an industry that is contributing to a better set of housing arrangements so, I guess, I hope I come away from it having made a decent contribution,” he reflects. “Most people are in this industry because they love it. They’re not doing it because they’re monuments or icons or anything in particular. They get satisfaction from the contribution they make as part of their job.”

* UDIA 2013 State Presidents Award and UDIA 2013 National Award for Excellence for Best High Density Housing; 2012 Civic Trust Award for Innovation in Residential Development and Urban Award for People’s Choice.