AHI Member: Simon Newport, Aboriginal Housing Office (Department of Family and Community Services, NSW)

Name: Simon Newport

Title: Director of Property and Finance, Aboriginal Housing Office (Department of Family and Community Services, NSW)

Joined AHI: July 2017

Residence: Western Sydney

Years in housing: 22

 Current project or activity:

“As my job title suggests, I’m responsible for the growth, construction and maintenance of our housing portfolio, and I’m also the finance director. It’s a busy role. It’s got a view over the entire operation, from the finance perspective, and I am responsible for just over two-thirds of the operating budget for the AHO. We own about 6,000 houses, and run the maintenance and upgrades on those houses. We run a multi-million-dollar-a-year annual capital program as well, so it’s a pretty busy job.”

What made you choose a housing career? 

“I’ve got about 20 years in construction and housing, which started as a purely financial position. Over the years, I’ve moved into general management and leadership roles. I hadn’t seriously contemplated moving into government until I was approached out of the blue about four years ago. I’d just completed a very hectic corporate role when they pitched me the purpose of the AHO. It didn’t take me long to realise what a unique opportunity – and organisation – it is, so I jumped at the chance.”

What are you particularly proud of having accomplished? 

“If I can narrow it down to one project, I would say our Climate Resilience Program is a major highlight. Last year, we announced that, for the first time in the hottest parts of NSW, our homes would have energy-efficient air-conditioning installed – at no cost to the tenant – in about 1,000 homes. We then backed that up this year with matching solar panels for the same homes. The feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, especially when they see us keep our promises. And, more importantly, we’re using Indigenous businesses to deliver much of the work.”

What makes you motivated or inspired in your career?

“For me, it’s about taking my private sector experience, which is pretty extensive, and then segueing that experience into government. There are a lot of skills that cross over but there are also a lot of skills that I had to pick up. So, for me, being good at something in the private sector and then wanting to be good at it in the public sector was a real challenge.”

“The AHO is the only Aboriginal housing organisation that’s left standing within the Australian interstate or federal public sector so it is quite an unique beast, if you think about it. Shane [Hamilton, CEO, Aboriginal Housing Office] often says to us all, “Take a look behind you – there’s nobody else waiting in line to do our job.” The constant shadow hanging over us is they will ‘mainstream the services’ and remove the Aboriginal element from the service delivery, and we all know that’s not the best solution. So it’s up to us every day to make sure we continue to deliver.”

What attributes make a great housing or advocacy worker?

“For me, it’s one word: Authenticity. I’m always telling my team, keep your promises but don’t be afraid to deliver bad news. Deliver it directly and sincerely but don’t ever make excuses. Especially with some of the communities we work in, people can smell out a phoney very quickly. They’ve heard it all before. I only ask people to believe me once I start delivering, then I’ve got their trust. Once I’ve got their trust, that’s it. So for me it’s authenticity… and keeping promises.”

What are the biggest challenges facing housing professionals today? 

“I’m going to answer this in relation to the Aboriginal housing sector because that’s where I’m working at the moment… I believe the challenges faced in operating in regional and remote areas are significant. How do the housing organisations keep hold of what makes them good – which is their closeness to community – but continue to move forward in becoming larger and more robust organisations that are capable of taking on a greater number of properties? Once they can get that reputation – that capacity – then I think they can make a real difference because, at the moment, we’re all sort of stuck in the middle. The aspiration is there, and now we’ve got to develop the sector so, effectively, government can see that [Aboriginal community housing providers are] ready to take on more.”

What do you believe are the future directions for the housing profession? 

“I’d say, make sure your business model is sound and you’re constantly revising it to become more efficient. Make sure the numbers fit together – that the model works. Make sure you can pay your bills. And then, once you’ve set that foundation, I say don’t be afraid to look at new opportunities that leverage new skill-sets. Get your foundations right and see what else you can do.”

What do you hope to achieve from your AHI Membership?

“I think, at first, I’ll just learn from some of the other really good Members… maybe take part in some of the networking. Down the road, I might step up and put myself forward to play a larger role but, being a new Member, I think I should get to know the lay of the land first.”