Certified Housing Professional: Mike Allen

HousingWORKS caught up with the now retired Chief Executive of Housing New South Wales, Mike Allen, whose 37 years (and counting) in the housing industry is proof you can’t keep a good man down. 
It’s a Tuesday morning in the picturesque eastern Sydney beachside suburb of Collaroy – nestled between Dee Why, Long Reef and Narrabeen – where we find Mike Allen having a coffee. “I’ve got neighbours doing some very noisy building work,” he explains. “So I’m grateful for the excuse to get out and find some quiet.”

The image of Mike as a happily retired former executive with his feet up, reading the daily paper from front to back, is highly deceptive, to say the least. By Mike’s own admission, he’s almost as busy now as he was before accepting the metaphorical gold watch.

“There’s a name for it, I’m told – it’s called ‘an encore career’,” he laughs. “Retirement for me was never about stopping work completely; it was about stopping full-time work and having…” he trails off. “…I would have to admit to being a workaholic and semi-retirement’s one way of, in a sense, forcing me to have a work-life balance. I was always very good at giving advice to staff on work-life balance but pretty crappy at taking it myself. I loved my housing work with a great passion so it was easy to let it consume my world, really.”

Case in point: when we first tried to contact Mike for this interview, he was in the middle of touring Australia but, rather than taking a break, was busily helping establish partnerships with some of the country’s elite property developers for a philanthropic initiative – Homes for Homes.

“It came about because my real passion for all things housing hasn’t gone away, even though I’m not working full-time. I’m finding new outlets for it,” says Mike. “I’d had some involvement over the years with The Big Issue – they have an annual CEO selling-day and I’d done all those sorts of things. I had some early contact several years ago when they were first starting to frame up the Homes For Homes concept, and it was something that interested me so I stayed involved with them in my retirement and to do anything I could to help.”

The term ‘permissive caveat’ might not be familiar to the average punter outside of housing and mortgage finance industries but, if Mike and his fellow entrepreneurs at Homes For Homes have their way, the term will soon become part of the wider vernacular.

Homes For Homes’ mission is to help finance the construction of new homes targeting the homeless and those desperately seeking affordable housing. Under the initiative, Homes For Homes donors donate one tenth of one percent of their home when they sell, which is finalised as part of the normal course of business at settlement.

“The commitment to donate gets placed on the title of the house,” explains Mike. “It’s all voluntary – people can take it off and not have to pay it, and it only kicks in when someone sells their house. It’s just another payment that gets paid at settlement and it goes to Homes for Homes – a charitable trust – so it has [deductible gift register] status. Homes for Homes then invests donations into more social and affordable housing.”

As part of nationwide roadshow, Mike helped pitch to government and property developers alike. Property giant Grocon came on-board with an enormous boost. While committing to apply permissive caveats on all of the residential developments they control, the people at Grocon also decided to go one step further.

“It kicks in when someone buys with it on the title,’ explains Mike. “But it only gets paid on a new home once someone sells it in, say, however many years’ time. In Grocon’s case, they said, ‘Since it doesn’t kick in when we sell it, we’ll make the donation even though it’s not required.’ So it’s quite exciting and well done to them for doing that.”

“I’m just advising Homes For Homes, really, on how to spend the money, and that’s a good thing,” laughs Mike. “So I’m not sure I’m really having ‘an encore career’ but I’m dabbling in a range of housing things. I find it really interesting and satisfying, and I do actually have a pretty strong belief that people have a commitment to give back. I’m really pleased to have some opportunity to continue giving back in the housing space.”

Tracing Mike’s involvement in housing goes back way beyond his (almost) 40 years in the industry to a very different career-start: Sydney’s old cinema houses and movie theatres. “I grew up in cinemas because my dad used to work for Metro Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). They used to own a cinema chain in Sydney and he managed them for most of his career.”

“I literally grew up following him around, as you do in school holidays, when you’d go to work with your Dad,” continues Mike. “Then, when I got to be about 12, I started getting paid for selling lollies and ice creams and, after that, I became an usher. I did all the jobs in the theatre.”

As much as Mike loved the magic of silver screen (his favourite film – The Intouchables), there was an internal itch that wasn’t being scratched. “I’d always, I think, had a strong sense of social justice,” muses Mike. “I was involved in social work at a local level, not so much at a professional level. I went off and had a five-year period working at the Sydney Opera House, starting just before it opened – and that was a great opportunity and a very exciting time but it wasn’t satisfying my need to be making a difference in my work.”

“So I sought out an opportunity to work in the public service in NSW because I thought that was a good thing to do; that it would be one avenue where I’d have some greater choice about the things I could do,” he continues. “I had a choice of working in several departments after I was accepted, and I chose what was then the Housing Commission and never looked back, really.”

Despite Mike’s numerous achievements, the most rewarding part of the job has been the passion of people he has been fortunate to work alongside. “People come into housing through a variety of different paths,” explains Mike. “But, once they’ve spent any time in housing, you know, there’s a clear commitment to make a difference. I’m sure people in other spheres of government say that, but I’ve really seen some wonderful and committed staff. The commitment of people working in housing, as well as the people who were the tenants or the clients, is just incredibly satisfying.”

Conversely, for the highs, there’s a pretty significant low for Mike. The thing that weighs upon him most is a sense he underestimated how much he could have achieved in his time. “I would love to have grown the community housing sector in NSW faster,” he says. “We had a strategy called Planning for the Future with a target to grow community housing from 13,000 to 30,000 over a ten-year period. It’s pretty much at the 30,000 now but I think we were too conservative in our ambitions to grow the sector. I think we could have grown the sector much more substantially.”

Despite eschewing a traditional retirement, having more time to devote to the things that are important to him is something Mike considers vital. “I really enjoy having time to exercise and there’s wonderful opportunities around Sydney to go bushwalking. I love that,” he smiles.

“I also spend time with friends and I’ve got a regular gym date with my best friend. It’s nice to have a greater flexibility that comes with being semi-retired and being allowed to do all sorts of things, like spending time with the people you care about, really.”

When it comes to contemplating his legacy, Mike – like so many others in the industry – ponders his answer with incredible depth. “It is kind of hard to talk about yourself,” he admits. “I’d like to think people would say, ‘Mike had a really strong housing passion and he was a great colleague to work with’. I did quite a lot of national work, which I have to say I was pretty proud of, you know.

“I always had a sense of being part of a larger team; my management team, the team in my organisation, the team of housing professionals across the country… We were all members of a variety of teams and I think that collegiate approach is something I’d like to think of as making a difference. I feel I did, but that’s for other people to judge.”

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