Steve Bevington is Managing Director of Community Housing Group but he’s been and done everything, from homelessness to Eden and everything in-between. Just don’t call him a radical.
I’m sure we all know someone who’s declared, “If [candidate X] wins, I’m emigrating” when referring to the outcome of a federal election. But, unlike the hundreds of people who’ve said that kind of thing in jest, Steve Bevington, Managing Director of Community Housing Group, proved true to his word when living in England in the ‘80s. With the re-election of Margaret Thatcher’s government for a third consecutive term in 1986, Steve and his wife decided it was time to get out the hell out of Dodge.
“Life was pretty grim for the people that weren’t rich in Britain at that time,” recalls Steve. “I’d made the decision with my partner at the time that, if the British people deigned to re-elect that government for the third time, then it was a club I didn’t want to be part of any longer.”
While the image of sun-soaked beaches, blue skies and lazy summer days is often what draws many from Ol’ Blighty to the colonies, leaving England for Australia wasn’t an automatic choice for Steve.
“It’s not so much that I chose Australia. I just wanted to get out of Britain,” he explains. “I’d lived in and worked in other countries, some in which English wasn’t the main language. And I realised during those times, it is a struggle to build a career where we have to also learn or become fluent in another language at the same time, so that would delay my end capacity.”
With Republican President Ronald Regan – as dogmatically conservative as Baroness Thatcher on the opposite side of the Atlantic – still in ascendancy in the United States, a move across the pond seemed nonsensical – “From the frying pan into the fire,” as Steve says. Apartheid still divided South Africa along racial lines. Violent clashes between protestors and security forces were commonplace throughout the Republic so it hardly seemed the right kind of environment to expose his young family. His choices of English-speaking countries narrowed even further.
“New Zealand was a bit of a… I didn’t know much about New Zealand,” laughs Steve. “It was a sleepy sort of place at the time and was also a bit colder. Australia, on the other hand, was warm.”
The other thing Australia had going for it at the time was New South Wales’ Sapphire Coast. Comprising towns like Bermagui and Merimbula, a small town by the name of Eden had caught Steve’s eye.
“I used to see a photograph on the wall of a place called Eden on the south coast in Ne South Wales with beautiful beaches,” he admits. “Given the struggles I was having, it sounded like the right time and the right vision for a life.”
Steve estimates he’s been in the housing industry for close to 32 years, if not more. It’s been a journey that began in his youth as part of his firsthand difficulties in finding a roof under which he could live. A personal cause célèbre, the lessons garnered from his own experience with homelessness inspired him to get involved at a grass-roots level in his own community.
“I was a young man and did this vigilante stuff in a ‘volunteer’ role,” he laughs. “I used to go out and open up houses, basically, break into houses with a small groups of people to open them up when they were empty for destitute, homeless families. But it was providing a service and people would move in for awhile until they were evicted, later on.”
He bristles when we suggest using the word ‘radical’ to describe his early days in housing. He believes the term ‘activist’ is far more appropriate.
With increasing numbers of people seeking help in the borough of Camden in London, Steve and other volunteers he worked alongside found the opportunity to form a housing cooperative. “We took out one whole street on one side,” he explains. “It was basically 40 to 50 single people living together, just fighting for survival against eviction. Ultimately, government policies changed and, eventually, the co-op was able to buy the houses. It still operates as a cooperative now,” says Steve with great pride.
And so it was, in the mid-1980s, that Steve and his family sought a new start in Australia. Despite the attraction of the New South Wales south coast, the Bevingtons found opportunity knocking in Melbourne – a time in his life that he nominates, without, hesitation among his career highlights.
As a fully qualified carpenter, Steve’s first job in his new homeland was as a teacher, passing on his skills to young women in an affirmative action course in carpentry and joinery. With his teaching role only a short-term contract, he sought the security of something more permanent and eventually landed a role with what was then known as the Victorian Ministry of Housing coordinating – of all things – housing cooperatives in Victoria.
“I worked doing that for two and a half years,” says Steve. “When I came into it, I had 16 cooperatives registered and 38 houses under management. By the time I left it had, I think, 114 cooperatives registered and 900 houses under management. After I left, it had enough momentum to build up to about 2,600 houses in the following six years. It was very satisfying.”
Among other career highlights, Steve believes his involvement in a number of programs and initiatives for improving the lives of Indigenous Australians, the severely physically and mentally disabled, and the lives of inner Melbourne’s homeless remain career highlights because of the lasting difference they’ve made to people’s lives. The ability to foster genuine innovation and increase the knowledge pool in the sector is also something Steve is enormously proud of, not to mention the diversity of people he’s connected with in Australia; some of which Steve says, “If you’d scratch the surface of, you’d find some fantastic stories in their own rights, really.”
These days, Steve and his team at Community Housing have an international focus in their mission. In particular, they have been working tirelessly with our regional neighbours in East Timor for over a decade.
“We’ve been in East Timor since 2004, and it’s taken us until last year to actually get affordable housing programs going,” he said. “The operating environment is just so challenging. The government has very, very little money and has been prioritising, quite rightly, education and health, and hasn’t being able to extend itself to housing. On top of that, there’s still no land title arrangements so you can’t bring in private investment.”
Despite the challenges, Steve and his team eventually designed a housing program that could operate in that environment, and the results have clearly been worth overcoming the numerous obstacles.
“We’re now building housing of very good quality, and training and employing local workers in materials manufacture and construction. Nearly all of the construction materials are made out of local resources.”
Steve is also involved in a significant project in the Chilean Andes: “We have a subsidiary company in Chile, which builds projects and develops housing for the poor, low income earners and Indigenous people in Chile. We were building a project for a group of slum dwellers who lived in shacks on the edge of a river, and they’d lived in absolutely terrible circumstances. These people used to, basically, sell stuff on the streets to try and keep themselves together.”
“We developed a project on the side of a hill – a beautiful view across the Andes – and built 44 houses,” continues Steve. “When we were able to open it, they all walked down the street with shopping trolleys of all the possessions they had. I went back there a year later and I was shocked to look at the people. They had done up their houses – many had transformed their insides of their houses – they’d painted the houses and put stucco plasterwork on them. The older kids were all on the basketball court we built and the younger kids were all on the playground swings. It was this idyllic setting [laughter]. And the thing which topped it all off, they even looked 15 years younger!” He laughs again. “It was unbelievable.”
Despite the many achievements of his career, Steve has never forgotten his own experience with homelessness. It taught him firsthand, the inextricable link between the stability of a place to live, its importance towards participating in the community, and personal growth and development.
“I experienced, over a 10-year period, homelessness and insecure housing, and I reflect on what that did to my life,” he says. “I was unable to really care for my family in a way that would allow me to be proud of myself.”
He hopes, what he’s been able to accomplish, will form part of his legacy. “I believe my job is to try and use my knowledge and technical skills – basically, what I learned over the years – to extend opportunities to as many people as possible and create a base for the use of that forever more,” he says with great care in his choice of words.
“If I can extend that to further regions of the world, even more so. But, yeah… [pause]… That’s what I’d like to be remembered for. And, I think, that’s fair, you know, by the end of my career, I think that would be fair.”
So, did he ever get to Eden? “I didn’t get there until about 10 to 15 years after I arrived in Australia,” admits Steve with a glint in his eyes. “When I did go, I thought, ‘Yeah, it would have worked out pretty well for me in this place.” He can’t help but laugh.