Corporate Member: Southern Cross Community Housing

Name of Organisation: Southern Cross Community Housing

Chief Executive Officer: Alex Pontello

Joined AHI: 2016

Vision of organisation:

“Our vision is that everyone has a home, and a thriving community. Southern Cross Community Housing is more than affordable housing; it’s about community living.”

“Our organisation is supported by four distinct pillars: places, people, pathways and, most importantly, the professionalism of all our passionate staff. I’m a big believer that, if the culture and the organisation is right, it’s directly linked to the quality of service that is delivered, so we place a lot of emphasis in maintaining great work culture.”

Summary of services provided:

Southern Cross Housing is a Tier 1 community housing provider predominantly located on the south coast of NSW. Approximately 1,200 properties are under management and we have office locations in Nowra, Ulladulla, Batemans Bay, Cooma and Moss Vale. Our core business is largely providing accommodation for people in need, and the support services that are required that go hand-in-hand with that. We provide social housing and cater for people on very low to moderate incomes, and we have a portfolio of affordable housing, as well as social.”

“We have over 80 formal support partnership agreements in place so we can facilitate the best possible care for our clients. A good example of this is we recently purchased a private hotel and have partnered with SAHSSI, a specialist organisation assisting women experiencing domestic violence. We are also currently building a complex of garden apartments and we are partnering with Caresouth to accommodate disadvantaged youth.”

“Southern Cross Housing is also diversifying its business. We’ve become our own construction company – we are licenced builders and we’re starting to build our first project as we speak. Not only do we have cost savings and construction flexibility but it’s more about employment opportunities. This project will create an opportunity for five trainees selected from our tenant base who will be mentored by each subcontractor. In partnership with TAFE, these trainees will complete qualifications in construction.”

“We’ve also set up our own real estate services and we’re slowly transitioning our leasehold program through this service. Our idea is to build the portfolio above and beyond our leasehold program into the private rental market so we can help people continue between social housing and into a private rental. As the managing agent, we can provide a safety net while people become more confident and achieve a rental history and references.”

“We are also in the process of offering a suite of financial services and financial counselling for our clients. Not only does this help reduce people’s arrears and non-rent debt but it can also motivate people to realise their dreams of possibly owning their own home one day through tailor-made lending products and shared equity opportunities.”

“The business areas we have diversified into are all pieces of the puzzle. Our intention moving forward is to gradually try reducing our dependency on government subsidies. If we can construct our own projects, and sell and manage our own dwellings – as well as broker mortgage facilities and shared equity products – not only are we facilitating opportunities but we’re also creating various revenue streams and in-house cost savings.”

Defining features of organisation:

“We’ve been here over 30 years in the Shoalhaven [district] so we’ve got deep roots as a regional provider.”

“What I notice that makes us different is the long-term tenure of our employees. We’ve got people that have been here over 25 years. The average tenure of our staff is about eight years. I’ve worked in a number of community housing organisations, and I think the main thing about Southern Cross is its workplace culture. The passion of the people that are here really comes out in how we deliver our services, and I’m quite proud to say that. I really believe this stems from the board down to management and across the organisation.”

Achievements of organisation this year:

“We recently won a package in the Shoalhaven Social Housing Management Transfer tender. When I look at the achievements of the organisation this year, that’s pretty much the biggest achievement we’ve had and will continue to have into next year.”

“We currently have 44 staff; however, by October, we’ll probably be looking at having about 70 staff due to the transfer of approximately 1,000 dwellings. In the Shoalhaven, we’ll effectively be doubling our size.”

“The other big achievement we’ve had over the last 12 months is the implementation of a new integrated IT system. That was huge for us. We went live in October and, knowing that property transfers were coming, we had to fast-track implementation. Now it seems to be going extremely well and, after about six months we seem to be on top of it. It’s the pain we had to go through, but now we’ve centralised a lot of processes and it’s all integrated, which not only makes our business more transparent, it provides much more sophisticated reporting.”

Current programs:

“There are a number of programs we run. Thirty-five percent of our clientele are on a disability support pension and another 30 percent are on a senior’s pension. This led us to implement a program called Yard Assist. We have volunteers that go and mow lawns for people with a disability and for the elderly. We provide all the equipment and they go around and mow the lawns and do the grounds for people who can’t normally do that. That’s been quite successful.”

“We have another program called The Shack. The Shack is an initiative for Shoalhaven youth to develop a range of skills, empowering them to set a positive direction in their lives. It provides a safe and secure place for young people aged 15 to 24 years, offering activities such as basic carpentry skills, furniture repairs, repairing bicycles and lawn mowers. We’ve partnered with three local businesses who funded the hiring of a shed.”

“We also run a number of educational programs like Key2Renting, RSA, first aid and hospitality-focused programs.”

Comment on the current state of housing:

“This is an interesting one. For us, we see the debate around affordable housing as certainly an important one. But, from where we sit, the biggest challenge is crisis accommodation.”

“We see people coming through the door every day needing crisis accommodation – ranging from homeless people, people with mental health issues, and women with young children escaping domestic violence situations. As a social housing provider, we are a bit like an emergency department; a hospital triage system for desperate people needing a safe secure place to stay. Social housing is now only predominantly for priority applicants. We just don’t have enough homes to help people.”

“So, yes, I think affordable housing should be at the forefront of the political agenda but it’s generally targeted at people that just can’t get that deposit or get into the housing market. What we are seeing on the ground is a long way from what we know as affordable housing. What we’re finding, particularly in Nowra, is people living at the showgrounds in tents. Now they’re being moved out from there so they’re all going into the bush living in shanties, which is really sad. I agree, the issue of affordable housing is a big dilemma and continues to get worse but more and more people don’t know where they are going to sleep tonight. This is more than an affordability dilemma.”

Why did you become a Corporate Member of the AHI?

“Networking opportunities and information sharing with likeminded colleagues is what I like about the AHI. It’s beneficial to individuals, organisations and the sector as a whole.”