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From housing to homes: how a community co-op transforms lives

Michelle Baltazar

Filipinos have a strong sense of community that they bring with them wherever they go. Such was the case when 15 newly-arrived Filipino immigrant families living in and around the Sydney suburb of Auburn decided to form a group in 1995 that is now called Kapitbahayan Co-operative Ltd (KCL).

The word ‘kapitbahayan’ loosely means ‘neighbourhood’ in English, and that was the premise behind KCL. It is a volunteer group that was trained and mentored by the Association to Resource Cooperative Housing (ARCH), an information, training and advocacy government co-op under the Department of Housing.

The premise is simple. A Housing Commission is managed by the government. The KCL Housing Co-operative, by contrast, is managed by its tenant-members. Under this win-win model, the government fufills its primary responsibility of providing subsidised accommodation to those who need it most and then outsource the secondary responsibility of maintaining the property asset to those who benefit from the subsidy.

Under this model, the Filipino-Australian community is exceling. More than 16 years since KCL was formed, the government has given it the opportunity to manage six property sites. These are housing complexes in the Sydney suburbs of Auburn, Berala, Wentworthville, Merrylands and Canley Vale.

The sixth site, based in Leumeah, became a full-fledged co-operative last month called the Sedgwick Co-operative (see article here), setting another milestone for KCL, which helped organise the transition.

A second registered co-op is important not just because it shows that the KCL approach works but it also means more houses can be allocated to Filipinos.

KCL’s contribution goes beyond the Filipino community alone. Its president and one of the original members, Ruben Amores, said they helped train and organise a Burmese Housing Co-op as well as other community groups.

“But KCL is not just co-op houses or the bricks-and-mortars, it is more about building ideal communities,” he said, explaining that tenant-members participate in community development activities and learn financial and management skills from their co-op training.

The group has certainly caught the attention of the wider community. It has won numerous awards including the one announced last week: the prestigious Global Bayaning Pilipino award.

The award was established by ABS-CBN in 1994 and honours acts of heroism. While the award has been going on since 1994, this is the first year that it has been given to Filipinos overseas, with KCL the only Australian awardee. ABS-CBN commissioned an independent agency to put each nominee through the rigorous selection process, including interviews and site visit by the agency to KCL’s Canley Vale property site a few months ago.

The award is well-deserved given the broader role that housing co-ops play in Australia. The average house in Sydney can cost as much as $450,000 or just under 20 million pesos. Rent is around $1,520 or around 65,000 pesos per month.

Both numbers would price out young professionals out of the property market let alone part-time workers, the elderly or those who need financial assistance. But rather than rely on housing commission, a housing co-op can provide them with an alternative.

Amores said they are now looking to set up co-ops where there are large numbers of Filipino residents. KCL is hoping to secure the government’s support for a property in Penrith, another Filipino community hub.

”The huge Penrith project is scheduled to be completed in mid-2014 so decisions on social housing allocations may not be forthcoming yet, but the decision makers are already aware of the Kapit-bahayan,” he said.

Through KCL, the spirit of bayanihan or heroism lives on in Australia.

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