Faiths unite to house the needy

Rob Stokes retired as Pittwater MP in March 2023 and by July had joined Faith Housing Alliance (FHA) as chair.

Rob, who has a PhD in Environment and Planning Law, served as Australia’s first-ever minister for active transport with the NSW Government. He also served as minister for planning, public spaces, cities, infrastructure, transport, education, environment and heritage in a political career spanning more than 15 years.

He tells Peninsula Living Pittwater (PLP) about his work advocating for housing justice.

FHA is the industry peak body for all the faith-based groups involved in housing provision and advocating for housing justice, Rob says. Christian and non-Christian faith-based groups are a force in advocating for social and affordable housing.

“I’m really excited to be involved and support them,” says Rob. “We’re all united in a missional focus on providing housing, particularly for those who can’t afford it without some sort of assistance.”

The place of worship or the faith group retains ownership of the land, but allows it to be used for housing.

Rob says the churches aren’t looking to make a significant capital gain, but a yield that will sustain their land ownership over time.

He says that, ultimately, faith groups are acknowledging that part of their faith is their need to look after the underprivileged and those who are struggling.

One of the main functions of FHA is advocating to state, federal and local governments for policies that would unlock more value to develop on church land. Another is linking churches and other faith groups that may have land with people who have expertise in providing development services.

“Often, you’ll have a well-meaning congregation that might have a paddock out the back,” Rob explains. They’ll say, ‘We want to use this to provide affordable housing for our community, but we don’t know how to do it’, so we’ll put them together.”

FHA occasionally hits a few roadblocks in its quest to put a roof over someone’s head.

“One of the huge issues is that churches have been zoned as places of worship, which often don’t allow any other use.”

L-R: Rob with Dan Dwyer (Fresh Hope Communities) and Rose Thomson (FHA)

“We’ve identified 747 churches within 800 metres of train stations,” says Rob. “In many cases, they could be usefully adapted to provide social and affordable housing.”

It is also often questioned whether a church has heritage value, as in the case of an early 1900s church in Marrickville that was set to become 54 affordable housing units for families.

“Council slapped a heritage order on the church,” Mr Stokes explains. “I often find a compromise can be where you keep elements of the heritage building as much as you can right alongside purpose-built accommodation for people who need it.”

Ultimately, the battle was won and the units are now almost complete.

Changes to housing density regulations are a hot topic, particularly on the Northern Beaches, where areas zoned for two or three storeys may end up with seven.

Rob says it doesn’t matter how many dwellings are built on the Northern Beaches as they will never be affordable because of the location.

“The only way we are going to meet the housing needs of a diverse community in the Northern Beaches is through subsidised housing,” Rob says. “And the best way to do that, in my view, is with the churches.”

Mr Stokes tells PLP that the Beacon Hill Anglican Church, which consolidated its congregation in Frenchs Forest and turned the church into bespoke accommodation for young people with profound disabilities.

“So, I’d encourage people on the Beaches to work with church groups that are keen to develop their properties for a mix of uses, including housing,” says Rob.