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Changing homelessness with real estate

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When Heather Holst applied to be CEO of HomeGround, at her first interview she proposed the idea of a non-for-profit real estate agency to the board’s selection panel.

Since her appointment, she has brought the idea to reality. HomeGround Real Estate is Australia’s first NFP real-estate agency.

Our mission is about acquiring properties to rent to the homeless people we see,” she says. “We approach landlords just like other real estate agents. A lot of the owners who agree to our system are truly generous.”

Holst believes the private real-estate sector has not been able to match people who need housing with owners who can help.

“You need to know how to select the right people, support them if needed, and help them if there is trouble with their tenancy,” she says. “A lot of the agents we have employed say the welfare element of what they are doing is very important to them.”

Holst says that through her work she has gained a better perspective of why housing can be so expensive. “If we were a for-profit agency, we would want to be raising rents all the time.”

Holst says housing is an evident issue in Australian society and there needs to be a proper national housing policy.

“Low-income earners are falling behind. Lots of people are becoming landlords, and the number of people renting is increasing.

“Considering it is one of our main underlying problems, it is surprising there is no national co-ordinated approach to this issue. We have plenty of money and room in Australia – we can definitely sort this out.”

Radley Property, another real estate agency trying to do good for the wider community, last year launched a social-enterprise model.

“Our main goal is to promote philanthropy through proper transactions – we try to keep it really simple,” says director Belinda Bentley. “When we sell or buy property on behalf of a client, we commit 20 per cent of our commission to charity. Ten per cent goes to one of our partner charities and the other 10 per cent goes toward a charity chosen by our client.

“I want the client be engaged in the process of giving – to really think about the causes they care about.”

In the real estate business for many years, Bentley says she found herself asking ‘Why can’t our own industry give us more than it is?’.

“I honestly believe the real estate industry needs a shake-up,” she says. “I think different types of shake-ups will happen.

“I think there should be more businesses like HomeGround, but that is just going to take time and it is all part of the process.”

Anyone has the opportunity to rent through HomeGround, but if a house is going for a very low rental, the tenants will be assessed.

“Landlords who rent out their home for a very low rental have essentially given a donation – we don’t want to give that away to someone who could pay more,” says Holst, who is happy if for-profit organisations want to follow in her footsteps and take up a NFP business model.

“I have noticed, however, that it is hard for for-profit business people to convert their ideas to a NFP business model,” she says. Bentley agrees, saying she does not always receive positive feedback when she tells people in the for-profit sector about her new business model.

“People struggle to get their head around the fact that businesses can be sustainable while making an impact,” she says.

This article originally appeared in Third Sector’s September magazine- click here for more info.

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