Updated: Aug 20
This week, we visit one of our favourite interviews from Issue Three, 'Breaking Ground', an interview that was a collaborative effort between Sylvie Leber, WINC member, and Lauren Forner, Mona Editor in Chief.
With homelessness, lack of access to resources and social isolation very real prospects facing aging women in a social and political system that offers very little support, two women came up with a solution that marked the beginning of an ambitious project. Older Women in Cohousing (WINC) founders, Mary-Faeth Chenery and Anneke Deutsch, speak with their fellow WINC member, Sylvie Leber, and Mona Editor in Chief, Lauren Forner, about their six year long quest to make housing affordable, communal and sustainable for women in the Castlemaine and Daylesford region of Victoria.
What is cohousing and what sets it apart from a retirement village or social housing?
Mary-Faeth Co-housing is a movement that encourages people to collaborate in creating their own housing, working together to become a well-functioning community in which resources are shared. What sets it apart from a retirement village is that everyone has a say in the design, planning, policies, and rules.
Anneke Participatory design means that the facilities that we design are not imposed upon us. It has a lovely balance between having your own private space and also having access to communal or shared spaces: it is not a commune; money is not shared. The legal structure we will use is that of strata title development, with an owners’ corporation that looks after shared assets.
Retirement villages and other housing developments are often designed by profit-driven developers, as well as by churches or philanthropic bodies. The design is according to what these organisations think older people need. You lose quite a bit of money when you exit them. We are looking at a structure in which your asset can grow with the property market if you’re an owner, as well as providing long term housing for those members who can’t afford to purchase.
Mary-Faeth It is not a model for everybody – we have had people join WINC and discover that it is not for them. It is good to be sure before you buy in, which is why it is a fairly long process to become a member. This includes attending various events, including social chats and monthly meetings, to get to know others who are involved. We are direct about our values and what’s important to us, ensuring that people are clear about what they’re getting into. It’s not just an economic venture, it is the building of a community that wants to work together and make this a good time of our lives, helping one another as we grow older.
Why cohousing for older women? Are they particularly vulnerable in today’s rural communities?
Mary-Faeth Loneliness and social isolation are increasing as women age, especially if women stop driving. There are fewer resources to draw on, for example, a senior citizens centre, cinema, social and special interest groups such as art or music. Access to good healthcare is an increasing rural problem. There is a real issue of poverty in some areas, and this confines people to their locality because of the costs of travel.
Anneke I read a briefing paper about two years ago that said 80-100% of small one or two-bedroom flats or units in regional Victoria, particularly in the Grampians region, were affordable on the aged pension, meaning rent costing less than 30% of income. Now, in most areas, this type of affordable housing is down to zero. Some shires might have 20% of houses that are affordable in that way, but there’s just a tsunami of older women and welfare recipients with no housing. It is not just that rents are expensive but a lot of the housing available is being used for short-term holiday accommodation. Anything available in the long-term is not affordable.
Older women are particularly vulnerable because they have less money and less superannuation, having had less earning power because of time out from the workforce while raising children or caring for elderly family members. There are more than 400,000 women in Australia facing homelessness. There are also the impacts of becoming less able and feeling vulnerable to intruders.
So how did this come about as a formal project?
Anneke: I worked voluntarily in advocacy and housing for older lesbians for about 12 years for Matrix Guild and I started to think, as I approached the age of sixty, that I should do something about creating somewhere I might like to live in. I had come across the idea of cohousing, and I wanted to live in a community where lesbian culture was celebrated and women’s views weren’t subordinate to men’s, which tends to happen in mixed communities. I was particularly attracted to cohousing for single older women because it provides security and company and, in some cases, affordability. Much intergenerational cohousing has a large percentage of older women; I think it’s because we like to work collaboratively, and research indicates cohousing is particularly attractive to older women. Myfan Jordan’s research* showed that about 97% of older women who had affordability problems would move to cohousing.
Mary-Faeth Anneke initiated the process by creating a forum on housing about six years ago and, as a result of that, a group of half a dozen women who were interested in the possibility of building a cohousing community in a rural setting started meeting regularly.
Anneke Initially it was a group of older lesbians, including some Daylesford neighbours meeting after the forum for older women. Gradually this group has broadened and increased.
You both seem to have been the driving force behind this community building, were you friends before you started this project?
Mary-Faeth As friends and next-door neighbours in Daylesford we built the beginning of the WINC group mostly via word of mouth. We go for dog walks or have a beer and talk about WINC. We are looking forward to when we can do all that without having to talk about WINC. It’s a lot of work. We also share what we have learned so far with other cohousing groups.
Anneke Mary-Faeth and I have become closer friends as a result of this project, trust has grown, and we hope this will happen in the community as it develops. Mary-Faeth and I now share an electric car. We have also got to know a lot of other wonderful women who we wouldn’t have met otherwise. Already women in the group want to help each other through this process of our becoming a community; we have working bees and help with gardening, moving house and other tasks. Friendships are developing organically within the group.
At the heart of this idea seems to be a sense of community and relationship building. How important has collaboration been in achieving this?
Mary-Faeth Community is the point! If not, it won’t work. A commitment to participation is needed. At this stage it is a collaboration. We have an amazing number of creative and talented women who are happy to work together to make this thing happen. Among them are an electrician, plenty of gardeners, builders, cabinetmakers, social and community workers, counsellors, knitters and sewers, masseurs, a yoga teacher, bike mechanics, teachers, architects, lawyers, artists, musicians, writers, academics, ex-CEOs and a vet. We don’t have a plumber yet, or a doctor, but they will come!
Anneke Collaboration is crucial to draw on a range of skills. Mary-Faeth is very articulate and people-focused, and I am good at doing and achieving. It is crucial that there is ownership of this project by the group involved; when this happens, it makes the path easier, everyone comes to feel the project is theirs and they are on board with the decisions made and will uphold those decisions. The women who joined early on were mostly lesbians and women that I knew, but it has got much bigger than that. The word has spread without any advertising apart from the recent ABC exposure which sparked a lot of interest. We have a robust joining process now, so everything is laid out clearly in information packages. We want to make sure that all who join are willing contributors.
We know that progressive ideas are often met with resistance, which can be a barrier to change. Have you found the wider community supportive of this project?
Mary-Faeth I have not found anyone who doesn’t think it’s a good idea. In Daylesford people stop me on the street and tell me they can see that cohousing addresses the problem of older women’s homelessness. People can see that cohousing is flexible to accommodate a range of financial resources and that living together will reduce costs generally. Also, living together in small footprint houses should reduce the burden on the environment as well as the cost of our dwellings compared to that of larger houses.
Anneke The cohousing idea seems to really inspire and excite people. We have had pro bono support from professionals in the property development area: legal professionals, valuers, finance people. The model is also suitable for single parents (who are more often women) because they have a community of people they can trust and where their children can be safe.
Have there been challenges that you’ve encountered during this bold project?
Mary-Faeth The main challenge is finding suitable land and funding as well as the persistence needed to organise something this complex. Charles Durrett’s books have given us a foundation in planning, taught us to achieve consensus and the importance of study groups as part of the planning process.
Anneke Many people don’t realise the range and amount of work that needs to be done to get a cohousing project underway, whether it be legal contracts, understanding the type of development that can take place on particular types of land, or the organisation behind setting up information sessions, or workshops about design. There is a lot of work even in delegating, trying to equip women and to get them confident enough to take on a task.
WINC is in competition with developers for land, and there’s been a big jump in housing prices due to Covid. We’ve got a lot of Victorian State government support theoretically, but when it comes to actually selling government land, there’s a competitive process. We’ve got to compete with developers at auction. Although the huge lack of affordable and social housing for older women is acknowledged by the government, they sell land for the highest price when they could make it easier by allowing groups like ours to investigate and purchase without having to compete with the developers.
It sounds like besides the immense amount of work that has gone into the practicalities, there are some financial hurdles, too. Where is the money for this communal housing project coming from?
Mary-Faeth We intend to support women across the financial spectrum and will work with a community housing provider to provide some social housing, also we’re hoping that this provider will become our developer. This will ensure housing for 4-6 social housing tenants. We are working with the State Government to create a shared equity product that we hope they will assist with.
There have been a few grants: we have received some money from the Victorian Women’s Trust and from Lesbians Incorporated, a not-for-profit group, that helped us initially with some of our legal fees. We’ve received donations to the Middle Women’s Housing Fund (a fund for women who have some funds but not sufficient) from a range of donors and have received assistance, in particular, from the Australian Communities Foundation which hosted a learning circle where their donors got to hear about WINC. As well, some of our members and friends have made generous donations to WINC.
There is a philanthropic fund grant for pilot projects that can be upscaled/expanded upon, creating a larger social benefit and we are hoping to be able to tap into that. We intend sharing our knowledge with any future older women’s cohousing groups.
So, this network that you’re establishing could mean that this same project could be the blueprint for shared developments across Australia to assist those who are most vulnerable in our communities. Is cohousing the solution to many of our modern social issues?
Mary-Faeth Cohousing can certainly contribute to solving the problems of housing for older women and create more equitable access to housing for those with disabilities. There are the usual issues that come up when people live closely together but there are also the positive aspects of mutual support and caring for one another, thus addressing the ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The wider community will benefit from the input of a group of people who bring many skills and much experience.
Anneke There are people cohousing doesn’t suit, those who really value privacy and don’t want to have to wait for a group to decide things about their environment but there are many who are ready to commit and contribute whatever is required. There are huge benefits in having so many opportunities for social interaction at your door; it is not compulsory but available should you want it. Covid showed us how important it is to have people you like nearby. It is good practice for when you are old and your world contracts, when you are not mobile and can’t drive any more. It is very important to have people around you who you like and trust, who can assist you with things as you can for them, when you can’t do these things yourself. People growing old in large houses, alone, can make all their own decisions but are often very lonely. In intergenerational cohousing there are benefits too – kids get to interact with other adults, maybe older adults if they don’t have grandparents of their own and single parents have support and options for respite and childcare.
Our cohousing design principles also encompass sustainability in terms of energy efficient design, which also reduces the need for heating and cooling. We will reduce consumption by sharing things like lawn mowers and other equipment and have the option of a shared laundry and workshop. We will grow a lot of our own food and harness economies of scale for food purchasing. There is also car-pooling and other ways to reduce our carbon footprint.
The significant challenges facing older women in rural areas can be addressed by helping one another. The development of new cohousing communities provides an opportunity for this through the cooperative and caring spirit nurtured there.
Myfan Jordan (2022), ‘Gendered Housing’, New Economy, Volume 3 (October).
Myfan Jordan (2019), ‘Mutual Appreciation: A social innovation thinkpiece’, Per Capita.
For further information about WINC:
A special thank you to Sylvie Leber for her long hours of work with Anneke and Mary-Faeth to put together and transcribe the interview, and Erica Salisbury for her photography.
Sylvie is a 73 year old French born artist, writer, musician and occasional actor. Her activism and work has focused on the human rights and wellbeing of women, older adults, refugees, people of colour, minority religions and those experiencing poverty. Amongst the work she has had published, is her story How come You’re So Sane in the anthology: #MeToo - Stories from the Australian Movement (2019). She has been a member of Older Women in Cohousing (WINC) for over 3 years. Sylvie says she is not retired. She is refired.
Lauren Forner is the Editor in Chief at Mona Magazine. She has been awarded various prizes for her short stories and published a collection of poetry, Parts of a Whole, in 2021. Lauren has years of experience teaching English literature and creative writing to teenagers, adults and children and reads like her life depends on it. She is perpetually completing her Masters in Creative Writing and, like all good writers, working on the elusive novel. Lauren currently lives on Wiradjuri land in the Riverina, New South Wales, and dedicates most of her waking hours to her work in public mental health.