Five Alternative Housing Models for Weary Renters

Wednesday December 04, 2019 Written by luke ryan, illustrations by Michelle Pereira

Finding a house used to be so simple: you found a house you liked, then you bought it. But as you may have heard over your avocado toast, the housing market has become increasingly out of reach to anyone without a seven-digit salary or a willingness to live in the suburban equivalent of Neptune. There is hope, however. Architects, urban planners, community activists and property developers are exploring the question of how we might live more equitably and sustainably. Here are a few ideas being trialled around the world.

Illustrations by Michelle Pereira

CO-OP HOUSING The humble co-operative is the fundamental unit of progressive housing policy. Dating back to the days of Babylon, where excavated tablets show evidence of two people owning a different floor of the same house, co-ops are typically defined by a shared responsibility for things such as repairs, utilities, rents and the question of who joins and leaves the estate. Co-ops came back into fashion in the 19th century as a tonic against rapacious tenement landlords. Rather than a single entity owning the property, the building as a whole is owned by a co operative that residents either buy shares in or sign a lease with. Though they’re a long-proven driver of housing affordability in Europe, co-ops remain a fringe idea in Australia: only 0.05 per cent of the Australian housing sector is co-operative, compared with 18 per cent in Sweden.

RENT WITH THE OPTION TO BUY In recent years, Melbourne has become an unlikely vanguard for the concept of ethical market-based housing. (We say ‘unlikely’ because the Australian government has been slow to introduce policies that might make the housing market more accessible to first-home buyers.) Developers such as Assemble are pioneering the concept of rent-with-the-option-to-buy properties through the Assemble Model, where residents are allowed to lease their homes while they save the money to buy it. Both rental and purchase price are fixed, and there’s no obligation to buy – or even to stay if you don’t want to – meaning that residents can retain the flexibility and independence so often stripped by a million-dollar mortgage.

SELF-BUILD Not for the faint of heart (or the scarce of time), self-building, or zelfbuow in Dutch, does exactly what it says on the tin. Pioneered by a Dutch politician named Adri Duivesteijn, self-build communities typically offer affordable plots to lower income people and families on the proviso that they then do most of the building themselves. To sweeten the deal, many of the applicable planning regulations are torn up, so the resulting neighbourhoods are quirky, highly individual zones where architecture unfolds in unexpected ways – and at a fraction of the usual price.

BAUGRUPPE Trust the Germans to come up with fun terms for complex ideas. Baugruppe (German for ‘building group’) communities see residents acting together as the collective financiers of their own apartment complexes. In a typical baugruppe, future residents select an architect, then oversee the design and building of their shared home. While it’s not as affordable or social as co-op housing – deposits can be as high as 30 per cent – the resulting apartments tend to be well-designed, community oriented and environmentally sustainable. Ah, the delightful side effects of allowing people to make their own decisions about the kinds of homes they want to live in.

CO-HOUSING As much an exercise in radical democracy as it is a housing model, co-housing emerged in Denmark in the late 1960s as a new mode of collective living. While the movement is loosely defined, your average co-housing community consists of around 20 to 30 homes, bound together by shared amenities and a communally agreed-to charter that sets out the roles and expectations of the residents. While similar to traditional co-ops, cohousing developments tend to be more philosophically driven, often with an emphasis on environmental responsibility, shared spaces and active community building. Murundaka in Melbourne’s northeast is a prime example: 40 people living in 20 apartments built around a central courtyard and garden. They share meals and live the community dream. Hopefully they like one other.

Assemble is pioneering a new pathway to home ownership, one that allows aspiring homeowners to rent for five years before deciding whether to buy. Curious? Visit to learn about the Assemble Model, and to register your interest in their latest project, 15 Thompson St., in Kensington, Melbourne.