Resilient, Connected Communities

On the face of it, Assemble is an organisation that provides end-to-end property development and management services. We buy development sites, build ‘multi-family’ (long-term rental) properties, and enable communities to develop within and around them. But more than that, we’re set up to participate and contribute positively to the new economy.

The new economy is not one that is devoid of capitalism; profit-making is still important, but it is a service-based economy where organisations are able to ‘do good’ while doing business. Fundamental to the operation of our organisation is the ability to source capital to deliver projects. However, to contribute positively and operate a resilient business in the new economy, an organisation needs to do a whole bunch of other things for communities and individuals to make a positive impact.

I come from a traditional property development background, previously driven by optimising returns. Assemble is an organisation that has investors, and we still need to make returns and stay focused on delivering strong returns, but we achieve that in a manner that’s constructive, collaborative, and positive for our residents (and the wider community). Assemble works for the betterment of our residents’ lives, which in the property development industry, is pretty unique.

We’re not interested in infinity pools and gyms and business centres. People who can afford to pay $700-800 per week for a one-bedroom apartment are not our customers. We’re only interested in low and moderate income housing. We provide a pared-back service model, which is of much more interest to us than ultra-high-end rental living and ultimately assists in filling the real housing vacuum which exists for middle Australians.

Assemble works for the betterment of our residents’ lives, which in the property development industry, is pretty unique.

We’ll provide resident services to make people’s lives easier and more efficient, as well as provide spaces and resources within a building to allow a community to develop. We work closely with our residents along the way to seek their feedback on our approach, to make sure the end result is one that meets their particular needs and aspirations. We won’t provide a juiced-up service targeting above-market rents that can only be justified by having amenities superior to others. These amenities are capital intensive to keep up to pace with others and the ‘novelty’ wears off.

Community and friendships do not wear out, they continue to grow stronger over time and hence from an investment perspective our residents will remain in place and become long tenure partners for Assemble. We don’t see high-amenity prime-rent models as being where the growth is going to be in institutionally owned housing in this country. Instead, we are building up a resource and philosophy as a community manager of choice, owning all the apartments in a building and working in partnership with our residents.

I’ve done plenty of ‘off-the-plan’ developments, where we would sell to customers before the building would commence and not have the opportunity, appropriate forum or context to contact them again until settlement occurred and the lawyers handed over the keys. In that situation, you aren’t able to develop any type of meaningful relationship with your customers.

In contrast, for Assemble’s first project in Kensington, due to open in 2020, we have set up a residents’ Facebook group and also organised a ‘Meet your Neighbours’ event for them to start getting to know one another. They will also be able to take advantage of our opt-in services, like free-of-charge financial coaching and other community-building initiatives, in advance of the building being finished.

Community and friendships do not wear out, they continue to grow stronger over time and hence from an investment perspective our residents will remain in place and become long tenure partners for Assemble.

They’re forming linkages between households, building social equity and ensuring they will move into a warm community, which is fundamental to the success of our model. We want living within an Assemble community to be a unique experience because if you’re going to put yourself in a position to be a manager of choice for people, impacting their happiness and overall sense of well-being, then these are the sorts of things you need to do.
We’re making a bona fide commitment to being partners, not just in the building, but in the community.

For their part, our residents are looking for long-term tenure certainty. We give them a half-a-decade lease, which is significant compared to what is conventionally available in the market today and this tenure positively impacts their involvement in community activities. People in rental accommodation are less likely to put down roots and engage in a meaningful way within the community, whether that be the Rotary group or the local sporting club, when they’re not sure if they’re going to be there next year, let alone in half-a-decade’s time.

The initial projects we’re focusing on will also provide options in strategic geographic locations for people seeking affordable housing close to their place of employment. The reality is if you’re a janitor at the Royal Children’s Hospital, for example, you probably have to live deep in the outer suburbs of Melbourne or regional Victoria and commute more than an hour to work each day, which limits your participation in home life.

We look at the household incomes of our customers. We don’t means-test them, but we do understand their pressures and make sure we’re not placing anyone into a situation that could cause financial stress. We also work to align our projects with the “affordable” range for moderate income households by the state government’s definition of affordable housing. That’s something that’s fundamental to us and to our investors.

We give (residents) a half-a-decade lease, which is significant compared to what is conventionally available in the market today and this tenure positively impacts their involvement in community activities.

We still target appropriate investment returns, but if we were only interested in returns, then we wouldn’t be pursuing this model. We have a foot in both camps. But if we weren’t mindful of (and motivated by) our social responsibility as a business and in creating a positive impact along the way, then I think it would be a very difficult market to participate in.

From the outset we’re looking into the long-term impact of the Assemble approach. Our Kensington project partners with ‘Resilient Melbourne,’ which is part of the 100 Resilient Cities program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the US. The objective of that work is to identify innovative housing initiatives that make the residents less susceptible to chronic shocks (including economic, societal and environmental impacts) to ultimately make a more resilient community overall.

We’re doing a longitudinal study of the Kensington project to see if bulk-buying initiatives for critical services like internet and utilities, while assisting with community events such as organising walking groups and ‘how to fix your bike’ nights, create a more cohesive and resilient community than would otherwise exist.

We’re not looking to intrude or force an outcome but rather to be an enabler. The idea is to put the tools and infrastructure in place to help facilitate the formation of the community so that when we move out of ownership of the asset, after the fifth year, there’s a self-sufficient community already maintaining what Assemble has started.