Donna Lavell is no stranger to sharing her home with people. In her 20s, she lived in share houses in Sydney’s inner suburbs; later, after buying a home in Newcastle, she offered up her spare rooms to friends in need, housemates and Airbnb guests.
Now, at 61, she’s decided to build a home with three women she met less than a year ago.
“I have such a good experience of sharing spaces with people,” she says. “It just makes more sense to me.”
Donna — along with her future housemates Joanne, Lisa, and Sarah — has secured a plot of land inside Narara Ecovillage — an “intentional community” of more than 100 people on the NSW Central Coast.
“We’re all very clear that we don’t want to put all our money into a house,” Donna says, adding that she hopes to use the profits from the sale of her current home to support her in retirement. “The advantage of extra people means there are more people paying for the land.”
And she’s not alone in trying to keep costs down. After a year that saw the fastest pace of annual growth in national property prices since 2004, more people than ever are looking for creative ways to break into the property market.
This is happening alongside a growing awareness of climate change, making ecovillages and other forms of collaborative living an attractive alternative.
What is collaborative living?
The term encompasses many different models; from ecovillages, where multiple people live on a single piece of land, often owned by a cooperative, to urban co-housing developments, where everyone has their own apartment but shares common space.
What they all have in common, however, is the rejection of the traditional model of property ownership. Typically, this looks like a single person or a couple purchasing a standalone property with a mortgage and without a focus on the surrounding community.
“It’s a very friendly process, unlike a lot of other real estate deals,” says Joanne Hunt, one of the three other women sharing with Donna.
“The criteria [for finding housemates] was not so much that you had to be the same person, but that you are an honest and open communicator and willing to navigate through the whole process while considering each other’s needs along the way.”
In order to purchase a lot in the village, prospective buyers must first buy shares that allow them to participate in decision-making and use the site’s communal facilities. It’s through their involvement with the community that the four women met.
They’ve since agreed to split the cost of the membership, their land, and now an architecturally-designed home and granny flat that will allow all four women — and Sarah’s young baby — to have their own space.
The home will be split into two wings, with a granny flat in the back where Sarah and her baby will live. Inside, Joanne and Sarah will share one wing — with two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and two bathrooms — and Donna will take the other one. In the middle will be a communal dining area and garden.
“There’s no way I could have got into the ecovillage without sharing with somebody,” Joanne says.
“What it means for me is I can have this little space down here in the ecovillage to live in, but I get to keep my house in Lismore and that will see me into my old age with a supplement to my pension.”
Built on the site of an old horticultural institute, Narara Ecovillage is surrounded by dense bushland home to endangered plants and wildlife. Unlike other similar communities, it’s located within easy commuting distance to Sydney.
The community’s founder, Lyndall Parris, says this was by design: “We attract the IT people, the plumber, the electrician, the doctor, the lawyer, we’re very lucky.”
There are currently 50 homes on the property, with another 10 under construction. The oldest inhabitant is in their 80s, while the youngest is only months old.
While Lyndall stresses the importance of diversity within the community, she says older women make up the largest group. Outside the village, older women are the fastest-growing cohort of homeless people in Australia, often due to retiring with significantly less superannuation than men on average.
“Everybody needs a bit of space where they can go and hide,” Lyndall says, “but you don’t need a big space, because there’s a lot of stuff here that we can actually share.”
This sharing spirit extends beyond living spaces; in the common room, there are boxes of children’s clothes organised by size that have been donated by residents. Communal buildings left over from the site’s former owners are available as shared office and studio spaces.
“You don’t necessarily need two bathrooms and toilets, because there’s a couple of toilets around the place if you really need a second,” Lyndall says. “There’s a communal laundry, so you don’t necessarily need to have a laundry [in your own home].”
Lyndall describes the village as an “intentional community”. While environmental principles form the basis of the development, the main thing members have in common is a desire to live with other people.
As the village is entirely self-funded, members do need to have some money behind them to get involved. But because it’s a cooperative, Lyndall says they can be more flexible. “How can we stretch, or mould [rigid planning rules] to the fact there are many people who need a house and can’t necessarily afford the house prices around Narara? How can we get around that?” she says.
“Of course, dividing a lot between four is completely different to dividing it between two … It’s quite exciting to see the creativeness of the human spirit, working things out.”
Banks need to catch up
Chris Riedy from the University of Technology’s Institute for Sustainable Futures says collaborative living could be an avenue to address housing affordability — but it will require Australia’s financial institutions to get on board.
Banks are used to giving mortgages to individuals or couples, he says, which means it can be difficult for groups of people to secure financing for a property.
“There are banks that are OK with that kind of approach, but a lot more of the mainstream banks are probably not quite ready for it yet,” Professor Riedy says.
“There’s this tradition of the quarter-acre block, and that’s the normal way of living here.”
But that hasn’t stopped collaborative living projects from becoming increasingly popular. In 2015, when the centre first began its research into collaborative living, it hadn’t “really got going in Australia”. Since then, the number of available options has increased dramatically.
“We’re finding more and more examples popping up, and certainly a lot of people we talk to being very interested in it,” he says, “and certainly increasing government support and policy interest in it as well.”
For younger people trying to break into the market, he points to “co-living models” as an option. These include small individual apartments or dwellings with significant common spaces, “almost like a modernised version of university campus living”.
One option is the Nightingale Housing model, which in recent years completed its first few developments in Melbourne and Sydney.
The sustainable apartment buildings include a number of small studio apartments, multi-bedroom apartments, and shared laundries, gardens and work sheds. The apartments are sold at cost and resale value is capped at the indexed property growth of the suburb.
Affordability for people entering the market is also built into the model. Small studio apartments — called Teilhaus, which means “part of house” in German — are cross-subsidised and available only to first-home buyers and people with limited financial means.
But aside from affordability, people who live in these communities say the other benefits are equally important.
For Lyndall, it was community and friendship that originally gave her the idea for Narara Ecovillage. The husbands of two of her friends had recently died, and she was looking for a way to support them and their children.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we all lived in a village together, wouldn’t I be able to support them better? Wouldn’t my husband be able to be on the sideline and kick a ball with their kids?” she says. “It started in the social realm.”
Similarly, Donna and Joanne say they don’t see living with other people as a downside to saving money — in fact, it’s exactly what drew them to the village. “It really came about because of COVID last year, I turned 60 and I thought … it’s really important to be around people with the same values,” Donna says.
Meanwhile, Joanne sees the share house and wider ecovillage as two support systems that will allow her to live independently into older age. “Obviously the ecovillage has a community, but informally you’re able to help each other within the house,” she says.
“So you’ve got a close support network and a larger support network.”