This entry in our series of stories of people already living in community, follows the journey of an 'unintentional' community, that has flourished in an adapted motel in regional Victoria. We think it is a compelling example of how existing buildings can be repurposed to create viable communities.
How would you describe your current living arrangement?
My home has one room. This ‘bedsitter’ is part of motel built 40 years ago. The 12 units are set in two blocks running east west. There are double brick walls between each unit and 4 metre high cathedral ceilings lined with timber. Each unit has two doors opposite each other and one large window that opens, providing very good ventilation. A communal laundry sits in the middle. The backyard runs the full length of the units. Car spaces for each unit are on the opposite side.
This motel is within walking distance of a river, an ocean beach and a beautiful town lake. Also within walking distance there is a golf course, a petrol station, a coffee shop and a church. The main street is 2 kilometres away. Via public transport (bus ) the nearest regional city is 30 minutes away. A train station on the bus route links this regional city to Melbourne, 70 minutes away.
About 10 years ago the motel ceased operating as a motel. The new owner decided he would rent out each unit with the basic setup still in place. This included a cooktop and oven, a microwave, a bar fridge, a wardrobe and a double bed.
The inclusion of basic furniture and appliances made it possible for a new tenant to move in straight away.
The cost of installing individual metres for gas, electricity and water to each unit was so prohibitive the landlord decided to leave the main metres in place and to incorporate a ‘utility cost’ in the rent. 7 years ago the rent per unit was $180 per week including utilities. Today it is $210 including utilities. This makes the units affordable to anyone on a pension as it sits below the ‘no more than 33% of income should be spent on accommodation’ rule that informs all basic budget strategies. For wage earners, renting a unit here offers an opportunity to build up a nest egg.
The significant difference is that this was not an intentional community in the beginning nor is it an intentional community now.
Given this wasn’t an intentional community, how did interaction between neighbours get started?
During the first 3 years occupancy rates began at 90% and then began to slide downwards. Unfortunately, despite the landlord’s best efforts, the surrounds gradually became unkempt. Some tenants exhibited behaviours guaranteed to disturb the quiet enjoyment of the area. No evictions took place however the atmosphere had progressively deteriorated and reletting units was taking longer each time a vacancy occurred.
During the 4th year of operation a new tenant arrived. This person had arrived to reinstate the coastal living of childhood and to support a 90 year old parent living nearby. Freed from the commitment of working full time and inside office buildings, it was natural for this person to get outside. Treating the old motel surroundings ‘like home’, a project to remove rampant vines, invading weeds and rubbish began. Being a baby boomer, the new tenant did not ask for permission to transform the area from backwater to respectable. The landlord was pleased to find a more welcoming environment on his next visit. He was impressed with other changes. The laundry looked spic and span, the backyard was green again and the spouting had been cleared and mended for leaks.
Discovering the source of improvement, the landlord encouraged the self motivated tenant to continue the work in return for a reduced rent. He set no guidelines other than the common sense already demonstrated. Other residents were not made aware of this arrangement. The key change was that funds spent on materials were recompensed. Encouraged by this, a new project to beautify and extend the gardens began. This was also expanded into a project to paint the pergola surrounding the building, the external doors and the window surroundings. There was always someone outside now, hand waves and the occasional greeting were exchanged, anyone’s rubbish was disposed of without discussion and gradually tenants with less than civil behaviour began to relocate. Within 18 months occupancy rates were heading back up again.
The self appointed ‘Head Gardener, no staff, no budget’ began to address any shortcomings inside the units when they were vacated.
New tenants on arriving, now would find a handwritten welcome card and a jar of herbs on their doorstep. Physical assistance to move in, orientation to the surroundings, setting up a tv or any other minor job were offered if judged to be appropriate.
One new tenant, just arrived and devastated by a previous eviction, was invited to paint a beach scene on an old bedhead. He says now that this painting became his ‘therapy’ in adjusting to a new home. The painting was installed on the back fence where everyone can view it. This was the first external sign of a neighbourhood. The painter worked outside, receiving compliments and good conversation with passing tenants. This addition gave our old motel a more personal look than the standard group of rental units.
5 years ago a snapshot of age included a span from 21 - 77 years. Resident backstories varied. Two residents had arrived from recent spells in an Intensive Care Ward, one had relocated to be near a young son, one had ‘escaped’ an inappropriate residence even though he was in need of daily personal care, and another one had come from interstate to be near grandchildren. Gaining local employment, three had moved out of permanent employment in Melbourne to improve their visa applications and two had arrived fresh from broken marriages. Two residents were recently retired and wanted to be close to the sea. None had known anyone else already living on site before they arrived.
The facts above underline the diversity of the group, who gradually used the term “The Lake Mob” to describe themselves. The new tenant had coined the phrase, other residents approved it for different reasons and sometimes used it to sign the welcome card. This was the first, and is, the only term which offered our unintentional community with informal identity, agency and neighbourliness.
What sort of activities does your community do together?
We have the occasional bbq, where all residents are invited to acknowledge the odd spontaneous birthday, national days or sometimes, nothing in particular. These are informally funded by a coin collection during previous months. Sometimes neighbours discovered at a bbq how much they had in common, good for future conversations. By personal choice some residents now bring along a homemade or bought dish to the table - from a tin of beetroot to a sensational salad. The table is often sited opposite our painting on the fence.
One memorable occasion was the day we had a live band in the backyard! This event was initiated by a tenant wanting to reunite with his own band of years ago, because he was ill and wanted to do this just once more. The florist had a beautiful white canvas marquee, the electrics were dug underground, a windfall big red carpet (footpath pickup!) was set out and every available indoor and outdoor chair went on the grass. Pink Floyd tributes rang out across our larger neighbourhood, curious strangers walked the 60 metres in from the street to join in and the tenant played guitar until his fingers bled … a nurse on hand fixed him up and he kept playing such was his enjoyment.
Numerous tenants are known for certain skills and their approachability.
One tenant coached a spanish speaking neighbour through two complete courses at TAFE and came to get her from the regional town where she studied if it was going to be dark when she finished for the day. Another tenant coached a resident from applying to become a mature age student at university to the second year of her degree, by which stage she was ready to continue on her own. One off or repeat supports are given for tv setup, mobile phones, mechanical issues, a car for jumper leads, replacing taps, confusing mail, recipe advice, emergency driving (missed the bus!) or use of ute to pick up sidewalk finds and much more! People heading ‘up the street’ will ask neighbours if they want something picked up. Sometimes someone who has lost the use of their car will be taken up the street for a full shop. Some neighbours when preparing a meal, cook enough to share with someone else. Occasionally this will happen with the odd takeaway meal.
What would you describe as the biggest impact for residents, as a result of living in this community?
The affordability means you can live a ‘normal life’, even on a pension. The majority of long term tenants have no plans to move elsewhere.
Experiencing neighbourliness after renting in places where everyone is isolated is a distinct benefit, as is feeling welcome from the word go.
So a small motel of the older kind in any town has potential to become affordable housing if key deal breaker requirements are met. The physical building, the surrounding environment and the location aspects are critical. An unintentional community can thrive with assistance from a lead tenant with vision and adaptability who lives there too. Accommodation can be organised by real estate property management. Where there is a manager’s residence onsite there is room for a family or group, but preferably not the lead tenant. Grounds should have potential for other group activities - vegetable garden, fruit trees, perhaps chooks, suitable space for an outdoor cooking and eating area, a shared laundry and probably an outdoor shed that could be converted for projects. Further developments are only limited by the imagination of the residents.
Interviewee: The 'Designated Writer' of Lake Mob