The bank manager laughed when Christopher Curry and his partner Jacqui Kirby applied for a home loan. Based on what Christopher earned they had no hope, he said.
The frustrated young couple were left wondering how they would ever buy a family home.
But past humiliations were forgotten on Friday when the pair were officially handed the keys to a three-bedroom home in the picturesque town of Yea, north-east of Melbourne.
And it was built using “sweat equity”, where low-income families agree to put in voluntary labour in return for a low-interest mortgage and capped repayments.
To qualify for their $260,000 home loan, which had a small deposit and is interest-free for 10 years, Christopher and Jacqui – with help from friends and family – painted walls, sanded and landscaped the garden with natives.
The Yea affordable housing project – 25 houses – is a project from Habitat for Humanity Victoria, the local version of one of the largest providers of affordable and low-cost housing worldwide.
Established in the 1980s, the Victorian organisation has helped more than 50 families gain what they refer to as the “empowerment” of home ownership.
The Yea houses are the biggest project to date, and Habitat’s homes have mainly been built on the fringes of Melbourne because there is better access to affordable land, says Habitat business development manager Phillip Wright.
“We aim to build decent affordable housing for low-income families, predominantly. We provide a house people will be proud to live in, not different to the others around them.”
Having families contribute some of their equity in the form of labour makes them feel more invested in the project, says Wright.
“Sometimes people in these situations get a bit run down with Centrelink and other agencies, so having a hands-on role can be empowering,” he says.
A band of volunteers also donate their labour to paint and clad the homes, while the rest is built by skilled tradespeople.
Two million dollars funding for the Yea project came from the Lord Mayors Charitable Foundation.
Most of the homes will be purchased by families on an income below $50,000 per annum – who go through a screening process – and are likely to be recipients of unemployment or disability payments, said the foundation’s chief executive, Catherine Brown.
“Having secure housing … is likely to lead to better educational and employment outcomes and to stronger social networks,” she said.
Given the scale of Victoria’s affordable housing crisis – there are 34,000 people waiting for social housing – 25 homes might seem like a drop in the ocean.
But Phillips says their research shows it has a markedly positive effect on each family.
“All you have to experience is one house handover to realise it’s such a deeply significant change to have made to one family.”
Christopher works hard to make ends meet: full-time at a hardware shop, running his own maintenance business and driving an ambulance.
Jacqui had serious health problems that have prevented her from working in the past, and is now full-time carer for their children.
“I liked working on my house and I learned new skills,” says Jacqui. “Volunteers come and help you and we’ve got to know most of the neighbours already because it’s a small community.”
This article originally appeared in The Age, 21 May 2017.