The not-for-profit real estate agents of last resort aiming to disrupt a troubled housing market

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Samantha Gatherum-Goss drives a Hyundai and lives in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. On the Sunshine Coast, Lindell Gittoes doesn’t own a car at all.

They don’t live in penthouses or have luxurious lifestyles, but their success in business is not measured by the pay packets they take home.

Gatherum-Goss and Gittoes manage not-for-profit real estate agencies. Theirs is a success measured by a different set of numbers – the amount of lower-income earners and vulnerable people they help shelter, the women and children whose escape from domestic violence they help fund.

Gatherum-Goss ran her own real estate agency before selling it off so she could “make a difference” using her professional skills.

“It’s definitely given me of sense of purpose, I think; as opposed to earning money for myself, I’m now helping a charity make a difference to other people’s lives,” she says. “And that’s quite fulfilling.”

This kind of social enterprise is a model touted as one that could disrupt a housing market in the grips of an affordability crisis.

But it has its sceptics, too. Though these organisations undoubtedly do good work, some fear they don’t front up to the hard truths that are needed to be faced in order to make the housing system work for more people, such as removing the incentives that favour investors over first homeowners.

Gittoes, though, is keen to stress that Sunshine Coast landlords who entrust their properties to Purpose Real Estate can make just as much on their investment as those who opt for a profit-making agency.

“We do all the same activities – we manage, we sell, we help buyers find properties – we do everything like a Ray White would,” she says. “It’s just what we do with the money, at the end of the day, is different.”

Rather than being splashed on watches or yachts, the profits her agency generate go to Coast2Bay, the housing charity from which it was established. That money is used to support women and children fleeing domestic and family abuse.

Founded in 2017, Purpose claims to be the first of its kind in Queensland and drew its inspiration from Melbourne’s HomeGround Real Estate. The latter was established in 2014 and also emerged from an existing community organisation, one that provides services for homeless people.

A first of its kind in Australia, HomeGround is providing a model being rolled out across the country, with independent offshoots in Sydney and Canberra.

Its first landlord, Phil Endersbee, says he got involved when he saw his niece struggling to enter the rental market. She was young, had Asperger’s, worked part-time chopping vegetables and had written a book about how to care for a python in your own home.

“There was no way known she could go to any of the listed real estate agents,” Phil says.

As well as his family home in Kew and clothing manufacturing company in Preston, Endersbee owns a four-unit block of flats in East Kew.

In his first foray with HomeGround, he rented out one to a woman and her daughter who had been sleeping in their car after fleeing domestic abuse. Eight years later, he rents all four units through the social enterprise at rents well below market value.

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Endersbee says that if he charges less than 75% of what he could get on the open market, he can claim the difference in tax.

“That really means that you’re not out of pocket, and you’re really helping,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you do it?”

Prof Wendy Stone, the Housing Futures Research Program academic leader at Swinburne University of Technology, believes there are many other investors and landlords who would like to offer housing “for people who don’t normally get a look-in”.

And the beauty of not-for-profit real estate, she says, is that they can do so in a way that is “somewhat de-risked”.

“What’s underpinning the model that is so great is … they effectively offer something of a guarantee to investors,” she says.

“Investors might take ever-so-slightly less rental return, but they do have a guarantee from their real estate agent that their property will be looked after.”

Stone says this model could be built upon to target different communities “who we know are being discriminated against routinely in this very, very tough private rental market”. A First Nations-owned and managed not-for-profit real estate agency, for example, could be “a gamechanger”.

“If this model was to be scaled up, I imagine the national significance would be absolutely transformative for the low to moderate-income affordable housing space,” she says.

Others are less enamoured of the concept. Emma Power, a Western Sydney University associate professor in geography and urban studies, says any profits going into social purpose organisations is a good thing.

“However, in the context of the housing crisis, I think we need to understand that these are really just Band-Aids at the edge of a much bigger problem,” she says. “And they don’t question the kind of profit and investment system of real estate that underlies them.”

Power’s concern is that focus on “a tiny segment” of the market – “something that we call affordable housing” – almost justifies the rest of it being unaffordable for everyday Australians.

“When we start to say that we need a specific market that’s affordable, what we’re doing is saying everything else can get out of control,” she says.

“In the context of an Australia where middle-income households are starting to find middle-cost housing unaffordable, what we need to do is actually start looking at the system as a whole.”

That means removing the drivers pushing up house prices, she says, such as the negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts that give investors in housing “a leg up” and are “locking a growing number of people out of homeownership”.

“The possibility of a drop in housing prices is a really difficult conversation for governments to have,” Power says. “But it’s a really difficult conversation that we need to have as a society.”