Subject: AU: Charity begins at home ... in E Timor

The Australian

Charity begins at home ... in E Timor Fiona Cameron 18oct05

STEVE Bevington understands homelessness, having spent 10 years on and off the streets of London in the 1970s.

So it's from the heart that he reaches out to the people of East Timor, where the Melbourne-based charity he heads, Community Housing Ltd, is making the first serious effort to build new houses since the Indonesian militias' destructive departure from the country six years ago.

Sixty per cent of East Timor's housing was destroyed during the nation's bitter struggle for independence in 1999.

Homes were trashed - many of them grass huts burnt to the ground - with the worst damage in the west, along what is now the Indonesian border.

The country's land title system was also destroyed in the mayhem, leaving landowners with no way of proving their ownership or of securing finance.

CHL has been building and managing low-cost homes in Victoria for a decade.

"We leverage our charitable exemptions, we get into partnerships with developers and with councils for planning exemptions, we get donations and we get capital from government," Mr Bevington said.

"In the end it is a cocktail of inputs which allows us to create good quality accommodation, the same as the best anywhere you go, but actually charge it out at much lower cost."

CHL's houses are rented at between 50 and 70 per cent of the market rate.

Two-thirds of its 830 dwellings are in Melbourne and the remainder are in country Victoria. The group also plans to expand into NSW.

After his own traumatic decade without a home, Mr Bevington became an advocate for the homeless and won a council seat in London's Borough of Camden, which had more homeless people than any other area of Britain.

He became the council's chair of housing. "I had a huge responsibility," he said.

"There were 37,500 houses in our direct management, 1200 staff, 8000 community housing properties and we were accessed by 4500 families a year just for emergency accommodation, of which we could only house about 2500.

"It was a very stressful time but it taught me a lot about how you didn't do things and the challenges of trying to administrate housing programs," he said.

During that time the Thatcher government banned councils from building or buying additional properties for public housing.

In Dili, East Timor's Minister for Labour and Community Integration, Arsenio Bano, has given the go-ahead to CHL's plans there.

Construction is expected to start by the end of the year on a group of seven houses that will be a refuge for asylum-seekers and women and children escaping domestic violence.

Plans are in train for another four general community housing projects that will become CHL's prototype in East Timor.

Previously, Indonesian companies undertook most of East Timor's construction, and when they departed, they left behind a low-skill workforce.

Mr Bevington said the financial aid that came into the country after independence had slowed to a trickle, but the nation's oil reserves were due to begin producing income within two years.

"People are very happy and proud of the fact that they are an independent country, but the real benefits of that have not started to flow and if you look at people's living conditions, they are quite appalling," he said.

Most homes had dirt floors and many were just grass and palm huts, or a "pile of rotting tin propped against each other", lacking kitchen, bathroom or toilet.

Bringing together the funding, know-how and skills for low-cost housing was not easy, even in Australia, Mr Bevington said. "Those things do not exist in East Timor.

"There are huge interlocking barriers to be able to address but we think we can do it, in fact we are sure we can do it."

The seven dwellings CHL is building initially - of between three and five bedrooms each - are 7km out of Dili, and will be built in partnership with a Portuguese-funded vocational training centre.

The lack of a property titling system was a huge challenge for the country, Mr Bevington said.

"To set up a proper cadastral titling system, where people's borders are mapped out and their properties are assigned, is a huge task of surveying, which will take years.

"Then establishing ownership is a big task in its own right.

"They have a tribunal which is trying to determine 22,000 claims on existing properties ... but in the meantime there is no housing finance, so you can't raise credit, because no-one has collateral for security."

One thing in CHL's favour was political will and the support of President Xanana Gusmao, who was "keen" to improve housing standards, Mr Bevington said.

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