Nicole… can I buy you a coffee?

Nicole coffee

Can I buy you a cup of coffee Nicole? In my world, is recently code for, “I’D LIKE TO BUILD DISABILITY PROPERTIES… CAN I JUST ASK A FEW QUESTIONS?” Lucky, I like coffee as there’s lots to discuss. I also hope you have your beverage of choice now because we’re about to jump in.

As an SDA (Specialist Disability Accommodation) provider, who also happens to be a Disability/ Mental Health Advocate, and Direct Care Service Provider, I spend a lot of my time “just answering a quick question”.

These questions can be on any of the above topics, and from lots of different people. I can’t tell you how many people want to ‘buy me a coffee’!

This invariably leads to me giving several hours of my time consulting to people, who are wanting to get into one of those areas, and who have a truck load of queries.

At times, it can be students looking for work placement, or business owners wanting to add NDIS services to their spectrum and even sole-traders wanting to know how to break out on their own.

Sometimes it’s SIL (Supported Independent Living) providers wanting to know if they can take on one of my SDA properties, or people asking me to speak about these topics at their board meetings, property seminars, keynote speeches, events etc.

I find these requests really easy as I can’t hide my passion for the industry. I’ve spent almost 20 years advocating and fighting for people with mental ill-health and disabilities, to live life on their own terms, to be pushed forward and supported to speak for themselves.

The hours long discussions aren’t from people picking my brain, they are from me, pouring out everything I know to try and help them support the people they work with.

Most people who know me, know that I can’t stop talking about this stuff. Finding solutions and understanding the complex process fuels me.

I have a lot of lived experience in these areas, including my own mental health struggles, alcohol misuse, and business rollercoasters. I’m happy to share my failures and successes, to help inspire others to do better.

The latest group of people wanting to “ask a quick question” are people wanting to invest into SDA properties.

This is the hardest one for me to ponder before I give an honest answer… because financially, emotionally, physically and mentally, it has been one of the hardest endeavours I have undertaken, and I find it hard to give an objective answer, without seeming too jaded.

My first instinct, is to say “No, don’t do it, run for the hills!”
My second instinct is to say “It’s hard, but everything worth doing is hard!”
My response is usually… “Don’t undertake this decision with your eyes closed!”

Please, let me explain. Close to 3 years ago now, (16th June 2017, 11am to be exact… but who’s counting?) I walked into the Melbourne office of 10 Properties in 10 Years to catch up with some friendly and familiar faces.

Prior to this meeting, I had been working on purchasing my first investment property with the 10 Properties team, when my world was flipped upside down… my beautiful sister suffered a spinal cord injury… and my focus shifted to Disability housing.

The 10 Properties team specialise in property strategy, sourcing finance, finding land, and managing builds for investors.

I knew they were the right team to help me realise my dream of building a disability property, specifically Specialist Disability Accommodation.

I walked in with a clear plan, lots of research under my belt, and my experience in Direct Care Service Delivery in Disability, Aged Care and Mental Health, which made me pretty well qualified to make this happen … But, I needed support!

I considered myself business savvy with enough specialised industry knowledge, to know where the gaps were in housing and accommodation, enough clout to be confident I could make it happen, and a dream of making real systemic change within the Social Services sector.

I was determined to create homes where people would choose where they live, how they live, who they live with, and I really wanted for them to own their own home if possible.

My aim was to help people who were sick of being dictated to… told what time to go to bed, forced to live with people they may not know or like, or who they may even be fearful of.

I wanted people to be able to choose which provider delivered their supports. I also really wanted to support people to become more financially independent as well as owning their own home, or at the very least, in partnership with family.

I had no idea, that when I walked into that office, and told the team what I wanted to do, that they would be so excited by what I was proposing.

I was stunned that they too, had family and friends with disabilities, and I was so thankful that they too, had a passion for making change.

We quickly realised, that this was going to take a huge amount of property strategy, building knowledge, and disability sector specialised skills with all our connections, to get this off the ground.

Missing one component would be catastrophic.

We realised that we had all of the key components and capacity to build and manage several houses. This initiative would finally make massive change to the way people with disability live, and to shake up the system!

All of the things I’d dreamed about for years!

And… all of the reasons that maybe we didn’t go in with our eyes WIDE open!

Prior to approaching 10 Properties, I had undertaken thousands of hours of research. I’d read the NDIS legislation, the SDA rules, I’d researched how to register houses, and I knew where the gaps were.

I’d spent years working with people, with no other options provided, in unsuitable housing, caravan parks, hotels, hospitals, transitional housing, hostels, and even people who were homeless.

I’d come across a particular young man who had been living in hospital for a few years, who’s family just could not find suitable housing. He was headed to Aged Care if nothing could be done.

Not on my watch!

I’d read the NDIS information about how there were 28,000 people with high need disabilities, that would qualify for SDA funding.

I’d read so many articles on how there were 6,000 young people living in residential Aged Care.

I’d worked beside DHHS for 15 years+, helping participants go through the tenancy process for housing in Supported Residential Services, I’d gotten clients out of all types of scary, unsuitable situations.

I had a HUGE network of service providers, support coordinators, friends who had moved from DHHS to the NDIS, Support Workers on the ground, families that were desperate for housing.

I knew there was a DHHS list of people waiting for accommodation.

I knew we could tenant these houses easily! (Oh hindsight!)

The NDIS were saying “build it and they will come”.

I’d seen the Kevin Costner movie, they eventually come… you just have to believe!

However, in reality…belief wasn’t enough! It wasn’t even close!

The speed bumps we came up against, the rules changing half way through the game, the legislation changes (which mostly were for the better, but not everyone got the memo!)

Then came the registration challenges, the inability for a house to be registered with the DHHS vacancy team until it was LHA approved and NDIS registered… and then finding the list was a bit of a fallacy.

Some of this stuff was character building, we got stronger, we worked harder, with our collective skills we tweaked our own plans to fit the mould that the system wanted.

Then we got angry at having to fit the mould that the system wanted!

We rebelled against the system, and we tried to change the system.

We eventually reconciled that we had to toe the line, in order to make some real change. There was tears, there was swearing but most of all…there was our unwavering determination.

Most of these challenges thankfully, we faced fairly early on.

Some are ongoing.

We have people who applied for our houses 18 months ago, still unable to move in.

We have not had a shortage of applicants, however, we certainly have had a shortage of people who actually have SDA already in their plan.

Without a doubt, not what we bargained for!

The NDIS tells us that we should not have to hold support coordinators hands through the process, that we shouldn’t have to do much of the work.

Reality bites!

Almost every participant living in our houses, has had approximately 100 hours of pre-move in work completed by our team, before they receive their SDA approval, SIL approval, and have completed the move in process.

The collaboration with our SIL partners has been invaluable. Without their knowledge, skills, determination, and belief and support in what we were trying to do, again, we would have no tenants.

They too spend hundreds of hours working, pre-move in.

I am seeing a lot of people wanting to get into the SDA space, and I welcome some incredible innovation, more options, choice and control, but I worry.

I see large property developers, with zero disability or social sector experience, who are not registered SDA providers, who are trying to break into this space, and I stress.

I feel for the investors, who believe the hype.

Who believe that the “high rental yields” are the next big opportunity in property and real estate.

It scares me, that there is so much miss information out there. That people do not understand the 2 years’ work behind moving in a single tenant.

That there is absolutely zero income, until a tenant moves into the property, and in some cases, even once someone moves in, their funding may take a few months to come online.

What terrifies me, and if I am honest, keeps me up at night, is that people without the experience that has taken us 20 years to come by … are making decisions to house people with complex disabilities.

I would never perform surgery because I’m addicted to General Hospital! Nor would I ever gamble with people’s lives. These people without any lived experience and lifetimes of knowledge are potentially making decisions, for the mighty dollar, that are going to make some detrimental mistakes that could cost lives.

So, your quick question about how to get into Specialist Disability Accommodation, isn’t so quick or straight forward to answer… but please don’t shy away because it is hard.

We need more people who are passionate about making REAL change!

Innovation, design, assistive technology!

Most importantly about creating good quality homes that create real choice for people to live on their own terms.

If that is you, I am happy to spend hours discussing it.

We don’t need anyone to stand up and speak for people with disabilities… what we need is to make sure there is a platform for people to speak for themselves.

People with disability are doing that… by changing the market, and choosing homes that work for them, not what the sector decides is best for them.

Options, choice, control, belief and knowledge, are all needed to create a world where people with disabilities are no longer forced into any living option that doesn’t work for them.

All of that takes real time and a lot of work, to come to fruition… not overnight with a flooded market.

My coffee’s cold!