Eloise Atkinson on Jeays Street

20 February 2022

Last year, Director Eloise Atkinson and Marketing & Communications Manager Emma Eldridge visited our Jeays Street community – Brisbane Housing Company’s first project and a trigger for Bowen Hills’ transformation – to celebrate 2o years since its completion. Thank you to BHC’s Alison (pictured above with Eloise) and Viena for the warm welcome.

Emma: What was Bowen Hills like 20 years ago – in terms of housing, but also community and infrastructure?

Eloise: The area was semi-industrial  – you can still see inklings of that, but there was nothing residential. The land was elevated and there was a train station, but the area around it was desolate. We moved into our offices (on the edge of Fortitude Valley and Bowen Hills) in 2007, and there were no houses or apartments around.

Jeays Street has been referred to as an example of ‘radical urbanism’ – it was considered close to the street and very dense. Visiting now, it feels small with so much built up around it. But 20 years ago, 45 units and nine carparks felt big for Bowen Hills.

Emma: Jeays Street was the first project for the Brisbane Housing Company (BHC), which was only incorporated in 2002. Can you tell me a bit about its origins?

Eloise: BHC was founded as a joint venture between the state government and Brisbane City Council (BCC) – they put in $50 million and $10 million respectively over five years to get it off the ground. David Cant came over from the UK to help set it up and eventually became CEO.

At that time, there was private rental and public and community housing – and people who were unable to access those options were falling through the cracks. If you were single and not elderly, for instance, it was difficult to find housing – particularly near the city. So BHC was born to bridge that gap – a real beacon for what was needed.

Emma: I imagine Deicke Richards looked a bit different 20 years ago. Was the practice designing much housing at that time?

Eloise: We had been doing a lot of public and community housing – all funded by the state government. Rents are income based but BHC’s rental model is to discount on market rates. With public housing, you pay 25% of your salary regardless of whether you’re living on the top storey with a view or on ground floor – there’s little opportunity to choose to spend more or less of your income on housing – to choose greater security over a larger unit for instance.

The idea with BHC was to give more choice – as a single person you could choose a studio or one-bedroom unit and pay different amounts, depending on how much you wanted to spend. You could choose to spend less on your housing – or be in the inner city and spend more but be closer to work or amenities and not need a car.

So we were able to design those units differently, we weren’t thinking so much about all the units having to be the same to provide equity. That gave us a bit more flexibility, and Jeays Street has a lot of unit types – some even feature a mezzanine level, which we would never have done in public housing then.

Emma: Jeays Street, as well as our Tufton Street and Joyce Wilding Centre projects, have since been featured in the Queensland Government Architect’s Social Housing Design Guidelines. Do you have any standout memories from working on the project?

Eloise: It was fun to work with that different ideological idea. At Jeays Street, there are two boarding houses on the site, then our studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. At that time, public housing didn’t really mix, so that was new too. In theory, people could move across the site as their circumstances changed without moving away from neighbours and community.

Deicke Richards had been established six years earlier, but we’d already done a lot of housing work – projects and guidelines. It was a time of innovation in public housing, things were being looked at differently. Peter (Richards, who was the Project Director on Jeays Street) was very much involved with housing cooperatives across Brisbane, and we’d completed projects in New Farm and Spring Hill. I was very pregnant during the design process, with my third child. I remember we had a charismatic client that we went on to work on a number of projects with, and an incredible project manager. It was reasonably smooth sailing!

Emma: Visiting two decades on, how do you feel about the development – has it stood the test of time?

Eloise: Absolutely. As I said, everything’s grown up around it now, but when it was completed it stood out quite a lot. From BHC’s point of view, buildings have become much more complicated, with lifts and security; Jeays Street is a cheaper building to run. If it was built today, it would be taller with lifts and more carparks. What remains is it has a sense of community, it is well-liked by tenants and the site opposite is really activated.

Emma: You’re now the Independent Chair of BHC. Popping that hat on for a minute, how did this first development influence the trajectory of BHC – now the state’s largest NFP housing provider?

Eloise: BHC today has 1,800 properties; we have housing managers onsite and really know our residents. We survey everyone each year around whether they feel safe, engaged with other people in their community and also the BHC team. 90% are satisfied with the quality of their homes – and 89% with their neighbourhood as a place to live.

As BHC’s first project, Jeays Street was obviously important – to test the new model. Over the years, our developments have become much more complex from a building point of view but also the mix of tenants – with much of the portfolio being mixed tenure buildings. I think from the beginning Jeays Street demonstrated that a mix of boarding house and unit types allowed for a mix of tenants which is a good thing. It also demonstrated the benefits of thoughtful, robust design and BHC has continued to value this and the contribution of its architects and consultant teams. Our many award-winning projects have been better for this commitment, both in terms of liveable spaces and ongoing costs to tenants and the company.

Emma: In last year’s Queensland State Awards citation for Church Street Public Housing, John Byrne said, ‘As rental affordability plummets throughout Australia and social housing appears scarce, it is important to be reminded of the fundamental need for not only thoughtfully designed inner urban housing and especially well-designed publicly funded housing but also the importance of design leadership and innovation in support of a better Queensland.’ How are we working to fulfill this?

Eloise: At Deicke Richards, we use design to achieve social purpose and there is no greater need than a safe, secure and affordable place to live. It is impossible to live a healthy life or to contribute to your family or community without appropriate housing. That means different things for different people and we are continuing our 27-year history of working with the state government and not-for-profit organisations to deliver housing solutions that can meet diverse needs. We don’t live in a bubble where good design is the solution to all housing needs; we work to understand policy, planning and funding in order to create a society that accepts nothing less than zero homelessness and the provision of appropriate housing for everyone.

Read about our housing work here.