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Jeanette Large

11 December 2011

What makes a good leader: “Effective leaders listen and don’t make decisions in isolation or a vacuum. They also need to have a vision.”

The VWHA is a not-for-profit, Registered Housing Provider, which owns and manages properties, charging its tenants below market rent – no more than 75 percent of market rent or 30 percent of household income. 

It’s affordable long-term housing, explains VWHA’s CEO Jeanette Large, which offers disadvantaged women and children a place to regroup, a chance to get their lives back together and, with initial support, move on to independence. 

The association works with the private, public and non-government sectors to develop long term, high-quality, safe and affordable housing for low-income single women and single mothers. Its first project in 2003 was an 11-house development in Melbourne’s North West with funding from the Office of Housing, support from VicUrban, a partnership with a private developer and borrowings from a commercial bank. These homes were tenanted to 11 women and 26 children.

Being homeless – as anyone can tell you who has suffered under it – takes its toll emotionally and mentally as well as economically. 

Imagine this prospect: 

Christmas and the temporary accommodation you’ve been in for the past few months with the kids, is about to come to an end again. It’s time to move. You dream about a home of your own, but the prospect of having such a roof over your head seems remote. There’s nothing you can afford on the rental market and the waiting list for subsidized housing is long.

For women and children who are ready to progress from transitional housing to something long term, the barriers to entry are many: high demand, short supply, a lack of resources and money. 

The catch 22 is in accessing employment successfully and consistently. It’s hard to get the jobs to get the money to afford any sort of long-term housing if you’re not secure and stable and in one place. 

It’s a scenario not many of us will ever have to consider, let alone put our minds to developing the strategies to alleviate the demand-and-supply obstacles.

Jeanette Large, however, knows the loops and turns all too well for both the individuals affected, and the organisations trying to solve the problem. Her career in the community-housing sector has had a long history at the ‘transitional’ level and now the long-term. She worked in youth housing in the early 1980s, lead a support service for homeless women and children for nine years in the late 1990s early 2000s and has been with VWHA for six years, the past two as its CEO.

Starting out

When Jeanette began at VWHA in 2005 as development manager, the applicant to supply ratio was near breaking point. By the time she became CEO in 2009, she had to shut the VWHA applicant waiting list at 200. The organisations housing stock is now around 65 homes with a net worth of $20 million tenanted to 175 women and children. 

By 2014, the plan is to increase stock to 170 homes with a net worth of $60 million… but will that be enough?

Jeanette, who says, “housing gets into your blood”, remains passionate about the cause and unyieldingly positive in the face of setbacks including the lack of government funding. She is also pragmatic about what government and people are willing to do: “We had to close the waiting list because it just raises the expectations of women that we will be housing them, and we won’t… The most challenging aspect of my work, and it has been something I’ve experienced in my career in social and community services, is there’s never enough funding to do what needs to be done.”

During that career, Jeanette says she has seen the requirements for developing and applying for funding change and become vastly more sophisticated. The process of building a robust economic and social argument for what you hope to achieve, she welcomes. What she finds frustrating is that having spent the time documenting the returns for the individual, along with the clear benefits and broader societal return on investment, government answers along the lines of, ‘that’s good but we want to see more’, are disheartening.

“I understand it’s a problem for government to convince society about tax-dollar investment, but when you see the flow-on effects, it’s not just sensible investment, it’s important,” says Jeanette. 

Home truths

Jeanette Large counts among the least expected things to have happened in her life (and there have been a few) the development of her lioness like passion as a mother. It was not something she expected to feel or be, and she freely admits her tendency to be a workaholic.

“If I had not made the firm decision with myself to go part time when my children were born, I really believe I would never have seen them,” says Jeanette. 

Growing up in Essendon, Victoria, Jeanette studied behavioural science at La Trobe, believing she would train as a psychologist, but she quickly discovered the sociology side of things interested her more. From there, she began her career in youth housing, community services, refuges, etc. Her journey, she says, has not been planned but it has been focused on a passion for social justice and what she could achieve for people. This passion has defined a particular pattern, which makes sense of where she is now and her progression along the way. 

“Transitional housing is a fantastic and very necessary service and it was the area I was working in before coming to VWHA,” explains Jeanette, “but I could see the women had to be able to move on to get on.

“When I saw the VWHA job, developing the very style of housing that moves women from transitional into secure long term, my only thought was to apply.” 

In 2008, following the decision by the organisation on Jeanette’s recommendation to register with the government in the community housing sector system, there was a review and restructure of VWHA and Jeanette was asked to apply for the newly created CEO position: “I loved the development role and couldn’t see myself leaving it. I really had to think about their approach to go for CEO. I was also very mindful that we needed engineering skills in the development role. In the end, my decision meant we were able to recruit with those skills in mind and that has worked very well for us.”

A keen netballer when she was young, Jeanette’s pursuits run more to the individual now: scuba diving, skiing, a bit of swimming. Perhaps a reason for the change, aside from the obvious, is as a counterpoint to the way she most enjoys working, as a team player.

“When I’m making decisions I get so much by consulting, considering aspects I may have missed or never recognised. I’ve always had outside supervision unless it’s been provided internally by the organisation. In the position I am in now I knew we didn’t have the funds, so I’ve been able to access a mentor through Leadership Victoria. That has been amazing. She is from the private sector and her commercial focus has been extremely helpful for me. I like input from other sources,” finishes Jeanette.

 

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