ON FLINDERS Lane, next to the City Library, stands an office building like no other in Melbourne. Behind the front desk, a pink wall is cluttered with posters promoting an array of social causes. A patchwork of flyers waits on a table. The lift walls are coloured with calls to action.
Beneath its gargoyles and giant bay windows, Ross House’s tenants are a rainbow of community groups and causes. Whether the Stroke Association, the Darfur Australia Network, the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation or the Tree Project, the common thread is that all the groups housed here want a more just or environmentally friendly world.
Next week the Ross House Association will celebrate its 21st birthday. Not surprisingly the celebrations will include an indigenous welcome to country as well as music and comedy; the food is being provided by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. But after the festivities talk will turn to the association’s big plans for the future.
Ross House is currently owned by the ANZ Trustees but, all going well, the association will take over ownership of its home next year. “We’re getting the keys, basically, so it’s a great time for us,” says Rick Barry, the Ross House Association CEO, describing the move as a “coming of age”.
In its 21 years the five-storey 1890s building has been an incubator for hundreds of community groups, giving them space, facilities and the kick-start that comes with a city address. They come and go, growing bigger or smaller as their funding and needs change. The association charges below market rent, depending on the organisation’s size and capacity to pay. The smallest space leases at about $130 per month.
Committee member Sue Healy has been involved since community groups first moved in. She has the anecdotes befitting such length of service and tells them at pace. “At end-of-year parties in the old days, you started the champagne at breakfast and then you went on to lunch and tea.”
“There’s been conflict too,” she says, like the initial almighty row between the trustees and the tenants, who wanted to manage the building themselves.
The seeds of Ross House were sown in the 1970s when many small self-advocacy groups began to spring up around Melbourne. At a meeting in 1980, a collection of the groups told the Victorian Council of Social Service they needed help to find cheap, secure office space.
A heritage-listed, 1898 building that was originally a warehouse for wholesale importers Sargood, Butler, Nichol & Ewan Ltd was found, and bought with money donated by the R. E. Ross Trust, the state government and others.
Ross House finally opened in 1987 with the goal of supporting self-advocacy groups and thereby helping disadvantaged people take control over their lives. The association has always encouraged groups run by members of the community they serve, and taking control of the building through self-management was an extension of that principle.
Illustrious former tenants include the Wilderness Society and Channel 31, which, according to Healy, began from “a single desk in a cupboard”. One of her most fond memories is of a Slavic women’s group: “They used to come in for a lunch, all athletic ladies. Large, they were.” Among the current tenants, she marvels at the Handknitters Guild on level three. “They’re hand knitters for social justice! They make things and then they donate the money.”
The Blind Citizens of Australia have recently moved in, also on level three, and they are already enjoying the benefits of reduced costs and a greater profile, says executive officer Robyn McKenzie.
“Our members are either totally blind or have a severe vision impairment. Being in the CBD, we’ve been able to increase our volunteer corps because people can actually get to us with ease,” McKenzie says. Another big plus has been the extra networking with other disability organisations in the building.
That collaborative atmosphere has also rubbed off on Matt Bell from Reconciliation Victoria, on level four. “It’s inspiring to come into a building where you’ve got so many great organisations,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of social change and advocacy done from here to strengthen our community. There’s a sense that this is where it’s all happening.”
Youth literary-arts group Express Media has been a tenant on level two since 2006. Tom Rigby, editor of its Voiceworks magazine, says it is a stimulating place to work. “The water-cooler conversations are a lot deeper. They’re more relevant and interesting than you would get in most offices because when people come into the building, they’re switched on. There’s a great spirit around here.”
Taking over ownership of a multimillion-dollar heritage-listed building is a big responsibility, and the committee of management knows it will have to fund-raise extensively to pay for the upkeep of facilities. Barry says they have developed a 20-year maintenance plan to ensure they are ready. The association is also planning an energy audit and retrofit to make the building cleaner and greener. They hope to make it one of the most sustainable office blocks in the city.
Healy has coined her own adjective to describe the ethos of the building — “Ross Housey” — and it peppers her conversation. For example: “The trouble was, they really didn’t run their group in a Ross Housey way.” There was nothing for it. That group had to go.
But exactly what is Ross Housey? “Well, it’s about people having the right to be involved and consulted. To treat everybody with respect, and to respect their opinions if they’re different from yours,” she says, then grins, whispering, “except, of course, if they’re very far right”.