Written by Ong Chee Wei, director of UEM Sunrise in Australia

COVID-19 has left a trail of devastation in its wake – both in Australia and overseas. At UEM Sunrise, we believe in doing good where and when we can by leveraging our resources to positively impact communities during challenging times. And what a more appropriate year to do so than in 2020?

A community that has been hit hard by the pandemic in Australia this year is our population of international students. When Australia’s borders closed in March, more than 100,000 international students were left stranded in Melbourne alone. Ineligible for government support and with casual employment opportunities disappearing, many of these students have struggled to access basic food and supplies.

With this in mind, we decided to explore how we could use some of our available prime retail space in our flagship mixed-use Australian development, Aurora Melbourne Central, in an innovative way to provide support. What resulted was a fantastic partnership with non-profit organisation Foodbank Victoria to create Melbourne’s very first International Student Pop-Up Grocery Store. The pop-up store provides free fresh food and supplies to international students in Melbourne currently experiencing food insecurity due to the impact of the pandemic.

With a supermarket style fit-out, this new concept in food relief offers a traditional retail experience, providing greater dignity and choice to international students – who in many cases have been forgotten victims of this health crisis. UEM Sunrise is providing this easy-to-access retail space rent-free to Foodbank Victoria.

Since its launch in late October, the pop-up grocery store has provided vital supplies to almost 2000 international students a week – from over 50 countries and 100 different learning institutions. Many of these students have been referred to the service by student welfare departments, underscoring the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on this population.

In the context of leveraging property assets for social purpose, it’s interesting to reflect on what has made UEM Sunrise’s partnership with Foodbank such a runaway success. In addition to fulfilling a societal need, there’s no doubt Aurora Melbourne Central’s prime location and highly accessible retail space have played an important role.

Aurora Melbourne Central is located in the beating heart of Melbourne’s bustling CBD with direct pedestrian connections to the Melbourne Central Train Station and some of the city’s most coveted conveniences – with a steady stream of foot traffic from both city shoppers and the more than 900 residents in the development itself. It’s by leveraging this that Foodbank has been able to effectively reach so many students in need and make a real difference in the community.

I think there’s a meaningful lesson here for us in the property sector about how we can repurpose available spaces, particularly those in prime locations, to make a tangible difference to people in need. The truth is, the industry has immense resources at its disposal, and partnerships with non-profits like Foodbank Victoria are instrumental in supporting communities in difficult times.

Moving forward, it would be great to see more retail landlords step up to donate some of their space for a period of time, if they’re in a position to. Or see developers look closer at under-utilised spaces when projects are in planning or early stages of development. These collaborations can be commercially viable – it’s important to emphasise that. We don’t have to scrap our business plans. Even leasing a tenancy rent-free for a few months of the year can make a huge difference to people in need.

Crucially, these initiatives also rely on strong partnerships to bring them to life. We were looking to partner with a non-profit organisation to use one of our existing retail spaces to create positive social change – and Foodbank Victoria was the perfect fit. The takeaway? Through dynamic collaborations between sectors, we can achieve far greater social impact than by going it alone.

Image: Foodbank Victoria CEO Dave McNamara and UEM Sunrise Australia director, Ong Chee Wei.