It’s a way of living that is often mistaken for either a ‘hippy commune’ or a boarding house, but cohousing is slowly becoming a viable solution to New Zealand’s growing housing needs. It’s also a way of fighting the isolation and loneliness that is harming our collective wellbeing.
The quarter acre section is a legacy most Kiwis feel entitled to. Some of our great-great-great-great grandparents settled on large tracts of stolen land; we were sold the dream and we now believe it’s our birthright.
Then came the property boom of the 1990s and beyond which eventually made millionaires out of regular suburban homeowners, and pushed renters further into the margins. The Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey rates an affordable city as one where the median house price is up to three times the median wage. Auckland’s median house price is nine times the median wage.
To a person, Aucklanders recognise the need for affordable, higher density housing both for low income renters and our growing population. Yet in the leafy suburbs, pushback on housing intensification is swift, loud and lead by people with plenty of spare time.
Many developers are pushed out to places like Ihumātao in Māngere, where residents have less money and political agency, or they bang up soulless high rises in the central city filled with featureless apartments barely larger than coffins. In all cases, whether we’re separated from our neighbours by a tall hedge or an apartment wall, social isolation from the community we live in has become the norm, contributing to everything from health outcomes to crime statistics.
Like so many of our social ills, solutions can be found either in our pre-colonial past or in Scandanavia.
I was privileged in 2018 to live with whanuanga at Ngāti Whātua’s papakāinga development, Kainga Tuatahi in Ōrākei. The 30-unit residential development is within metres of Takaparawhā (Bastion Point) and Ōrakei marae. Down the hill on Paritai Drive, multi-million dollar mansions enjoy the same stunning views of Rangitoto, Waitematā Harbour and Hauraki Gulf.
Celebrated in architectural design circles, the two clusters of houses sit on either side of Kupe Street. Terraced town houses border a driveway and garden with māra kai beds, providing children with a central yard to play in where an eye can be kept on their activities from most kitchens (what child doesn’t want to play with their friends and cousins in the backyard every day?).
Set aside for registered members of Ngāti Whātua, it’s a community that lives shoulder to shoulder – an easy prospect (or maybe harder) when most residents are related. Privacy and warmth are maintained thanks to double glazing and high levels of insulation. Power to each unit is provided by Tesla batteries that also feed back into the grid. The living rooms are large and open, with natural sunlight streaming through upstairs windows for most of the day. A space that seems incredibly compact comfortably holds four bedrooms, two bathrooms (with the option to convert a garage space into another sleep out) and a good sized lounge and dining area. Not being a student of design, the Tardis-like properties of the house amazed me every day.
It’s a delicate balance of hapūtanga values, design and sustainable building practices.
During my time at Kainga, we were contacted by an Otago University student who was doing post-graduate research on papakāinga and cohousing models. He bribed us with chocolate biscuits, and we spent an hour talking about day-to-day life, body corporate governance and the physical buildings themselves.
James Berghan (Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri) is a licensed cadastral (land title) surveyor. Originally from Hokianga, he completed his undergraduate studies at Otago, worked on planning, subdivision and land development projects in Waikato, and then returned to Otago to complete his PhD. The results of our chat informed his current work – although he says it’s a field of research that found him.
“There’s a very particular, or dominant way that we produce housing,” he tells me. “I thought about it a lot while I was working on different developments in Hamilton. My supervisors down here in Otago are very interested in housing development and Indigenous rights, so it’s a combination of my interest and the opportunity that came up through a bigger research project.”
That project is the Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities programme. Along with other researchers, he looks at how communities can move away from focusing solely on property rights and the built environment, and towards connection and kaitiakitanga, something they’ve termed a ‘social mortgage’.
“The social mortgage component was how you can bring in a social element to housing, which means you have a contract with your neighbours and you have to put work into it but you get social benefits as well. It shifts housing from a financial asset to a community asset that everyone has a stake in.”
The term was born from a conversation with Robin Allison, the founder of Earthsong in West Auckland. Built in the late ’90s, it’s the city’s first urban cohousing development, an “eco-neighbourhood” with an active social infrastructure.
“She was explaining to me that a metaphor for the community was a garden. From my consulting background, we’d work on a project and think of it as finished once the houses are built and the sections are ready. With cohousing, you have to work at it, and grow it. Keep weeding. It has to be maintained.”
Consisting of a number of semi-detached homes and some shared buildings and facilities, Earthsong began with a group of prospective residents who worked together to create the legal structure, design the buildings in collaboration with the architect, and fund the construction. Residents now manage the ongoing maintenance of the neighbourhood, which includes dedication to a large, permaculture garden – an urban ecosystem that has the diversity and resilience of a natural ecosystem. Cars are kept at the edge of the site to keep it pedestrian friendly and all decisions are made by consensus.
Berghan says what is special about the community building of Kainga and Earthsong is the destruction of “ego.”
“Individualisation, particularly through property, develops this sense of ego, and I think these models are really special in that they have the ability to remove that. When people begin to think more about ‘what can I contribute to the collective’ not ‘what do I get out of this’ that habit of giving has wider flow-on effects. You start to move away from the ‘take’ mentality.”
Far from being a “hippy commune”, all the houses are on individual unit titles and Berghan says privacy is an important issue. “I found at Earthsong in particular that because it’s a more connected way of living, that privacy is really fiercely safeguarded. There’s a recognition that yep, we’ve got a lot of shared spaces and we’re living in close proximity, so when people are in their private backyards or in their homes, there’s a strong sense of respect for that and recognising people need their time to retreat.”
Inspired by my time at Kainga, and unwilling to be yet another cog in the prospective property machine, I had looked up ‘cohousing’ earlier this year after hearing from my partner about friends that had co-developed an old office block in Berlin. There at the top of the Google results was Cohaus, an Auckland project that was looking to examples in Scandinavia (where they’ve been the norm since the 1970s) and the US to model their own affordable, eco-friendly, energy efficient community.
An artist’s rendering showed an apartment block, a row of terraced town houses and a beautiful old villa bordering a central garden house and raised garden beds. My partner and I attended a few group meetings, which were fortnightly in the lead up to construction beginning on the site, and expressed an interest in buying a unit. Soon after we were welcomed by our future neighbours – a charming mix of families with young and older children, couples, single people and retirees.
As with Earthsong, the residents are also the property developers. Decisions are made collectively and with efficiency and the environment in mind.
The ‘lead families’, architects Thom Gill and Helle Westergaard, and their friends David Welch and Georgianne Griffiths, landed on the idea in 2016. Gill says getting started was hard. They knew the first step was finding the right lawyer and the right accountant, but they struggled to find people that understood what they were trying to do.
“They really didn’t know what we needed in order to start unlocking the puzzle. After a few false starts we found the lawyer that had been involved in Earthsong a long time ago. That cleared away the question of ‘can we make this work?’ from a legal perspective. Then she brought in a tax accountant, which is really important.”
Next they had to find the land as that would inform the design of the project and what the land can yield in order to build a financial model. In 2017, they found the perfect spot on Surrey Crescent, Grey Lynn, site of the former Fairleigh Lodge, once a maternity hospital and home for unwed mothers, and more recently a residential care facility.
A heritage architect had to be consulted about the villa that was already on the land, and then preliminary discussions with a town planner. “All of that has to be done before you stick your money on the line,” says Gill.
Then there’s traffic engineers, urban designers, landscape designers, geo-technical issues, and, of course, council. As anyone that has engaged with the resource consent process knows, council whims and interpretations of the RMA can make or break a project.
A year on from being granted the resource consent, Gill still sounds weary. “The implementation of the Resource Management Act is a real mess. The act itself is laudatory, but the implementation at council level is such a mess. It’s contradictory, long, convoluted, expensive, and uncertain.”
The majority of future residents already use bikes and e-bikes and the site is also on a major bus route, he tells me, so Cohaus will only provide half a carpark per unit, as well as the use of shared electric cars. Gill tells the story of the moment all of their months of hard work nearly went down the drain.
“At the very first council meeting we said ‘we’re going to have nine carparks’. And they were like, ‘Yep OK. We get it.’ So fine, that was sorted.
“Months later, we’re getting ready for the planning hearing. You find out ahead of time if Council is going to recommend for acceptance or for refusal. If you find out there’s a recommendation for refusal, you can go into the hearing and debate it in front of the commissioner but it’s rare that they change their mind.
“We’ve prepared all our reports. We’ve been talking to council for nine months. They’ve had the designs for six months. Then they tell us they’re not happy with the parking. No reason given, just changed their mind. And that one last minute change of heart caused the council town planner to change to a recommendation to refuse.”
On the brink of disaster, Gill says many of those involved paused their lives for three weeks and went into damage control.
“We had David and Georgianne go out and survey the neighbourhood parking for a whole week. We employed a second traffic engineer to come in with another opinion supporting what we were doing. And we tried to figure out where the sudden change of heart came from. We concluded it was probably at Auckland Transport so we pulled strings to get in the ear of people there and say, ‘here’s our transport strategy, you guys seem to be against it’.
“They of course said, ‘no we don’t!’ So there was a flurry of activity and talking to people who were sympathetic to the project and we got the council to flip back to a recommendation to accept. Which our town planner said was a huge victory, he’d never seen that happen before.”
With the green light to go ahead, there was, and is, still a lot to be done. But Gill hopes Cohaus has now set precedents that will make similar medium density projects easier in the future.
“We got a positive decision from a planning commissioner for a cohousing development. It has explicitly got cohousing principles in it. That’s now citable for other people wanting to do something similar. We used the provision in the [Auckland Unitary] plan for an integrated residential development, which hadn’t been done before. We got accepted the principle that, properly argued, reduced carparking provision for multi-residential is acceptable, which hadn’t been the case before. People can build on those.”
The project broke ground in October. Future residents along with representatives of Kiwibank and construction company LEP gathered for a dawn ceremony to light the ahi kaa, home fire. With karakia led by Ngāi Tai ki Tamaki and Ngāti Paoa kaumatua Pita Turei, each person was then given the chance to mihi to the space and their hopes for the future. It was a moment that felt like maybe, just maybe, Auckland’s housing prospects weren’t totally screwed.
Now that more cohousing developments are popping up around the country, Berghan hopes that the examples of Cohaus, Earthsong and Kainga (and other papakāinga), and the principles they embody, will encourage someone at a central government level to pay attention and help pave the way for more responsible, community-minded housing.
“There needs to be some innovation in terms of getting some of the key players together who have worked on these projects and struggled through some of regulatory and financial challenges and try to map out a more streamlined process,” he says.
“They need to identify the biggest barriers and remove them so it can be the norm.”
This content was created in paid partnership with The University of Otago. Learn more about our partnerships here.