The Stanford apartments in Auckland where the author lived
The Stanford apartments in Auckland where the author lived

SocietyJuly 8, 2024

I lived in a shoebox apartment. I’m glad they’re coming back

The Stanford apartments in Auckland where the author lived
The Stanford apartments in Auckland where the author lived

Poor-quality, cramped and ugly as hell – but Duncan Greive was thrilled to live in a shoebox apartment.

In your early 20s you don’t think too hard about what’s going on around you, it just is. We didn’t know it, but in 2005, Auckland city was in the last boom times of the pre-digital era. It seemed normal that there were a dozen venues to see live music on or near Karangahape Road. It seemed normal that there were at least five print magazines paying you to write about music. And it seemed normal that the city was dotted with cranes, many standing up so-called “shoebox apartments”.

The phrase was not meant as a compliment. They were derided as “future slums” by a lobby group named Urban Auckland, which successfully took the council to court over their design. This pushback ultimately led to a rule change, driven by then mayor Dick Hubbard with support of Labour-aligned City Vision, which specified various restrictions to developments, such as making the minimum size of a two-bedroom apartment 70 square metres. As the below chart from the Substack Apracitas Economics shows, the change had a profound and lasting impact on apartment construction.

In 2005, I was only dimly aware of the furore, of the disgust shoebox apartments aroused. In 2005, I was living in one. Named the Stanford, it had sprung up in 2004 on Nelson Street, where it still stands today. It’s just up the road from the Harvard apartments, both built by a developer named Conrad who clearly thought that naming these thin, cheap apartments after Ivy League institutions would confer borrowed prestige. That seemed objectively funny then, and the joke has aged well, I think.

My apartment was near the top of the block and did have expansive harbour views. Otherwise, it was pretty rough. It consisted of two bedrooms, one big enough for a queen, the other for a single. There was a tiny bathroom with a laundry cupboard, a tiny kitchen-dining-lounge and a slightly scary tiny balcony. The whole thing topped out at 41 square metres, or a little over half the size of the new standards. Which is to say that by the time I had moved in, it would have been illegal to build the Stanford apartments.

Living in a shoebox

I lived in the Stanford for most of two years, from 2005-2006. I was a single dad who had his daughter every other week, and finishing up a graduate diploma in journalism at AUT. The years prior had been hard. I’d had my daughter just after I turned 21, while working at a liquor store and being a really bad arts student. 

Attempting to show up as a dad, I quit studying to become a postie, working six days a week for less than $400 in the hand. After a couple of years I left that job under strained circumstances, and took a job at Datacom changing tapes in their data centres. Three 12-hour shifts, back-to-back, alternating days and overnights. That was another couple of years, towards the end of which my relationship broke down.

Through that period finding a home had always been tricky. I moved into the shoebox about when my daughter started school, but she had already known seven different addresses. Moving was driven by a variety of factors, but cost was up there. I was torn between wanting to be a free person in their 20s, and wanting to be a dad. After trying and failing to find a flat comfortable with having a kid around half the time, I ended up taking a look at the Stanford. It was $250 a week for two bedrooms – I could afford it alone.

Honestly, it wasn’t great. These things really were tiny. My bedroom had no window, and there was only a tiny thin slit of a natural light into the other bedroom. The lift had already started to smell, and I wouldn’t say I was proud to live there or loved hosting people. But it was my own place, the first one I had all to my daughter and me, one I could lock and know would be the same when I returned. 

The location was objectively perfect. I could walk my daughter down the hill to Freeman’s Bay School a few hundred metres away. We’d often stop to buy some extremely ripe fruit from Asian Grocer (I’m not being racist, that’s its name) on the way, a fact my daughter still jokes about to this day. Then I’d walk on to AUT. Or, after graduating, to Ponsonby, where I had my first office job at Satellite Media, uploading 140-character music content to the Vodafone mobile site. 

Later that year, I got my dream job – editing Real Groove magazine, a publication I had grown up reading, half in awe of writers like John Russell, Kerry Buchanan and Troy Ferguson. I also started seeing the woman who would become my wife while living in that shoebox. In retrospect that apartment was where I started to get my shit together, started to have a sense that I could be something more than a fuckup.

I’m not here to tell you that apartment was the reason why. It was unbearably small – you couldn’t really have anyone over, or not for long. The carpet was cheap, the fittings were already starting to go. The sense of neighbourliness described in Olga McAllister’s gorgeous essay on growing up in a (much larger) Soviet apartment block was absolutely not present, or not for me at least. The apartments were objectively ugly, though not so bad as they were made out at the time.

But the upside overwhelmed all that. I was right there in the city. As a young music critic, I was a few minutes’ walk from those venues on K Road, and from a half dozen record stores. It was not much further to friends’ flats in Grafton and Kingsland. Those weeks when I was a dad, it was easy. The other weeks, going out was as easy as leaving the apartment. I had a car, but no carpark, so barely drove it. An urbanist’s dream, years before I’d find out what an urbanist was. 

It was what I needed at that time, however much it offended the sensibilities of design snobs and planners. I feel confident in saying many other residents, transient as we often were, felt the same way. We were there because it was better than the alternative. 

All that life and growth was snuffed out at the stroke of a pen while I was living there. Stats NZ data shows the number of “multi-unit homes” – many of which were apartments – crashed from a rolling average of almost 10,000 being built in 2005 to fewer than 2,500 five years later.

If not a shoebox, then where?

Another characteristic of the inner city when I lived there was that homelessness barely existed. I remember vividly an extraordinary double-page feature in the NZ Herald which looked at life among the unhoused then. It mapped specific characters, and if you spent a lot of time in the inner city, it seemed a near-complete survey. 

The idea that you could now map the scale of human misery that a lack of housing has brought to Auckland is unimaginable. As the ’00s wore on, the GFC hit and the next decade began, the city acquired its current reality, with hundreds of people making lives on the streets of downtown and its fringes. It’s now a countrywide phenomenon.

That’s the backdrop of the reforms announced last week by housing minister Chris Bishop. I travelled into the city to see him deliver a speech about housing last week, in a cramped room at the Rydges Hotel in downtown Auckland. He spent long periods wading through the thickets of regulation, through the acronym soup of the MDRS and the NPS-UD, and paid compliments to Auckland’s groundbreaking 2016 unitary plan, which started the process of unshackling land for development and finally saw us surpass the heady mid-00s for construction of multi-units.

But the part which leapt out for me was not technical, it was moral. He announced an override of the minimum dwelling size standards – a return to plausibility for the kind of place I lived in 20 years ago. In front of a room full of people involved in construction and leasing, with tables for Colliers and CBRE and Crockers, he made a simple case. “You know what is smaller than a shoebox apartment? A car or an emergency housing motel room.” That’s our current plan for dealing with people who don’t have a house, and it’s indefensible.

The rest of the reforms he announced are big. They are a continuation of an enormous body of work which started with Auckland’s unitary plan, was driven forward by Phil Twyford’s revolutionary NPS-UD which created a huge potential for urban density, and now reaches a powerful climax with Bishop’s Going for Housing Growth package. 

It’s not beyond criticism – my colleague Joel MacManus points to the dangers of its removal of rural-urban boundaries as having the potential to create plentiful cheap housing where no one wants to live. But to me those issues are less material, and likely to be less impactful, due to the return of the maligned shoebox. 

I left Bishop’s speech during questions from the floor, the first of which dwelled on how to protect valuable growing land like Pukekohe at the edge of cities. There are hard, complex questions of tradeoffs which planners and officials will untangle as best they can.

In an Uber, someone in clear distress staggered out in front of us. It should have been shocking, instead it was routine. 

A few hundred metres up the road, we drove past the Stanford, standing plain and firm in the morning sun. In a few years, maybe there will be a few more like her. And, in time, that might mean a few fewer people wandering helpless and in harm’s way on the roads of our half-broken central cities.

Keep going!