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SocietyFebruary 12, 2019

With NZ housing still utterly borked, some are taking matters into their own hands

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As government and business lag behind, the fledgling community-driven housing sector is pursuing alternatives to bypass an unjust system, writes Thomas Nash

Is there any hope for the future of housing in New Zealand?

Our tax law encourages wealthy landowners to enrich themselves through untaxed revenue (also known as capital gains). The government faces scrutiny over its Kiwibuild policy, which even if successful would mainly just increase the supply of largely unaffordable homes, while rental prices skyrocket. Our (Australian-owned) banks stoke this extractive system by creating more and more money through mortgage debt as they effortlessly accumulate billion-dollar profits.

There’s more. Our building code encourages developers to operate on a minimum standard, maximum profit rationale. Our building materials are controlled by a cartel supplying us timber treated with a toxic copper, chromium and arsenic preservative that is banned in many countries. Meanwhile we export our raw pine logs to companies in Europe that turn them into high value wonder products, including through sustainable timber modification processes pioneered by our own New Zealand forest research scientists.

It’s grim. And it doesn’t look like changing much because those that benefit from this set up have a firm grip on power and are not about to relinquish it. Some may even have convinced themselves that this is actually the optimal system.

How could this system change so that housing might once again be based on provision of homes for the many, rather than extraction of wealth for the few? One way is for government to enact laws and regulations that genuinely transform the incentive structure for ownership of land, development of property and construction of housing (simply taxing wealth would help). The government’s hotly anticipated “wellbeing budget” should actually require such a transformational shift, but it doesn’t appear to be on the agenda – yet.

The other way is for communities to develop our own parallel systems of ownership, development and building that are driven by a desire not for some people to get mega-rich, but to make sure everyone has a good place to live that they can afford through to retirement. The values underpinning this sort of system have deep roots in Aotearoa. Concepts of collective ownership and kaitiakitanga are deeply rooted in te ao Māori. More recently communities developed local building societies and credit unions – member-owned financial institutions that pooled people’s savings and helped them build homes.

Happily, as government and business lag behind, the fledgling community-driven housing sector is getting on with building projects and taking steps to coalesce as a movement. This week at Victoria University of Wellington the CoHoHui marks the first nationwide conference on collective urban housing to be held in New Zealand. Participants will include builders, designers, engineers and architects; lawyers, bankers and developers; community housing, papakāinga and co-housing groups; representatives of iwi, councils and central government; and others working on collective urban housing.

It’s a promising sector because it’s self-driven, can be self-funded and is not dependent on government and business. It could of course be greatly supported by government and business and the specifics of that will be a big part of the discussions this week.

Cities overseas have seen a flourishing in recent decades of community-driven and collectively-owned housing. In Norway the cooperative building association OBOS is owned by its 435,000 members and has built about a quarter of Oslo’s housing stock. It’s basically a housing and savings organisation – you become a member, contribute to the cooperative with your savings and own the right to occupy your home. Cities like Vienna, Berlin and Zurich are all deep into housing cooperatives. Across the Tasman in Melbourne, Nightingale Housing has been swamped with demand for homes built through their collective urban housing model.

There are encouraging examples emerging in New Zealand too. Jade Kake has written about the resurgence of papakāinga in her BWB Text “Rebuilding the Kāinga” and there’s a dynamic housing innovation eco-system being driven by hapu and iwi across the country.

Community housing providers (property developers that instead of extracting profit for their investors put all profits back into building and maintaining homes) are rare in New Zealand. One good example is the New Zealand Housing Foundation. It gets lower income families into affordable rental and then shared ownership homes and as those homes are paid off it recycles the money into building more homes. With $10m of finance over eight years it has built over $300m worth of housing assets, including at Waimahia Inlet in Auckland.

On the co-housing side (projects where future residents pool their resources and decide together the community they want to build) Earthsong has been going strong for years in Ranui, Auckland. Amongst a raft of new-entrants, the Buckley Road project is in the planning stages in Wellington, High Street Cohousing is underway in Dunedin and Cohaus has just been consented in Auckland. There’s even a collectively-owned commercial building you can help crowdfund – Collette’s Corner in Lyttelton.

In the end it’ll take a genuinely transformational government to put in place the rules for a fair system of housing in Aotearoa New Zealand. But we can’t wait for that, so in the meantime we should build our own alternatives to bypass the grossly unjust system currently locking people out of good housing.

Thomas Nash is social entrepreneur in residence at Massey University

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