SocietyMade possible by

How one iwi is finding its own way out of the housing crisis

‘If you create the community, then great things will come from it.’ In Hawke’s Bay, a papa kāinga – or community housing development – is providing a blueprint for social housing provision in New Zealand.

On a hilltop overlooking the long stretch of Waimarama beach in Hawke’s Bay is a cluster of new houses that seem to have it all. The never-ending horizon view, broken only by the squiggle of Motuokura, or Bare Island. Warm. Affordable. Surrounded by potential – for growing food, for livestock, for play. Schools across the road, not to mention a decent cafe nearby.

Exclusivity has been creeping up on Waimarama since I moved away from my childhood home in nearby Havelock North 12 years ago, cloaking the community in a previously alien, barely-used holiday house hush; the stretching beachfront appears increasingly like a hall of mirrors.

The papa kāinga on the hill is pushing against this tide of change by providing a sense of permanence and accessibility. Conceived by whānau member Eru Smith, it consists of five stand-alone homes: three rentals (at a comparatively affordable $280 per week) and two owner-occupied.

It is a papa kāinga that embodies the fullest meaning of the term. More than just ‘a housing development on Māori land’, it is a return to a place of belonging for those involved. Their tīpuna moved away four generations ago; the papa kāinga is the whānau’s opportunity to return home, support their marae and reconnect with each other.

On opening day, it is brought into official being by an eclectic bunch: the politicians in suits, getting slowly roasted by the unforgiving Hawke’s Bay summer sun; members from other whānau listening attentively, noting the key players, already with projects of their own in vision; kids racing up and down the driveway on their bikes and scooters, pitching up to join in the waiata and haka; tradies and contractors clearly pleased with the outcome of their work. All with a stake in the community’s success. The kōrero is not without challenge – a humorous reminder of a televised clash with lines company Unison is among the anecdotes – but it is largely constructive and full of congratulations.

Waimarama Beach. (Photo: Hawke’s Bay Tourism)

The drawn out howl

The opening of the papa kāinga plays out like a dreamy interlude in the drawn out media and political howl that is New Zealand’s housing crisis. A howl that often seems to just be echoing around chambers, both parliamentary and social. A howl that doesn’t really seem to be getting us anywhere very fast. What the howl does make clear is that the place where housing development and people collide has become a place fraught with tension. Even more so in areas considered ‘exclusive’.

My adopted home of Arrowtown is a saddening, maddening example of this mentality. Arrowtowners in their numbers came out of the quaint stonework last year to complain about affordable housing being built in the town. Their primary complaint? That the housing would compromise the ‘character’ of the town. It took reading just a few letters to the local rag to figure out the real meaning of those words: we don’t want ‘poor people’ as neighbours (in a town where the median house price is over $1m, ‘poor’ is a very relative term). Of course, we do want builders and hospitality and tourism workers here to prop up our economy, we just don’t want them to be so obvious about, you know, living. Can they not just all stay put in the ready-made suburbs, out of town and out of mind?

The atrocity that was the fire at Grenfell Tower in London represents the awful extreme of this attitude – so much money spent on keeping up appearances, so little spent on the essentials. It is a manifestation of the fact that social housing, once a fundamental state service, has become a pejorative term. Our misdirected faith in the ability of the market to “sort it out” every time has allowed it to become so.

The Waimarama papa kāinga presents an example of how things could be different.

A philosophy of values

The homes at Waimarama are part of a wider papa kāinga movement in Hawke’s Bay that’s gaining momentum. At the helm is project manager Paul Sheeran (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Pāhauwera), who works under the auspices of the Aorangi Māori Trust Board. While the National government scrambles to adjust social housing policy settings and negotiate infrastructure demands with local government, and the spectre of immigration looms over Labour’s Kiwibuild programme – and election year politics more broadly – Sheeran and his team are quietly and concertedly getting on with making a difference. A big one.

Paul Sheeran at Aorangi Papa Kāinga. (Photo: Bay Buzz)

Born in Auckland and raised in Central Hawke’s Bay, Sheeran’s route to social housing developer reads like one of the very best grassroots stories. After leaving school at 16 to work in the local meat works, he spent the best part of the next decade as a shearer here in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom. Stints as a courier and transport business owner followed. Later in life came a Bachelor of Business Studies with a major in finance (“I also managed to get my golf handicap down during this time, haha!”), and a focus on learning te reo Māori. Five kids ranging from university to primary school-aged complete a picture of a busy man, up for a challenge.

It was a nine year stint at the Māori Land Court following his studies that led Sheeran to the question – and potential answer – of whānau-based housing.

“My last role when I was working at the Māori Land Court was to try to assist land owners of Māori freehold land to utilise their land. A large amount of whānau had aspirations to build on their ancestral lands and improve their housing situation, including entering into home ownership. Working through the process…made me aware of the numerous barriers that were prohibiting whānau [from achieving] their papa kāinga aspirations.”

Sheeran lists a lack of council funding, a lack of administration structure within whānau, and a lack of knowledge of the process among the obstacles to getting community housing off the ground. Accessing funding at the national level has also been an issue, as finance products for building on Māori freehold land are currently limited to one – Kiwibank’s Kāinga Whenua. Even then criteria is strict and money isn’t exactly raining down. Surmounting these barriers has been no mean feat, and has required all of Sheeran’s eclectic skills – and that of a core team of service providers and whānau leaders – to wade through the regulations, translate the criteria for funding, and build ground-up capacity to take the papa kāinga from aspiration to realisation.

With all of this in the road, it is an achievement that one project has got off the ground. In fact, there are three and counting – the project at Waimarama is just the latest to be opened.

The first success, Aorangi Papa Kāinga, opened in 2015 and built on a 3.4ha block bought by the Aorangi Māori Trust Board in the 1970s, has pioneered the balance of community and privacy that has become a hallmark of the projects. A community garden and an internal courtyard bring the inhabitants of the eight homes together naturally, while landscaping and house orientation have ensured that privacy is still maintained. The land has the capacity for a further 32 homes.

The hard graft and wrangling is, in Sheeran’s view, all worth it. He believes that the papa kāinga model is fundamentally about something we all need, and many of us are struggling to maintain: community.

“The papa kāinga must be built on a philosophy of values – manaakitanga, kaitiakitanga, wairuatanga, whānaungatanga. All the values of a community. If you create the community, then great things will come from it.”

He cites the way of life at Aorangi as proof: “Everyone thinks it is a fantastic way to live, [for example]  two sisters live side by side and can support each other. The elderly are supported by the community. Great ideas like an Aorangi market day [have started] to spring up. Very affordable and healthy homes make life a lot less stressful.”

The model combines government grants with traditional loans to remain financially viable. The rental properties service the development’s debt, which has been subsidised by a Te Puni Kōkiri grant. The expectation is that the rents will be set around 80% of the market rate because, as Sheeran continually emphasises, “the kaupapa is healthy, affordable homes.”

The commercial viability of the projects is helped by building partnerships with service providers. By working on multiple projects, economies of scale have been created and contractors come together to work as a team on the projects, all bringing what Sheeran describes as “a level of good will”.

The papa kāinga at Waimarama Beach. Photo: supplied

The ground to be reclaimed

The model, like all models, is not perfect. Sticky points remain. Balancing sovereignty and independent decision-making with government grants is one. “It flies in the face of Tino Rangatiratanga,” says Sheeran, “as it results in an ongoing relationship with the Government and the obligations that go hand in hand [with that]”. However, he points out that this shouldn’t limit the pool of funding available, just that relationships need to be negotiated carefully and with eyes wide open to the complexity.

Credit where it is due, the government’s backing and resourcing of iwi to deliver social services to their members is certainly further along the spectrum of decolonisation than the shoddy attempts by private developers in the early 80s to build affordable housing in predominantly Māori communities in Hawke’s Bay, such as Flaxmere. The homes were poor quality, on tiny cross-lease sections, and all crammed in together with little care or design. The opposite of the vision and execution at Aorangi and Waimarama.

Here then is proof that there is ground to be reclaimed by the state when it comes to social housing.

The Hawke’s Bay papa kāinga are examples of the social housing solution that can be created when governments and councils are constructive partners. A solution that isn’t just about patching up the rips in the national social fabric that unchecked neo-liberalism has left behind (hastily arranged hotels for the homeless spring to mind). A solution that’s about positive, collaborative action. A solution that’s about community in the fullest, most embracing sense of the word. And, yes, a solution that is about profitability – but profitability as outcome, not philosophy.

The economic growth and surplus that we keep hearing about mean little unless they create maximum benefit for a maximum number of people. That’s why the papa kāinga are such important examples of what can be achieved – they are about maximising advantage for all involved, with the community members at the centre. The model may not be perfect, but it is moving us in the direction we need to be going if we want a society that allows us all to thrive.

So, perhaps this election year it’s time to quieten down in our echo chambers for a bit and listen more carefully to the people just getting on with getting it done.


The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.