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OPINIONWellingtonMay 2, 2024

My co-housing project failed, but I still think it’s a great idea


The Urban Habitat Collective was an attempt to build an innovative new form of apartment building in Wellington. Here’s why it failed, and why the idea could still work, writes co-founder Bronwen Newton.

When we started the Urban Habitat Collective in November 2018, we thought we were starting a revolution, to build the kind of urban, modern, high amenity, socially connected housing we wanted. It didn’t exist, so we would have to build it ourselves.  

It started over coffee (like many things in Wellington) as a conversation between myself and Jesse Matthews, our co-founder and chief architect. It soon expanded to include families, couples, singles and retirees. Recruitment took some work – especially during lockdown – but we ended up with a lovely group of different ages and family types.

The idea was to build well designed private dwellings with a shared common room, garden, workshop and roofdeck, designed in such a way that we could move between these spaces without friction. Everyone has their own preferred mix of privacy and community, and we wanted a context that enabled them all. 

We didn’t even call it co-housing for the first few months, because we thought we had invented something new and different. It turns out it was something more mature housing economies, like Scandinavia, Germany, the UK and California, have been doing for decades. We were not creating a whole new social form – just a built environment and a set of agreements that helped people be good neighbours.

A design mockup of the Urban Habitat Collective apartment on Adelaide Road. Photo: Urban Habitat Collective

Things started to come together. We bought a site at 136 Adelaide Road, completed the design with Spacecraft Architects, and secured resource and building consents. We found 25 families to commit by contributing 30% of the projected cost of their apartment, signing a cohousing agreement and being a shareholder of the company. Everything was ready for the build to begin.

Then, like so many promising projects, it got derailed by Covid. The construction industry lost its mind. Our build cost almost doubled in 18 months despite our efforts to cut costs and stretch our deposits enough to return the project to viability. We tried every possible avenue, but had to admit defeat and sell the site. It was heartbreaking, but we managed to get out with our shirts (minus a sleeve and few buttons). 

The things that were supposed to be hard were easy, and things that we thought would be easy (or at least achievable) turned out to be hard. The community-building and consensus decision-making, while time-consuming, resulted in a highly functional, respectful group that weathered many setbacks with grace and generosity. 

Once we had satisfied KiwiBank about the financial fitness of our group, they were willing to offer a term sheet we could work with. We were just a group of people trying to build our homes together, and that is not particularly controversial from a bank’s perspective. Councillors and council staff were supportive, though in reality there wasn’t much they could do to express that support in any practical way.

What turned out to be difficult, and in the end fatal, was designing a building that embodied our values and that we could afford. We spent over 18 months working with a quantity surveyor and early engagement contractor to keep our decisions within the budget, only to have the first price back from the market 20% higher than the estimate, and it only went up from there.

There is a fiction that “the market” or “the private sector” is where risk-taking and innovation happen. I don’t think that is the case in property development. What gets built is what has sold in the past. It’s what is the lowest risk, not necessarily what is good for people, communities, or cities. I have talked to several big developers who say that they value community, but there is very little provision for shared spaces in new apartment buildings or townhouse developments. Architects still prioritise isolation over interaction, and they give little attention to supporting relationships between residents and creating agreements about communication, behaviour, and dispute resolution.  

A birds-eye view of the apartment mockup (Photo: Urban Habitat Collective)

I’ve been having cohousing conversations for the last five years and what always comes up is “What about the bad person?” We all know it is possible to fall out with our neighbours, but somehow, people perceive it as worse and more likely if we don’t have a fence between our properties. I don’t think more privacy and separation is the answer. What helps is knowing your neighbours, having a shared purpose and agreement about what good behaviour looks like.

As a country, we need people to live more closely together, so that we can provide the benefits of transport and services, leave arable land for food production, and enjoy the sheer buzz of human activity. To make this an appealing choice, we need to design buildings and communities that give people confidence living closer together is going to be enjoyable. The current system doesn’t know how to promote the benefits of community and amenity sharing.

Inside the proposed apartments (Photo: Urban Habitat Collective)

What would help? New Zealand has a highly commodified housing market. It’s not easy to provide public support to private projects that then convert into private capital assets for residents. A pragmatic response to supporting these projects would be for the government (local and national) to acknowledge that resident-led cohousing projects differ from regular developments. They create social and physical amenity, where residents play an active part in shaping urban development, building liveable cities, and foster a sense of pride in the communities they live in. Qualifying projects could benefit from access to land – not discounted, but simply reserved at an agreed market price to enable a group to form. It is hard to form a group without a site, and hard to get a site without a group. Councils could also provide guarantees to banks to enable financing, and could reduce developer contributions in recognition of created amenity.

Several co-housing projects have failed in recent years, including Colette’s Corner, Cornerstone, Madras St and Ahiwai. There have also been some great successes. The Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood in Ranui, CoHaus in Grey Lynn, Toiora in Dunedin, Peterborough in Christchurch, and Takaka Cohousing Neighbourhood in Golden Bay all show that this type of housing works and can thrive in Aotearoa. Cohousing, in its many forms, is an idea whose time has come – even if we are playing catch up.

The Urban Habitat Collective failed, but I’m not sorry we tried – just sorry we never had the chance to live with that amazing group of people. I still think cohousing is a great idea.

Keep going!