new auckland

Walk the talk on affordable housing projects

You would think that an Auckland housing project designed to be both affordable and eco-friendly would tick all the boxes in a city where home ownership is becoming an impossible dream. In theory, and politically, it does.

But for the designers and developers of Grey Lynn’s Cohaus, the 18 month resource consent process has meant coming up against council workers who are following the old rules – line by line.

Thom Gill is one of the driving forces behind the project, in which a community has pooled resources to build 18 homes on a 2400 square metre property formerly known as Fairleigh Lodge – it’s about the size of six small sections. The units, including a three storey apartment block built to over-code standards, range between one and five bedrooms. As the needs of residents change it’s envisioned they will be able to swap their homes around – down or upsize. They will have shared facilities including a courtyard, laundry, common room, a bookable guest unit, car parking, electric bike recharging area and workshop – even a couple of cars.

That’s one lawnmower instead of 18, a mega playground for the kids, and a strong sense of community – no fences, and residents who have bought into the project because they believe in it. They are also designing and building it themselves, avoiding a developer profit margin.

Gill says it’s a model that’s worked for 50 years in places such as Denmark, the US, and Germany. His wife, Helle Westergaard, (also an architect), is Danish and they lived in similar set-ups in London and Copenhagen.

“We’ve been living in medium density developments for over a decade and I think it’s great – I think it’s superior to the traditional New Zealand house with the back yard. It’s much less wasteful … your home doesn’t have a lot of stuff you have to keep maintaining.

“All of that, to me, gives you more time to live life.”

Gill says the idea of living in a community has strong appeal. “Isolation has serious effects – mental health, people loaded with debt. There are increasing numbers of people struggling just to have housing and the proportion of their income it’s taking is creeping up all the time.”

The Surrey Cres frontage of Cohaus. Image: Cohaus

The property was the eighth the group had looked at, having been beaten out in their previous efforts. The villa on it, which will be moved to the north-west corner of the site, was likely the first to be built on the block. In the early 20th century it was converted into a maternity hospital and adoption agency, with an operating theatre built on. It has grown haphazardly since, and its last incarnation was as a home for mental health patients.

It has three street frontages including the busy Surrey Crescent main road, is close to schools and the area has, or will have, plenty of bike lanes.

All of the residents own bikes, and most don’t want to own a car. So under this design, half a car park per home has been allocated. That doesn’t fit transport planning rules designed to stop residents clogging up nearby streets with vehicles. Gill discovered that while the Auckland Council’s top planners were encouraging such affordable housing solutions on the one hand; officers employed to make sure the rules are being followed – were following them.

Gill has had to jump huge planning hoops to get the resource consent through.

“I think there is a disconnect in what we hear from the Council. Top planners are encouraging projects like this, and a number of people at council want things like this to happen – they want more housing that’s affordable, no question. But they don’t actually have the [human] resources within council to make that happen.” Gill says a shift in policy is needed to actually achieve what planners are talking about.

He says housing on any scale – particularly infill housing in existing neighbourhoods – is very complicated.

“Our impression was they just didn’t know how to deal with it … then they fall back on conservative orthodoxies.”

He says what’s needed is a dedicated unit within the Council which could deal with such projects when they come in - somebody reminding people what the overall aim for the city is. “A champion of stated policy.”

At the moment, he says, it’s just too hard to get any cut-through with such ideas. Gill says if his group wasn’t made up largely of architects and town planners, they would never have got anywhere. “People had a lot of faith in it,” he says.

Now that it has resource consent, all going well the Cohaus project will be finished in the last quarter of 2020. However Gill is not totally confident that all will go well. He anticipates it being difficult to sign up a contractor to build it for the price the group has budgeted for. If that happens, an exit strategy will have to be developed.

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