Hope and heartache for New Zealanders dreaming of community life New Zealand

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“Welcome to the page of hope and heartbreak.”

With these words Bronwen Newton greets visitors to a 0.4 hectare gravel parking lot between two industrial buildings in New Zealand’s capital Wellington. The foundations of a tinsmith shop that once stood there are still visible; not visible is the cohousing project that Newton and 23 other families hoped to build but will now never build.

Since 2018, Newton – a lawyer and property developer – has been helping steer the Urban Habitat Collective, one of New Zealand’s latest attempts at developing a co-housing scheme. The story of its collapse is the story of the difficulties faced by those who dream of living in a connected community outside of the conventional models of the real estate market – often at significant personal cost.

Cohousing is a semi-communal housing model that typically features a mix of private and shared spaces, but retains individual ownership of houses.

Mark Southcombe, a Wellington-based architect and academic, hailed it as a “self-help, bottom-up housing organization” that creates stable, well-connected communities – important in a world of increasing loneliness.

“I think cohousing is wonderful,” he says, adding that in a country where real estate investing is a national obsession and has helped drive house prices to world record highs, there is a need to “rehabilitate” housing.

For Newton, cohousing is about ensuring that people can live not only physically close, but also connected. Inspired by such sentiments, the 24 members of their collective – a mix of pensioners, families with children and others – bought a property on Wellington’s Adelaide Road for NZ$2.25 million in 2019.

Their final design included two buildings with shared dining areas, a rooftop social space, a bicycle repair shop, car-sharing parks, and an expansive community garden. “We used to say we were building ‘communities,’ not homes,” adds Newton.

For developers, however, the project was uncomfortably caught between the well-known profitable territory of family houses and 80-unit apartment blocks. Few were willing to take the job, and then rising construction prices wreaked havoc. The estimated cost almost doubled to $23 million. At that point, Newton says, the “last ray of hope” was gone: Even if their bank hadn’t pulled out of financing the construction, many homeowners would have had trouble getting mortgages.

The program itself is practically over, and at a cost: Collectively, the families have spent millions of dollars on design and other expenses, and will likely be out of pocket. Some had sold houses or used inheritances to finance their commitment.

How does Newton feel about this collapse? “It just hurts when I think about it,” she says. “I don’t regret doing it. [But] I still deeply regret not having a building. That’s what we set out to do, that’s what we worked for, that’s what we still want.”

On the other side of town, a happier story was unfolding. On Christmas Eve last year, six Wellington residents moved into a shared apartment they had been planning since early 2017. One of the residents, Tania Sawicki Mead, says: “Separately, many of us had talked about wanting to buy a home and the inability to afford one.”

They acted quickly, buying a piece of land in November 2017 and settling for a small local construction company.

But even getting a construction loan took eight months. The problem was not the cost, but that the group was not a traditional single-family, nuclear-family customer, nor could it be classified as a commercial developer. “We were just weird — we didn’t fit into any category.”

The perceived complexity of a six-owner structure “also gave people the Heebie-Jeebies … They were so obsessed with the idea that we were a risk.”

Eventually, however, the project secured credit and today the row of four townhouses stands proudly amid fresh concrete walkways, work-in-progress gardens and common areas and terraces.

“The ability to socialize was really important,” says Mead. “It was worth the time and effort… We live close to people we care about and we have a space to keep those connections alive. We will be one community.”

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These projects reflect the fortunes of the New Zealand co-housing movement. Alongside established examples such as Earthsong in Auckland, recent successes include Dunedin’s Toiora High Street, which is repurposing a former school site, and Cohaus, another project in Auckland. But proposed plans in Cambridge and Lyttelton have failed.

Southcombe is among those working on creating open source guides and legal templates for potential flat shares. Community housing advocates have also called on the government to make public land available for collective housing and to help people navigate the many financial, tax and building code hurdles.

Such moves, Mead says, would help “broaden” the pool of groups able to undertake cohousing projects, including hapū (indigenous families) trying to build papakainga developments — a traditional co-housing model for several generations.

For her part, Newton wants “fundamental problems” in the construction industry to be resolved, including its boom and bust cycles and unbalanced risk sharing, where customers pay more when costs escalate but developers pocket the proceeds of savings. Government agencies could also waive subsidies for shared flats and provide other support. Anything, she says, to acknowledge the fact that shared apartments are people “trying to do something else, at great personal cost and risk.”

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