Thinking outside the box on social housing

LEAFY AND BRIGHT: Oaks, maples and roses border a Housing New Zealand development under way in Church Square, Addington.

LEAFY AND BRIGHT: Oaks, maples and roses border a Housing New Zealand development under way in Church Square, Addington.


Feel safe. Keep the elements out. Stay warm in winter and cool in summer. Enjoy pleasant surroundings. Have enough space but not so much that it becomes a burden. Don't spend too much time on maintenance.

What we want in a house is surprisingly universal. Getting it, though, is not always easy.

Conventional housing does not work for everyone. What is needed is a more flexible approach based on using space in a better way.

However, some people reject alternative designs. They are the perennial Nimbys: "Not in my backyard."

Here's why the critics are dead wrong and why we need to think differently about housing - not just social housing for tenants but housing for everybody.

When Housing New Zealand announced plans for a social housing development in Aranui, some vocal critics slammed it. The principal of the local primary school lambasted the proposed units as "ghettos of the future".

So what is so bad about the plan? The layout comprises 15 units with four to two bedrooms on a 2966 square-metre site. To put that in perspective, that size site could accommodate three to four single-storey standalone suburban houses. The new ones would be two storeys. Driveways would be shared. There would be no garages, just single parking spaces, behind or to the side of each unit.

"Nearly everything about these new houses is wrong," an Aranui resident complained in a letter to The Press. "Semi-detached houses, houses with shared driveways, houses with no garages, houses in cul-de-sacs and high density housing have never worked in the past and won't in the future. They are a breeding ground for crime."

Not so. That kind of design works for us. We live at the end of a cul-de-sac, a private lane, in a two-storey semi-detached townhouse. We like it. We have great views in all directions. We have a decent-sized and very productive private garden. We know our neighbours. Everyone keeps an eye out for each other. There is a shared sense of community. A private lane means cars do not dominate the street. It's quieter.

If I were designing a new housing development, I would go further and get rid of high fences and long driveways altogether. I would add a shared meeting area, a pocket park, and garden areas that everyone could enjoy. If you know your neighbours and can see who is around, you feel safer. Intelligent design cuts crime.

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Some Kiwis' obsession with "privacy" borders on paranoia, with unfortunate results: Vulnerable people who are shut off from their neighbours feel isolated. A clear outcome of the earthquakes was a renewed appreciation for local communities.

Cost is another reason to develop sites more efficiently. Land is expensive; however developing a site for multiple dwellings can create a more attractive environment than the piecemeal system that typifies most suburban development.


Conventional housing models are outdated - society has changed. There are more singles, including elderly, small families, and couples without children. Not everybody needs, wants, or can afford a large single-storey suburban home on a large parcel of land.

Original state or social housing, most of it built from the 1930s to 60s, mirrors contemporary society when big families were the rule. Beyond the State - New Zealand State Houses From Modest to Modern, by Bill McKay and Andrea Stevens, is a fascinating exploration of an idealistic vision for housing, and one that still matters today. State houses were well built. Some have been modernised.

What strikes me about news items showing "poor areas" of state housing, now, mostly in south Auckland, is how big the sections are. Sadly, they often look neglected. There are few big trees or gardens.

Old houses are uninsulated, drafty, and cold. New ones are warmer, healthier, and more economical to run.

Housing New Zealand's general manager for earthquake recovery, Paul Commons, explains that HNZ is building new and better houses to cater for today's society. These include single-storey and multi- unit dwellings that fit in with existing housing.

He says the Aranui project is under consultation.

I hope it goes ahead.

Of course, no matter what your income, houses must be attractive.

Roger Buck, who used to be chief architect for the former Housing Corporation before setting up his own firm, designed multi-unit cluster housing in the 70s and 80s. He passionately believes they can be far more appealing than today's bland and boring new subdivisions.

Buck's advice: Ask tenants what they want.

Architects Peter Beaven and Sir Miles Warren also designed attractive townhouse communities. Now the Breathe eco-village project seeks to introduce community living in the central city.

Cluster housing and co-housing is really just a return to village life. Rejecting it because it is different from the suburban norm is as backwards as rejecting public transport and cycling because Christchurch is "a driving city".

 - The Press


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