Hope and heartbreak for New Zealanders dreaming of a life together | New Zealand
“Welcome to the site of hope and sorrow.”
It is with these words that Bronwen Newton greets visitors to a quarter-acre gravel car park between two industrial buildings in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. You can still see the foundations of a sheet metal workshop that once stood there; not visible is the cohabitation project that Newton and 23 other families hoped to build, but never did.
Since 2018, Newton – a lawyer and property developer – has helped lead the Urban Habitat Collective, one of New Zealand’s last attempts at co-housing. The story of its collapse is the story of the hardships faced by those who dream of living in a connected community outside of conventional real estate market models – often at considerable personal cost.
Cohabitation is a model of semi-community housing, typically featuring a mix of private and shared spaces, but retaining individual ownership of homes.
Wellington architect and academic Mark Southcombe describes it as a “bottom-up, self-sustaining organization” of home building that provides stable, well-connected communities, which is important in a world of increasing loneliness.
“I think cohabitation is wonderful,” he says, adding that in a country where real estate investment is a national obsession and has helped drive property prices to world records, there is a need to “ resocialize” housing.
For Newton, cohabitation is about ensuring that people can live not only physically close, but also connected. Inspired by such sentiments, the 24 members of his collective – a mix of pensioners, families with children and others – bought a site in Adelaide Road in Wellington in 2019 for NZ$2.25 million.
Their final design included two buildings with shared dining areas, a rooftop social space, a bike shop, carpool parks, and an expansive communal garden. “We used to say we were building ‘complexes’, not apartments,” adds Newton.
For developers, however, the project fell awkwardly between the familiar profitable territory of stand-alone homes and 80-unit apartment buildings. Few were willing to accept the work, and then rising construction prices took their toll. Estimated costs nearly doubled to $23 million. At this point, Newton says, the “last ray of hope” faded: Even if their bank hadn’t pulled out of construction financing, many homeowners would have struggled to get mortgages.
The scheme itself is effectively over, and at some cost: Between them, the families have spent millions of dollars on design and other expenses, and will likely be out of pocket. Some had sold homes or used inheritances to fund their involvement.
In light of this collapse, how does Newton feel? “It only hurts when I think about it,” she said. “I don’t regret doing it. [But] I still really regret not having a building. That’s what we decided to do, that’s what we worked for, that’s what we always want.
Across town, a happier story unfolded. On Christmas Eve last year, six Wellington residents moved into a cohousing project they had been planning since early 2017. One of the residents, Tania Sawicki Mead, said: to afford one.
Quickly, they bought land in November 2017 and chose a small local construction company.
But even getting a home loan took eight months. The issue wasn’t the costs, it was that the band wasn’t a typical nuclear house and family customer, nor could they be classified as a commercial promoter. “We were just weird – we didn’t fit into any category.”
The so-called 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 a loan and today the row of four townhouses stand proudly amid still-fresh concrete paths, gardens under construction, a common room and a terrace.
“The ability to socialize together was really important,” Mead says. “It was worth the time and hassle… We get to live close to the people we care about and we have a space where we can keep those connections alive. We come to be a community.
Enlarge the pool
These projects reflect the fortunes of the cohabitation movement in New Zealand. As well as well-established examples like Auckland’s Earthsong, recent successes include Dunedin’s Toiora High Street, which reuses a former school site, and another Auckland project, Cohaus. But the planned programs at Cambridge and Lyttelton have folded.
Southcombe is among those working to create open source guides and legal templates for potential cohabitation groups. Cohousing advocates have also urged the government to allocate unused public land for the construction of multi-unit housing and provide support for people going through the many financial, tax and consent barriers to construction.
Such moves, Mead says, would help “broaden the pool” of groups able to carry out cohousing projects, among them hapū (indigenous families) seeking to build papakainga housing estates – a traditional model of multi-generational shared housing.
For his part, Newton wants the construction industry’s “fundamental problems” resolved, including its boom and bust cycles and lopsided risk sharing that forces customers to pay more if costs rise, but developers pocket the proceeds of any economy. State agencies could also waive development contributions for cohousing projects and provide other aid. Anything, she says, to acknowledge the fact that cohabitation collectives are people “trying to do something different, at great personal cost and risk”.