Tim Gummer

Auckland Conversations has long felt like an enlightenment project: The salon type event offering a bit of the ‘vision thing’ from gurus with international perspective and experience, offering – at least potentially – some light at the end of the tunnel.  And so the flames of Auckland’s fragile urbanist hopes are fanned.

Standouts like urbanist godfather Jan Gehl , NYC transport revolutionary Janette Sadik-Kahn, tactical urbanist Mike Lydon and Canadian situp-cycling power couple the Bruntletts have shared enduring and powerful messages. Inspiring, applicable visions for a truly greater Auckland which you can still watch here.

Except, it seems, for housing. It’s with increasing dismay over several events, that we’ve turned up to hear neither international scope, nor solutions on housing. And Jun 23rd was a new low.  

I’m not so blinded by ‘guruism’ that I think all prophets are without honour in their own country, but isn’t the point of Auckland Conversations to learn something applicable that we don’t already know?

The Future of Housing in Auckland featured Ockham’s Helen O’Sullivan, Generation Zero’s Carlos Chambers, former Reserve Bank chair and economist Arthur Grimes, chaired by Bernard Hickey.

O’Sullivan told us that density is good, Chambers that young people quite like density, and Grimes that housing is too expensive and should become cheaper. For a bonus we heard that climate change was no longer an issue, because… electric cars.

Auckland Conversations: is this as good as it gets?

That everyone on stage are talented and tireless contributors to a better, more urban Auckland is not in question. But the usefulness of the resultant discourse should be.

We’re well used to co-housing having a marginalised status here, and in a previous Auckland Conversations housing event, various attempts to have some representation were sternly rebuffed. But that even social housing got only a passing mention in question time speaks volumes about how out of touch we have become as a city, and probably as a nation, on housing solutions.

(At least we weren't the only ones to notice this).

Architect Mark Southcombe, who has practical affordable housing development under his belt, has posted here on our lost connection with social housing. NZ was a pioneer in social housing billed then as affordable housing for the ‘common man’.  And generally social housing = “affordable housing”.  

Go on, google it now. I'll wait.

But for kiwis, social housing has been long downgraded to ambulance at the bottom of the cliff status.  So much so, that it’s off-topic at Auckland Conversations.

Panelist Arthur Grimes did say that kiwis are very parochial in their thinking about housing. However cloud-cookoo-land his prognostications on electric cars as an urban silver bullet were, he got this one right.

Cohousing, let’s remember, is now 10% of housing development in Denmark. By law.  And new social housing developments particularly in Europe, are increasingly borrowing from the coho playbook to include the kind of community benefits that cohousing has baked in.

People active in the cohousing and social housing spaces are well aware of the dramatic improvements in affordability and quality of life that cohousing and well-designed social housing bring -  a natural consequence of reducing or eliminating the profit motive from development. Mark Southcombe has found cost savings of 25-30% for Berlin residents in collective urban housing.

Social housing is the Labour Party’s national domain - and as the NZ LabourParty nudges its centenary, I hope that the only reason we’re not hearing more on social housing is that they’re keeping their powder dry for an election year policy announcement that would make Michael Joseph Savage proud.

But in the meantime, social housing should be a central part of our national conversation about housing - certainly part of Auckland Conversations' – along with cohousing.

For that to happen, policy-makers, and it seems the supposed movers and shakers amongst us will need a refresher on what world-class social housing is, and what it can be here.

As to cohousing - we have at least one highly successful community here, with more on the way, but they’re virtually unknown even to local urbanists - the kind of community one previous event speaker dismissed in a particularly low moment as “sitting around and singing Kumbya”. And if Robin Allison is a prophet without honour in her own country, there are plenty of international ‘gurus’ with great track records in cohousing and social housing who would blow the roof off kiwis’ tragically parochial thinking about housing.

We have their numbers. Hey, Auckland Conversations - true to our name, we’re happy to share.  

And let’s start a real conversation about housing.


Postscript 4 July

Today’s RNZ Nine To Noon shows that Ak Conversations is not without some reverberations:  Arthur Grimes has expanded on his call for a correction to pricing  (he’s suggested a 40% drop would take us back to pricing of only 4 years ago) - well worth a listen.

And the weekly From the Right and From The Left  - largely focussing on the governments $1Bn kneejerk poll-driven housing hit - (which sounds like a serious wad, if you don't know better) had former Labour Party president Mike Williams asserting the state's capability - quantitatively and qualitatively, to deliver social housing.