CoHousing. It’s not about cults, although the real estate agent one Wellington group bought their property through seemed to think it was. And, despite the suspicion of a Whanganui group’s neighbours, it’s not about communes. Think of a CoHousing development as being more like a “high-functioning neighbourhood”.

That was the description used by Nicci Armour at the first CoHousing Hui for Collective Urban Housing in Aotearoa, which was hosted by Victoria University of Wellington, Enspiral, a global network committed to positive social and environmental impact, and Parsonson Architects. The event was supported by Dux Financial Services, Wellington City Council, Massey University and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

Armour is part of Closer Developments, a Tauranga social enterprise using a shared resource model “to provide affordable housing solutions through building connected communities, not just houses”, starting with a pilot project in Katikati.

In her presentation, drawing on 2017 data from Tauranga, she illustrated the hui’s founding statement that: “Housing in Aotearoa is in crisis. Whether it’s housing quality, cost or the fact that a growing number of people are living in isolation, the current approach to housing is not addressing these key issues. There are significant challenges presented by the current housing market and the standard approach to developing housing. There’s a growing appetite for new solutions that shift away from speculation and promote equitable, sustainable, collective models of housing.”

“There’s a significant mismatch between the type of houses we need and those that are being built, not to mention the price they are costing us,” Armour told a packed audience of practitioners and would-be practitioners at various stages of their CoHousing journey.

“Ninety percent of renters and 57 percent of owners in our region cannot afford to buy a house over $500,000. Seventy percent of sales are over $500,000.”

Closer’s Katikati development incorporates 10 new energy-efficient homes, coupled with sustainable expense reduction programmes, shared green space and a food and produce production zone. It is using a cooperative ownership model.

However, as the seven groups presenting at the hui demonstrated – along with ‘CoHousing Inclusive’, an accompanying exhibition of European examples elsewhere in Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Architecture and Design building – ownership models and living arrangements can differ greatly.

Although widely used as an umbrella term, CoHousing is in fact only one of many alternative forms of housing development.

For keynote speaker Dr Michael LaFond, founder and director of the Berlin-based id22: Institute for Creative Sustainability, talking via Skype, “it’s important to put this into the context of other movements, which involve things like coproduction of our built environments, meaning how do we produce our cities, how do we manage our cities, in a collective way and a cooperative way?

“I connect this to the larger theme of ‘commoning’, a verb that has been gaining attention over the past few years, reminding us that, in fact, as humans, for many years before, we lived in village structures, we shared land and resources, as many indigenous people around the world still do.”

Along with being self-organised and community-led (“a version of local direct democracy”), CoHousing should incorporate sustainability – “in the social sense, the cultural sense, the economic sense and of course the ecological sense”, said LaFond.

Using a broad definition of CoHousing, he said, “there could be around 500 projects in Berlin developed over the past 30 years and as many as 5000 projects around Germany”.

New Zealand projects highlighted at the hui ranged from a development of four units for six people who “having lived in flatting situations for a long time wanted to continue living with our friends and have a more intentional – but not culty! – way of living” to Waimahia Inlet, a 295-home initiative on the shore of Manukau Harbour in a partnership between not-for-profit community housing provider Te Tumu Kāinga, the New Zealand Housing Foundation, the Tāmaki Collective (of Auckland hapū and iwi) and CORT Community Housing.

Greer O’Donnell is co-director of The Urban Advisory, a consultancy for the built environment, specialising in integrated people-centric city strategy and neighbourhood development.

She outlined some of the many ownership models, which – along with cooperatives – include collectives, trusts, entities and “new models that don’t even have a name”.

New models require new ways of thinking, said Camia Young, founding partner of Ohu, the Office for Holistic Urbanism, a property development company based in Christchurch and working with communities to develop community-owned assets.

“I think to build beautiful buildings that connect people we need innovation in legal, financial and social structures,” said Young.

She moved to Christchurch in 2010 shortly after the September 4 earthquake and her first community-based project was a transitional open-air pavilion built in 2012 from more than 3000 pallets.

“We designed this building and then built it with over 250 volunteers,” said Young. “And while the building was interesting, as one of the only public places to gather in this post-apocalyptic landscape right after the earthquakes, it was also not the building that was important, it was the community that was built around it. And that community is still very strong today.

“This was the first time I saw you could build communities by building buildings. I was very interested in seeing that as evidence of where I think our cities and our futures are moving towards within our urban context. I have this vision that in 50 years from now all our buildings will be about building communities and that will really be at the heart of much that we’re doing. So we are going through a major shift in urban consciousness.”

O’Donnell is also a co-founder of a new incorporated society for CoHousing and other alternative forms of development – so new that an afternoon session of the hui invited suggestions for a name, along with what its priorities should be for advocacy, lobbying and education.

The establishment of a “collective voice” for the CoHousing movement followed a conversation O’Donnell had with Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford, where “he said to me, ‘Greer, yes we’re interested in alternative development models, but I’m not hearing it’s a big enough issue to do anything about’. Okay. Well, we’ll have to shout a bit louder, then”.

As the hui showed, said O’Donnell, “there are heaps of people doing heaps of really good stuff and all nutting through a whole lot of issues that we need to consolidate and then share. Because there’s no point a whole bunch of groups doing the same thing and paying different lawyers lots and lots of money to work out the same issues.

“We need to educate not only the lawyers but the rest of the industry – architects and planners and financiers and banks and everyone involved in the development process – so they get what we’re trying to achieve and fundamentally change the way they view these sorts of projects.”

Among priorities discussed for the society were advocating for collaborations with KiwiBuild, to secure access to KiwiSaver money and for a law change to recognise the not-for-profit nature of CoHousing and other alternative forms of development.

What would be good, said one audience member, “is if in the long term we have CoHousing as just another part of the housing mix, and instead of it being you have to be into intentional living and you have to be into democracy and working together and all this kind of stuff, if there were so many CoHousing projects that there’s one over there that’s all sustainable, oh and there’s one over here that’s all based around childcare, there’s one over here that’s all about being intergenerational, this one here has got some refugees in it … There’d just be so many that it would be like picking a neighbourhood to live in”.

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