Opinion: Labour, National and the Greens have all pledged to build 1000 homes a year in Auckland during this election campaign, which is welcome news, but a commitment to the quality of social housing would be even better.

A one-size-fits all approach to government-supplied housing is not going to cut the mustard – socially or economically. Housing in Aotearoa is a key environmental and social determinant of health and wellbeing, but addressing housing inequity involves more than building more houses, and a home is more than a roof and four walls.

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Having a place that we call home also means living where we have strong connections to existing community and public amenities, a house that is warm and dry, an outdoor yard with good soil to grow a food garden, and, if needed, designed with accessible bathrooms on the ground level for the elderly family member or one with a chronic illness or disability. These are just some of the features that constitute a home according to the research participants in our HRC-funded study about translating Pacific health to improve Pacific Housing.

This is no surprise to many of us. Culturally appropriate housing ideas were described in the Housing New Zealand-commissioned Pacific Housing Design Guide: Guidelines for Designing Pacific Housing Solutions more than 20 years ago. The document was published on the Kāinga Ora website up until 2022, and like its equivalent the Ki te Hau Kainga: new perspectives on Maori Housing solutions, also published in 2002. And both are now considered out of date by Kāinga Ora.

‘Poor-quality housing has serious public consequences in causing illness and distress. One way or another, all taxpayers pay for the effects of poor housing, whoever owns or rents it.’

As a registered Pacific architect, I wonder why housing designs targeted at Māori and Pacific communities are not following the good government-endorsed guidance that have been around for so long? More research is needed to understand why, and what better building procurement models can enable better design, better housing quality and better affordability for those who need them the most.

Vertical and narrow terraced housing has become the common model for most of Aotearoa’s social and subsidised housing, driven by cost efficiency, exorbitant land values, encouraged by Medium Density Residential Standards nationwide, and the profit margins sought by those driving such developments.

Our research found that these developments might be newer, but newer isn’t necessarily better. Our research participants living in these new developments have told us that though the newer social housing developments might be more modern, they preferred the older one-storey standalone ‘state houses’, with a surrounding yard and garden space. Participants living in ‘new’ state houses found the narrow buildings tight in space, bathrooms at the wrong floor levels, with no or minimal garden space, and so on.

How many in the social housing development industries took the early Housing NZ guidelines seriously, especially those designing and building the housing for Māori and Pacific communities over the last decade? It’s clear that most of the vertical living social housing we see being developed around our suburbs have neglected, or wilfully ignored, the basic principles of appropriate housing for Pacific and Māori communities, such as multi-purpose and flexible living spaces and having outdoor spaces for food gardens.

If there is a genuine will, there is a clear way to design and build such homes. Penina Trust (a Pacific-led NGO and first Pacific housing provider) is a leading example, with social housing plans of up to five bedrooms, generous living spaces, and accessible bedroom and bathrooms near the front entry for their nearly completed Redhill development in south Auckland. Moreover, the Trust is purposely limiting the number of houses built on this site to create safer driveways for children from these houses and more communal gardens and outdoor living areas. This is social housing at its best for Pacific communities. Similar examples are delivered by iwi-led housing providers too, guided by papakāinga principles.

Let’s not forget what Distinguished Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, a champion of better public health and housing in Aotearoa, said: “Poor-quality housing has serious public consequences in causing illness and distress. One way or another, all taxpayers pay for the effects of poor housing, whoever owns or rents it.”

Whatever the outcome of this election, money should go into creating pathways and mechanisms that promote better and more sensitive social housing design standards, but also strategies towards housing ownership for marginalised communities. Unsurprisingly, our research found an overwhelming desire by public and private tenants alike to one day buy a house, but people feel ‘stuck’ in the system.

For those living in subsidised housing, the WINZ income, and assets eligibility criteria gave them a home, but equally it restricts them to work more hours to save and move out of state housing and into properties that better suit their needs, or one day buy their own house.

Government Tenant Home Ownership grants could be a step in this direction but they are limited to specific Kāinga Ora properties and only some regions of Aotearoa, excluding the largest cities’ state houses, such as Auckland. In other words, those living in public housing in the big cities must accept housing ownership as a distant dream.

What we need is an enablement of public and private investment to do innovative developments that prioritise quality (in all senses of this word) and affordable social housing with home ownership as an option. Build-to-rent is one proven strategy around the world to increase rental housing supply, but we need another version that is Build-to-buy. Cooperative housing is in its infancy in Aoteaora, but it presents a model to work from and if tweaked for social housing tenants it may help get them out of state housing and enable their home-ownership aspirations.

I would hope, and reasonably expect, that the next elected government will support Pacific and Māori-led community housing providers and developers, those who have the cultural nous to implement these ideas in their housing developments and create a level of positive change we have not seen yet.

So, bring on the building of more houses, but also get behind enabling capacity in Pacific and Māori-led housing developments, and back strategies that allow those communities to enjoy their own home, and ideally to own one.

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