Award-winning Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei housing in Auckland. (Photo: RNZ/Patrick O’Meara)

The housing need is great, and so are the social needs of our whānau, writes Denis O’Reilly. So we should be intentional about building communities, not just houses.  


There’ve been regular reports of misbehaviour at Kāinga Ora properties. This sets in motion a prejudicial view of social housing tenants and the estates in which they live.

The expectation from neighbours who are disturbed by poor behaviour is that Kāinga Ora, or the police, or “government” in general, should “crack down hard” on those who ignore or defy the rules and normal conventions of good citizenship. This might entail sanctions or evictions.

A couple of points here. I use “poor behaviour” advisedly because it arises from two forms of poverty, the first being relative financial poverty. As Bob Marley sang: A hungry man is an angry man. Cost of living get so high, rich and poor they start to cry, they say, “Oh! What a tribulation.

The second (and, I would argue, more disabling) form of poverty, is poverty of spirit. This arises when people feel they have no agency, no power to shape their lives and the circumstances of their wellbeing.

I appreciate that the political mood of the moment is to smash and bash the non-compliant. But another (and more likely to be effective) approach might be to work with social housing tenants to describe, and then define, the social environment in which they want to live. It’s called intentional community building.

I believe that one of the elements that confounds the successful utilisation of Aotearoa’s social housing is the lack of intentional community building and the absence of attention to the social architecture of residential tenancies in social housing complexes.

What might that look like?

In 1973, as a community volunteer, I was the fieldworker for the Wellington Tenants Protection Association. We organised a rent strike against a Wellington rack-rent slumlord.

When we brought the tenants together, we discovered that, over and above the immediate concerns of their rents and tenancies, they were also facing issues of food security. As they were already collaborating over the rent strike, it was a simple step to set up a food co-operative and to bring immediate relief to each whānau by providing affordable good-quality kai.

Moreover, in Newtown at least, we set up a community garden and established play groups and holiday programmes at the nearby community centre. When people have a shared vision and a channel through which to co-operate, life becomes better. This is hardly rocket science.

Here’s another lesson. In the late 1980s, I was awarded a Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Scholarship. I ended up working with the Easterhouse Festival in Glasgow, Scotland, an arts-based community-building programme.

Easterhouse is a suburb of Glasgow, and a housing project there was intended to be the solution to the poor tenement housing in the Gorbals, an area in the city of Glasgow on the south bank of the River Clyde.

By the late 19th century, the Gorbals had become densely populated with poor quality overcrowded housing. Poverty was commonplace and violence was endemic. In a word, the area was a slum.

After World War Two, a comprehensive slum clearance programme led to whānau from the Gorbals being relocated to Easterhouse. Easterhouse is a physically isolated suburb six miles east of the city centre, poorly served by public transport and cut off by the M8 motorway that runs along its periphery. Sound familiar?

Because the social architecture was ignored, the whole effort was a disaster. Easterhouse became infamous as the worst place in Great Britain to live.

When I visited Easterhouse, tenants were housed in blocks of six flats, three stories either side of a common stairwell. The stairwell had become a pissoir. There was broken glass and dog-shit everywhere.

Despite the lofty ambitions of the planners and the noble intent of the politicians, this urban environment was riddled with poverty, poor infrastructure, shoddily-built and maintained housing, and a lack of local investment and employment opportunities.

In recent years, I’ve watched Kāinga Ora’s intensification of housing, particularly in Auckland, and more recently in Napier and Hastings. Existing housing stock has been demolished and the classic quarter-acre sections on which one whare previously sat now feature two duplexes. Four whānau now occupy the same area of land once occupied by one. Huge developments are planned, and housing minister Chris Bishop wants councils to make space more readily available.

But where’s the evidence of the human planning — the social and interpersonal architecture, not just with the social housing tenants but with their neighbours and community? I’ve been reminded of the spectre of Easterhouse and fear that we are about to repeat the same mistake.

I think I’m pretty much up with the play about what’s possible in social housing. I chair the Waiohiki Community Charitable Trust. We are a social housing provider, and, before Cyclone Gabrielle, we administered 14 social houses, predominantly in the context of papakāinga. We’re about a decade in.

Like my cousin Murphy, I’m a relentless optimist. When we built our first papakāinga, I thought that the provision of warm, dry, safe, housing at an affordable rent, and with security of tenure, would win the day. Tenants would say: “Wow! How lucky we are. Let’s look after this place and create a wonderful environment.”

Not so. We had to cope with cuzzies who had city habits and weren’t used to shared spaces. We had some with unacceptable behaviours who had to amend their ways and habilitate. It wasn’t easy, and in some instances, it was personally challenging and downright unpleasant.

But we prevailed. Now, post-cyclone, people are more appreciative. The mara kai is pumping, we’ve planted hundreds of native trees, and those hedges that survived are trimmed and tidy. Tenants are proud of their environment, and it shows.

So, back to Kāinga Ora. The housing need is great, and so are the social needs of our whānau. If we want to tackle domestic violence, sub-optimal childcare, abuse of intoxicants, be they licit or illicit, and dare I say it, gangs, then a good place to start is literally on the social housing whānau doorstep.

Ministers whose portfolios cover social housing, Chris Bishop and Tama Potaka, have an opportunity to step away from the oppressive and alienating approach that this National-led coalition government seems determined to take around Māori and Pasifika issues by facilitating intentional community building.

Imagine gathering prospective tenants together before occupying a new housing estate, sharing a kai and having a kōrero about how they want to live together. The same could be done with existing clusters of social housing tenants and their neighbours. Maybe involve social service providers.

We can move the community discussion away from complaining about problems to discussing solutions and opportunities — in other words, assist the shift from pathology to potential. It needn’t be a complex process. It’s doable. So, let’s have a crack at it, eh?


Denis O’Reilly lives at Waiohiki in Hawke’s Bay where he chairs the Waiohiki Community Charitable Trust. He is a writer, social activist and consultant.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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