Kirsty Wynn is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Sunday Insight: The $340-a-week houses with million-dollar views

Another three Glen Innes state houses were picked up and loaded on to the back of trucks this week, to protests from locals. Is this just an attempt to shift vulnerable people out of lucrative real estate, or is it a chance to break down the barriers between rich and poor in an exciting new 21st-century community?

Developer Murdoch Dryden is passionate about the new types of houses being built. Photo / Doug Sherring
Developer Murdoch Dryden is passionate about the new types of houses being built. Photo / Doug Sherring

Winter rain pummels the boats moored in the normally placid Tamaki Estuary.

On land, another kind of storm is ripping through the tired suburban streets of northern Glen Innes.

Grass grows on the scarred earth where 12 and 14 Lyndhurst St were plucked from their foundations last year. Protesters stood in the way of men with sledgehammers and removal trucks, the elderly clashed with police and locals accused landowner Housing NZ of ethnic cleansing.

But the men with the heavy machinery almost always win, and now, every month, more of the old state houses overlooking Wai O Taiki Bay for 50 years disappear.

This is business - cold, hard economics. And the land beneath is simply too valuable for sentimentality about the pensioners and families who are losing their long-term homes.

In the past year, dozens of identical state houses in northern Glen Innes have been taken from their quarter-acre plots.

A bird's-eye view shows empty brown sections pepper-potted through the suburb, awaiting the concrete-layers and builders who will turn this into Auckland's newest neighbourhood and, hopefully, part of the answer to the city's housing crisis.

This week, three more state houses went and, again, the protesters turned up shouting that Housing NZ wanted to cash up and get out of an area increasingly popular with private buyers.

Here, a quarter-acre section on Auckland's waterfront could accommodate several gleaming new McMansions, and with the money from the sale, Housing NZ could build dozens more state homes in less-expensive parts of Auckland.

Glen Sowry, the government agency's chief executive, says a third of the 69,000 properties the company owns were built to service a different generation.

"Back then the state housing family was mum, dad and two kids," Sowry says. "Now, we have more solo mums with two kids who require a two-bedroom house.

"There are also larger families than there used to be and we need to modernise and reshape our housing to reflect that."

Sowry says a lot of the drive for change is financial. In his words, Housing NZ is "selling high-value land where we can convert it into more houses".

Valuable land in areas such as Glen Innes, Northcote, New Lynn and Avondale will pay for new houses where demand is higher, in South and West Auckland.

But Sowry also wants to see social change - and a mix of state and private housing is the key.

Creating Communities, a partnership of Arrow International, Hopper Developments and Southside Group, has won the contract to provide comfortable homes to replace state houses described as cold, damp and rundown. With 156 state houses gone or due for removal, the new neighbourhood will include 78 Housing NZ homes. The rest will be for private sale, 39 of them as "affordable housing".

All the state houses will be well inland - the 70 new houses built on the coastline will be sold to those who can pay for the million-dollar views.

Murdoch Dryden, from Creating Communities, was raised in a state house in nearby St Heliers Bay, and is passionate about the work, which will start next month.

He pores over plans, pointing out green spaces, child-safe driveways and new state houses that boast the same design as their private neighbours.

All the new state houses will be close to transport, employment and shopping. "These are warm, dry homes that have double-glazing and insulation," Dryden says. "They are designed so people can touch the grass. It is nowhere near as intensified as people think."

More than half the houses in the Tamaki area are owned by the state. Dryden and Sowry point to new housing developments in Australia and the UK, where a mix of state, private and affordable housing has led to "better social outcomes".

"Where you have high concentrations on welfare or people not working, certain characteristics can develop," Sowry says.

"If there are more elderly people, first-home buyers and working families, you get a broader mix and different approaches and aspirations, which is a healthy mix."

On Thursday, an unprepossessing former state house on an 800sqm Fernwood Place section sold for $800,000 at auction. In the 1970s, the state tenants who lived there had bought it from the Government, paying their rent, week by week. The same family sold it this week, nearly 40 years later, for a sum they could never have conceived of back then.

Barfoot real estate agent Grant Marshall, who sold it at auction, says there is huge interest in the area. Already, some of the private homes fronting Wai O Taiki Bay boast picture windows and decks looking out over the estuary, jet skis parked in the front yard and swimming pools in the back.

A block away on Lyndhurst St, 84-year-old Elizabeth Williamson has watched her neighbours at numbers 12 and 14 move out.

She has seen four houses in her street go in the past year. She, too, has received her eviction letter.

"I have until the middle of next year," she says. "I don't want to move at my age, I have memories here."

She gestures to the framed photos of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who visit her each week, and asks: "Where would I put all these?"

Williamson came to Lyndhurst St on a hot summer's day in January 1960. Her eyes glisten as she speaks of her husband, Corporal Henry Williamson, and the long wait after the war before the couple got the state house the first Labour Government promised to all returned servicemen.

The couple raised their four children in the house, ate vegetables grown on the back of the 1134sq m section and considered it their home. "They said it was a house for life," she says.

Williamson might have a state house for life - but it won't be this one. Sowry says he has great compassion for people like Williamson, but her circumstances are a good example of why change is needed.

Since husband Henry died in 1988, Elizabeth has lived alone in the three-bedroom home on the big site she has to pay someone to mow.

Her younger brother Barry visits each day to help out and gets her groceries.

Sowry says someone in that situation would be better in a modern, low-maintenance home near support.

Housing lobbyist Sue Henry disagrees vehemently.

She says Elizabeth is the type of tenant Housing NZ should be protecting - not turfing out.

"It is disgusting. They are getting rid of the elderly, disabled and the widows of returned servicemen first - people that won't fight back," Henry says.

"These people have lived in these homes for decades and they are being kicked out when they are vulnerable."

Not all are opposed to change. On Sunnymead Rd, some residents sighed with relief as three houses were removed this week, despite protesters gathering around the corner.

"The houses were rundown, cockroach and flea-infested with holes punched in the walls," one resident says.

Another describes one house as a P house. "Having some private houses in this street would lift it up, make it nicer."

And there are those who have their sights set on buying a family home in the new-look neighbourhood.

Local nurse Janet French plans to buy a Creating Communities home on Castledine Cres - a kilometre inland from the million-dollar views of Wai O Taiki Bay.

"I really feel for the people affected but I have to think of my family as well," says French, a solo mum with two teenage boys living at home. "I have a limited budget and these new houses seem perfect for what I need."

Change is coming, like it or not. The men with the heavy machinery will win.

Leading down to the waterfront reserve, Kotae Rd is part of the development.

These are $340-a-week state houses, on million-dollar locations. One house is already empty and due for removal; other residents say they want to "keep their heads down".

They fear their letter may be in the mail.

- Herald on Sunday

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