The Glen Innes social experiment

By Geoff Cumming

The Govt is moving to increase housing, but reduce its role as landlord

A vacant state house in the suburb. Photo / Brett Phibbs
A vacant state house in the suburb. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The house on the corner site in Taniwha St, Glen Innes, is a case study of everything Housing New Zealand says is wrong with its state housing stock. It's plonked in the middle of a decent parcel of land, facing the wrong way. White paint peels off the small weatherboard house with tired mesh curtains - a case of demolition by neglect?

But in the backyard, a family is putting down roots, in the form of new swings. As Mum and Dad dig the pegs in, daughter "helps" by playing lightsabers with a cross bar. The family dog rolls in the grass.

They take little notice of the kerb-crawling Herald car. As lab rats in a grand social and political experiment, the residents of our biggest state housing suburb are used to strangers stopping and sizing up their home. If ever they did think a state home tenancy meant long-term security, they need look only as far as the vacant lot across the road.

The streets between Taniwha St and the Tamaki River are known as Area B. Two kilometres west, near the town centre, is Area A. Eighteen months ago, houses began vanishing from these neighbourhoods - along with occupants, some of whom had lived in them for decades.

The result is a puzzling streetscape of long-established housing, many with well-tended gardens, interrupted by empty sections. The only evidence that a house once stood on them is a driveway to nowhere.

Now, work is under way to replace what's missing, not with one house but with several per lot. On the corner of Castledine Cres and Eastview Rd in Area A, two standalone houses are going up where one stood. Across Eastview Rd, on an amalgamated site where three houses stood, earthworks are under way for 15 terraced houses in two blocks. On the opposite corner, three standalone houses will go on a site of about 900 sq m.

Developer Murdoch Dryden, part of a consortium that has bought 156 sites from Housing NZ in northern Glen Innes, says this amounts to "a massive increase in efficiency of land use".

A sign on a home protesting against the selling of state houses to developers. Photo / Brett Phibbs
A sign on a home protesting against the selling of state houses to developers. Photo / Brett Phibbs

These are the first physical signs of what, until now, has been a bitterly contested theory - the Government's plan to transform the Tamaki state housing swathe, from Glen Innes to Panmure, into an "integrated community". Under draft plans, the number of homes will double in an area where 5500 homes now house 19,000 people. The new homes will be warmer, better-designed and will better match tenants' needs, says Housing NZ chief executive Glen Sowry. A mix of standalone, terraced housing and apartments is expected. But Housing NZ will no longer be the dominant housing provider, owning about a third of the stock with the rest split between social agencies and private owners. "Drive down the street and you won't be able to tell which is Housing NZ, which is social and which is private," Sowry says.

It's easy to understand why some people are so vehemently opposed - though you get the impression the protests that have dogged every house removal are as much about politics as the uprooting of longstanding and vulnerable (many of them elderly) tenants. Critics from the wider community and beyond have branded the process privatisation by stealth.

The 156 house lots in Glen Innes north will be replaced with around 260 homes. But Housing NZ will buy only 78 of these. A further 39 will be sold to other social agencies, such as the Housing Foundation and Salvation Army, to provide affordable housing. Dryden says these will sell for under $485,000. The rest, more than 100, will be sold on the open market by the aspirationally named consortium, Creating Communities.

At 8 Melling St, one of several banners adorning Betty Kanuta's state house crystallises the concern of opponents: "GI state houses are not a goldmine for property developers."

But if they get their sums right, the developers should do rather well. The consortium includes Hopper Developments, Arrow International, Southside Group and Dryden, who's done commercial developments in the area. Those for private sale include valuable coastal sites with sea views in Area B, where 70 homes are planned on 45 sites.

It does seem a leap from the Government's mantra that better use of state housing sites, and funds from the sale of some properties, will lead to an overall boost in state housing stocks. But get with the lingo. Sowry says instead of thinking of the state as the dominant provider of housing for the needy, we should think of it as social housing, with the state just one provider alongside the Sallies, churches, iwi and others. "This is not seeing us retreating, it's us modernising and having new houses built around us. That's funded in part by land being sold.

"There is a reduction of Housing NZ properties from 156 to 78 in Glen Innes north but if you look at the wider Tamaki area we are looking to broadly maintain the number of state and social houses and the balance [of new houses] will create a more mixed, integrated community."

Sowry and Dryden acknowledge the emotional wrench for many of the 96 families moved so far. But they hope that as better-quality homes rise around Castledine Cres, community unease will wane.

Kanuta and other opponents are having none of it. "They talk about social housing and affordable housing," she says. "We can't buy a home on our incomes and they won't want us. This is the Government wiping its hands of its social obligations."

- NZ Herald

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