Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Social housing: Pensioners take on developers

As Freemans Bay residents celebrate a win, others in state housing across Auckland are facing upheaval.

Spring St housing tenants (from left) Ruth Mitten, 88, Barbara Wardle, 94, Lillian Jackson, 82, and Bob Tait, 66. Photo / Dean Purcell
Spring St housing tenants (from left) Ruth Mitten, 88, Barbara Wardle, 94, Lillian Jackson, 82, and Bob Tait, 66. Photo / Dean Purcell

A handful of Auckland pensioners have stopped developers in their tracks - but up to 4000 other state tenants are threatened with upheaval in the city's drive to solve a housing crisis.

Housing New Zealand pensioners in inner-city Freemans Bay have joined their neighbours in surrounding heritage houses, their local board and MPs to stop their 42 pensioner units being designated a "special housing area" for fast-track redevelopment.

But 20 out of 41 new special housing areas adopted by Auckland Council and the Government this month include Housing New Zealand pensioner villages and other state housing with almost 2000 tenants.

Another 2000 state tenants, mainly in Glen Innes, are already subject to redevelopment in an earlier tranche of special housing areas announced in December.

Understandably, planners are looking first to Housing NZ properties to try to open up land for more intensive housing to ease the city's housing shortage.

But that drive puts pensioners and other state tenants squarely in the front line.

Housing NZ is giving no guarantees its existing tenants will always get back into new developments. In Freemans Bay, it told developers it would sell the land with "vacant possession".

Auckland Grey Power president Anne-Marie Coury said the rush to redevelop pensioner housing with no guarantees for existing residents was "maximally worrying".

Victory in the bay

Barbara Wardle, 94, has lived in her little flat in Spring St, Freemans Bay, since the old Auckland City Council built the pensioner village in 1981. She came here from England in the late 1960s.

She still tends her own garden and belongs to a supportive community.

"We all help each other if we happen to be sick or anything."

Potter and painter Lillian Jackson, 82, has lived there since 1993. She remembers "a most upsetting time for everybody" when former mayor John Banks sold the council's 1542 pensioner units to Housing NZ in 2002.

A council press statement in October 2002 said the $52 million price was a discount off the book value of $101 million because the sites "will always be retained for social housing" and because Housing NZ planned to upgrade the units.

Bob Tait, 66, a Friends of the Earth campaigner who moved into a Spring St flat four years ago, still has a council letter from then assuring tenants that Housing NZ would give pensioners tenants "a guarantee of accommodation for life".

Age Concern Auckland manager Grant Withers said that when Housing NZ first proposed redeveloping the site 18 months ago, "they said they would be complying with the original bequest from Sir Ernest Davis who gifted the land to the city for old people in perpetuity".

Somehow those assurances were forgotten by the time Housing NZ issued a request for expressions of interest in redeveloping the land last November, offering the site with "vacant possession". It envisaged more than 80 units, of which Housing NZ would lease back 42, and said its aim was to "recover, at a minimum, the Housing NZ book value of the existing assets [$8.585 million]".

A notice answering tenderers' questions on December 10 said: "HNZ do not have an expectation or requirement for pensioner housing."

It also confirmed that Housing NZ was negotiating to have the site designated a special housing area (SHA), which would have allowed a fast-track consent process and applied the zoning in Auckland Council's proposed unitary plan. That zoning would permit up to six-storey apartment blocks in Freemans Bay and drew more than 200 objections.

Coincidentally, the surrounding community held a public meeting in December to form a residents' association, primarily because of parking issues. The new association resolved to oppose the Spring St development.

"We didn't want our pensioners to be moved elsewhere. People like them in the community," said association co-chairwoman Lynne Butler.

The association went to see Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye, Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and Mayor Len Brown. Ms Kaye also forwarded residents' concerns to Mr Brown. Ms Ardern put questions to Housing NZ and Housing Minister Nick Smith.

The Waitemata Local Board strongly opposed the SHA. Lawyer Shale Chambers, who chairs the board, said it objected to SHAs for both Spring St and another pensioner village near St Joseph's Church in Great North Rd. Both were dropped from the list of new SHAs unveiled on May 7.

Still targeted

Mr Chambers said his board had no contact with the 18 tenants at 32-26 Surrey Cres in Grey Lynn, where a sign outside says simply "Crescent Flats". "It's not pensioner housing, it's social housing," he said.

But Stephen Pownall, 59, who moved into the flats two years ago with heart problems, said tenants had to be over 55.

Shearer-turned-artist Harry Goodwin, 70, moved in after his wife died three years ago and doesn't want to kick up a fuss about redevelopment. "I'm pretty fatalistic about it."

Further along Great North Rd opposite the Pt Chevalier library, the 10 residents in the John A Lee Pensioner Village have received letters from Housing NZ, identical to those in Surrey Cres, saying their single-storey village has been designated an SHA but "at this stage Housing NZ has no plans for redevelopment".

Retired builder Ross Wood, 76, accepts that redevelopment will happen one day. "It's a bit of a waste of valuable land here," he said.

But Thai pastor Seth Chansong, 65, can only move slowly because of a stroke and worries about being separated from his West Auckland family.

Another SHA in Jordan Ave, Onehunga, includes the 40-unit Garside pensioner village. Maungakiekie-Tamaki Local Board chairman Simon Randall said residents would benefit if any new housing was "better quality and better designed".

Albert-Eden board chairman Peter Haynes takes the same view of four sites in Waterview where Housing NZ is looking at options to redevelop general state housing.

"We are also optimistic that Housing NZ will contribute to building some community facilities," he said.

Boards in Henderson-Massey, Whau and Puketatapa also support improved state housing.

Even Labour housing spokesman Phil Twyford said: "Labour supports high-quality intensification. Auckland has to grow up as well as growing out. But redevelopment projects must retain affordable and social housing."

But redevelopments are occurring when state tenants already face tenancy reviews replacing the old policy of "a house for life". A fifth of the first 800 tenants being reviewed from July 1 are expected to be elderly.

Auckland Council voted on May 1 to seek a memorandum of understanding with Housing NZ to "provide the choice to existing tenants to remain in existing communities, investigate ways to increase the social housing stock in Auckland, and undertake community [including tenant] engagement processes in all HNZ redevelopments".

Housing New Zealand acting general manager of asset development Leonie Freeman said the agency was still "assessing our land holdings within the special housing areas to determine the potential for redevelopment". It had also made no decisions yet about Spring St.

"Housing New Zealand did not specifically set or define a type of resident in the Spring St EOI [expressions of interest document] as our initial expectation for the development was for a mixed tenure development," she said. ? A public meeting will be held at Grey Lynn Community Centre on Wednesday, May 28, at 7pm.

nzherald.co.nz

Read more about the special housing areas here: tinyurl.com/fasthousing.

- NZ Herald

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