Derelict villa takes on new life as 'ethical enterprise'

By Catherine Masters

Community profit, not financial gain, is the driving force behind a remarkable venture in central Auckland

Rosy Armitage, one of the leaders in the group restoring the historic villa at 123 Grafton Rd.  Photo  / Sarah Ivey
Rosy Armitage, one of the leaders in the group restoring the historic villa at 123 Grafton Rd. Photo / Sarah Ivey

On Grafton Rd near the bridge and a stone's throw from Auckland City Hospital is a building wrapped up in brightly graffitied white plastic.

At first glance, it looks as if there could be a bad case of leaky home remedial work going on but underneath the plastic a different restoration is taking place.

The building is a colonial villa dating back to 1885. It has been a home and a drug rehab house during its long life but has been left to sink into dereliction.

Though on a prime site, the house had become so rotten and wonky no one wanted to fork out the immense cost to fix it.

Enter the force of nature that is Rosy Armitage.

Thanks to people willing to work for nothing and thousands of dollars of sponsorship money, the house is on its way to wellness.

On February 2 the plastic will come off in an unveiling party and fundraiser for the next phase of development in this unusual venture, which aims to contribute to the community.

Work on the outside alone has been estimated to be worth about $500,000 and there is much more to come.

Ms Armitage talks at a million miles an hour with passion and vigour.

The 36-year-old is, no doubt, the main reason why locals, builders, painters and all manner of businesses are swept up by what's happening at 123 Grafton Rd and want to pitch in.

She is part of a charitable trust called Falling Apple and the house is the hub of a new "social enterprise" underpinned by an ethical philosophy.

A cafe called Hum is already open and in a year or so there will also be the Hum restaurant, a media centre, workshop space, arts, music and more.

The house has had various private owners since it was built, then the Salvation Army used it as a halfway house for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Ms Armitage said it was then sold to Housing New Zealand, which wanted to knock it down. But some in the community fought hard and got a heritage category two stamp a few years ago.

It then passed back into private ownership to a doctor who bought it cheaply at auction and won a resource consent for a restaurant, but never did anything further.

Ms Armitage said it was a difficult property because it was both derelict and a heritage site.

She was looking for a location to set up the social enterprise and when a friend pointed out the house she negotiated with the doctor for the trust to do it up rent free and take a long-term lease until 2033 with first right to purchase. She hopes they can buy it sooner.

We take a whirlwind tour inside - over here will be part of the restaurant, over there a medicinal bar, the industrial kitchen here, tiered decks over there and out here tiered gardens of mostly native plants, some of them medicinal, bands will play there and the acoustics will muffle the motorway noise below.

Ms Armitage, who grew up in Merivale in Tauranga, has a background in finance, business and marketing and studied commerce at Victoria University. She said she found herself mildly depressed with the finance scene when she worked in it.

She remembers being taught about sustainability and globalisation at university but the focus was on macro rather than micro economics.

The ideas did not gel with her.

"The key theme of it being the fact that they were basing it on a premise, the whole for-profit, that human beings need a carrot to find happiness, that the carrot therefore must be money and that they need to be competitive to be happy."

Her father, whom she describes as a retired minister of no particular denomination, taught the opposite.

"We were taught that people were innately self-sacrificing, not self-serving, and that for true happiness, not these sort of fluctuating high/lows, but for true happiness, you have to be self-sacrificing and if you do that you have other people who are self-sacrificing around you and it starts what they call a spiritual movement in regards to the idea of giving instead of trying to take."

She agrees that what she hopes to achieve at 123 Grafton Rd is probably a continuation of her father's teaching. She believes we have become disconnected from the land and food, and detached from our neighbours.

"Money has become the middle man. And so it's the idea of getting to know our neighbour. The first port of call is to establish something [physical] and that's what this house is about, and that's why it was perfect that it's derelict, it's actually having people coming together to be part of something."

A social enterprise, she said, was business acting as it should.

"So it's for-profit at the front, which is Hum, and then the Falling Apple trust at the back and they're bound at the hip. The idea is that Hum cannot do anything that's against the ethos of Falling Apple, so it's for social profit, not for money profit, but for community profit."

While staff will be paid, the rest of the profit goes back into the trust for redistribution - that could be purifying a contaminated property using the hemp plant or giving money to other causes or helping a small New Zealand business to get off the ground.

Ms Armitage has brought along some of those who have donated their time or products. There is retired Anglican priest Dr Godfrey Nicholson, who lives next door and who has donated furniture and whiteware to the house.

She said they had all taken a leap of faith and that the unveiling fundraiser was also to thank the people like them who have got on board.

Ms Armitage thinks the project is riding the cusp of a wave of big social change.

"We're not after the wave, we're not in the foam, we are riding the beginning of a movement. People are becoming more conscious of what they are purchasing.

"There's a shift and that's all part and parcel of when people learn about where their food comes from, a reconnection with their land, that we can't always rely on the dollar so let's start building our back gardens.

"It's happening worldwide."

- NZ Herald

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