An ex-state house kid is now working with Housing NZ Corporation on a 10-year, $30 billion plan to deliver more than 30,000 new homes across Auckland.
Chris Aiken heads the business chosen to manage one of Australasia's biggest urban regeneration projects, working with Housing NZ Corporation (HNZC), to transform homes on about 1000ha of state-owned Auckland land.
"I don't think I'm a typical public servant because I've been a market person all my life," says Aiken from his waterfront offices in the Catalina Workshops at Hobsonville Point. "But I believe the Crown working with the market is the way this job will get done."
Aiken is the chief executive of HNZC subsidiary HLC. The initials used to stand for Hobsonville Land Company, but today the organisation is called Homes. Land. Community. Aiken's job is to develop homes on sites from Hobsonville to Mt Roskill, Northcote to Mangere, Tamaki to Oranga and Three Kings.
Those new homes are to be a mix of state, KiwiBuild and free-market affordable residences, built by removing stand-alone, often weatherboard, places to build blocks or terraces to maximise land values. It's an unpopular move in many areas where neighbours are shocked and public housing tenants have to leave before being re-housed.
Aiken was the third of four children and grew up in a three-bedroom, 90sq m state house in Christchurch's Shirley until he was 17. His father Jack worked in retail, including at Smiths City Market, but suffered poor health. Mother Veronica "did everything, from working in orchards to a retirement village and as a writer for the Riccarton Advertiser - unpaid because she was a woman."
He says his parents were intelligent, driven people, "but because of personal circumstances, they required that support. Growing up in a state house left a lasting impression on my values. The first step was to improve my own life but it left me with an understanding of a big part of New Zealand and how cool some of those communities are."
He went to Christchurch Teachers' College, then university, worked as a remedial teacher and then went to IBM. As an entrepreneur, he invested in Bates advertising where he was one of the youngest directors of a major New Zealander agency, then invested in Computerland, Cellphone City and Appserv. He headed big property developer Kitchener Group and has held roles at two Goodfellow family businesses — ICP Bio and NRM Group — as well as being former chairman of the HNZC/McLennan joint venture development project in South Auckland. He was a director of the Auckland City Property Enterprise Board, is a director of Metlifecare and chairman of its development committee. He remains an active angel investor in several internet start-ups.
Aiken says four things sparked the mass housing schemes that HLC is now master-planning in conjunction with HNZC: "A new CEO at Housing NZ [Andrew McKenzie, who started in late 2016]; the need to regenerate what was becoming increasingly a rundown asset; the change of Government, with Labour turbo-charging regeneration; and the Unitary Plan which has enabled increasing density."
Housing NZ Corporation is running the Auckland Housing Programme and HLC is working with the Crown entity, Aiken stresses. Projects include the Tamaki redevelopment, assisting with KiwiBuild and completing Hobsonville Point.
"Housing New Zealand is the largest residential landowner in Auckland and much of this land can be utilised better so it makes sense to build on this land to create more homes for Aucklanders," says HNZC.
Aiken says, "we're doing master planning and civil [works] and a combination of both. It's the largest in this city's history as a regeneration programme and one of the largest in Australasia. It looks very big but we're trying to keep our feet on the ground."
HLC was picked, says Aiken, because "there was a high degree of trust in the work completed. We had demonstrated we could work at pace and scale by completing 500 to 600 houses a year at Hobsonville Point and that a significant number - 20 per cent - were affordable. Yet at the start it was hard here. It took a while to build confidence because there had been a stop-start process," he says, talking about persuading group house builders to buy Hobsonville Point sections and start building.
The irony of a state house kid working in a leading role on the biggest scheme HNZC has ever undertaken doesn't escape him: "there was a stage in my business career where I felt that I wanted to put something back into my community."
That started in 2002, when he was chief executive of developer Kitchener Group, which developed apartments, including some public housing. "We were one of the first private developers to put HNZ tenants into the inner city."
He says Kitchener developed about 2000 apartments including Precinct on Lorne St, Q Central on Queen St, No 1 Hobson St, Keystone Ridge in Mt Roskill and the six Princes Wharf apartment buildings on the Auckland waterfront, which include the Hilton. Not all went well at Kitchener: in 2005, its founder David Henderson was convicted of attempting to buy cocaine.
"I had a responsibility as CEO to protect the business," says Aiken. "It had hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, we had thousands of apartment buyers and thousands of subcontractors. I had one task: to secure that position and protect the company. I was advised to leave immediately," he says, referring to the time when the cocaine issue arose, "but I stayed on and I'm proud of that."
He remembers debts of about $700 million to all the major trading banks and to mezzanine funder Strategic Finance. "I'm proud of how we navigated that. Myself and the executive team stayed together and helped the company navigate through a difficult time - and it was a difficult time for David as well. And we paid off all the debt."
Aiken hasn't just put his offices at Hobsonville Point - where 4000 homes are planned on a 180ha site on the city's northwest. He also lives there.
HLC has its critics, particularly at Hobsonville, where social commentators have referred to Aiken's team as "those clowns at HP".
Lately, fears have been raised locally about whether the Bomb Point reserve will stay a reserve. "It will always be a reserve," says Aiken. "People have bought [houses] on the basis it will be a reserve. Developers bought [sites] on the basis it was a reserve." The property will just be transferred to the council's parks and reserves operation, he says.
Local critics also complain about the time taken to complete a 4km coastal walkway. "That was delayed by some vandalism done to it. Vandals stole a digger and drove it along the concrete so we had to do a large section of it again - 700m was vandalised. But the path will open mid-November."
Residents have also lobbied long and hard for weekend ferry services, and Aiken says there is traction on that at last.
"Auckland Transport wants to increase ferry services but they don't have unlimited money. We want to trial weekend services, so HLC would put in about $200,000 for a 12-month trial running peak and off-peak services very regularly, starting this summer. It's early days and if the trial doesn't get support, we don't see it as our job to be 100 per cent supporter."
Asked if he has any regrets when he considers his career and his role today, he concludes on the prospect of building some 30,000 homes. "We're playing catch-up, right? I would love to have started this 10 years ago. We're running hard to get these communities in good shape. It's just in the nick of time."
• Job: Chief executive, Home. Land. Community. (HLC)
• Director: NZX listed Metlifecare
• Member: Auckland Council Urban Design Panel
• Family: Married with two daughters
• Lives: At Hobsonville Point
• Education: Bachelor of arts, Canterbury University; Christchurch Teachers' College teaching diploma
• Last movie watched: Genius: Picasso
• Last book read: Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
• Last holiday: Italy last year, for wine tour