Changes in design, funding and land use will deliver healthy, sustainable communities, writes Glen Sowry.

Say "Housing New Zealand" and many people think of street after street of classic old brick-and-tile or weatherboard state homes on big sections.

The reality these days is that change is afoot. Housing New Zealand is changing as fast as Auckland is. Indeed, the changes - and the challenges - facing New Zealand's biggest landlord and its biggest city are in many ways the same.

Housing New Zealand owns close to 30,000 homes in Auckland - more than 7 per cent of the city's housing stock. We're everywhere, from the North Shore to Papakura, and in every local board area except Great Barrier.

We fully support Auckland's vision to become the world's most liveable city, and we're actively contributing to this goal. Housing shortages, and the associated challenges of affordability, crowding and congestion, are among Auckland's biggest problems. Providing homes, particularly for those most affected by these problems, is what we do.


Not surprisingly, much of our focus is on Auckland: after all, it's where almost half of our houses and tenants are and where the challenges and needs are greatest. But we're heavily engaged in other parts of the country as well. For example, in Christchurch, the other centre of great housing need, we are planning to spend $1 billion in the next 10 years and build 700 new homes by the end of 2015 - an ambitious target by any measure

In Auckland we plan to add thousands of new homes to our housing portfolio over the next 10 years. We'll do this in two ways: firstly by building new homes, and secondly by working in partnership with other housing providers to build thousands of new homes on our land.

With modern and contemporary design and best practice place-making, we can materially increase the liveability, quality and performance of our properties.

But I'm not talking about the same old approach of high concentrations of state houses in certain areas. Well-proven international experience over the years and, indeed, hard-learned lessons in New Zealand, have shown us that often doesn't work very well. Our homes in the future will be part of healthy, sustainable, mixed communities that include private owners, affordable rentals and other social housing providers such as councils and not-for-profit organisations.

These new developments will encourage diversity and a sense of community pride. From the outside you won't be able to tell which ones belong to us, and it won't matter.

It's an exciting concept and one which is working well in many of the world's other great cities including Sydney, Melbourne and London. Housing Minister Nick Smith and I recently visited Australia and saw a number of successful examples of "mixed tenure" communities in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane where social housing tenants, market renters and private owners all live together in very healthy communities.

In Auckland's high state housing suburb Glen Innes existing stock is making way for better homes and land use. Photo / Brett Phibbs
In Auckland's high state housing suburb Glen Innes existing stock is making way for better homes and land use. Photo / Brett Phibbs

So how will we achieve that? Much of our land is inefficiently used: traditional quarter-acre sections with just a single three-bedroom house occupying each of them. What's more, many of the houses are old, cold and in relatively poor condition. And they're the wrong size. In the 40s and 50s when many of these houses were built, traditional two-parent nuclear families with two or three children were the norm.

Modern families are just as likely to be single parents, or childless couples, who need one or two-bedroom homes. Or conversely - and particularly in Auckland - they'll be large families with many children which need four or five bedrooms to avoid overcrowding.

Our plan is to redevelop these under-utilised properties to build warm, dry houses of the right size and configuration to meet the needs of tenants today and in decades to come.

There are a number of ways we can do this. One approach we have launched is a project we call 324&5 where we take a three-bedroom house and add one or more bedrooms, using prefabricated extensions for speed and minimal disruption. Then, while we're at it, we carry out any repairs or renovations required to the rest of the house. This is smart, cost-effective and simple.

We'll be adding bedrooms in this way to 2000 of our homes in the next three years, more than half of them in Auckland. The Housing Minister and I recently helped a large family move into their extended house in Mt Roskill. The impact this extended house has had on this family, including a 12-year-old son who had suffered from rheumatic fever, was profound. I think I felt almost as happy as the family did, to be leading an organisation which can make that sort of positive difference in people's lives.

With some of this investment in new housing stock, especially in established communities, change can be very challenging and confronting for our existing tenants. This is something we must take real care with to minimise disruption and angst.

As virtually all our redevelopments and new houses will be on existing Housing New Zealand sites, this will create change for many of our tenants. The prize, however, is attractive - modern and good-quality new houses, which we believe will go a long way towards creating strong, healthy, safe communities.

The changes in northern Glen Innes are an example of where we could have managed relationships with the community better. The new houses will meet community needs much better than the old ones, but we did a poor job of engaging with the people who live there. The result was needless anxiety for some of our tenants, leading to protests and disruption. In future I am determined to involve communities such as this more, right from the outset.

And amongst all of this we must not forget our biggest stakeholder group of all - the taxpayers. As a Crown agency, we're responsible for managing a $16 billion taxpayer investment.

Like any home owner or landlord, we need to look after our assets efficiently to ensure they continue to provide shelter and homes to those New Zealanders most in need.

Glen Sowry is chief executive of Housing New Zealand.