Over its 30 years of existence, Auckland's Community of Refuge Trust (Cort) has experienced the troughs and peaks of social housing and seen some extraordinary changes.

The trust provides homes for 250 low-income and vulnerable tenants and this year its long-time chief executive, Peter Jeffries, received an internationally recognised award for outstanding achievement in social and affordable housing.

Based in Ponsonby for nearly three decades, Cort's first tenants included many who were survivors of the psychiatric de-institutionalisation of the 1980's. There were few options for them other than boarding houses, many of which were being sold-off in the gentrification of Ponsonby at that time.

Mike Riddell, then minister of Ponsonby Baptist Church, and Helen Moroney saw the need for a community response to meet growing housing demand in the area. In 1987 the two quickly established the non-profit trust.

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The week it was founded, Cort purchased its first house with 100 per cent finance from the Housing Corporation at 7 per cent interest. With no equity in its properties and no reserves, the trust walked a financial tightrope in these early years surviving through grants from the Lottery Board.

The purchase of Picton St in 1988 marked the beginning of the trust's specialisation in the field of mental health. Many volunteer hours were spent restoring the slum building to its 19th century elegance and it became a symbol of dignity for its tenants.

In 1989 Cort was finally able to pay its treasurer and a four-days-a-week salary for the manager. Thirteen new flats were purchased that year bringing the total number of tenants to 60 in 25 homes.

The 1990's heralded the change from Housing Corporation to Housing NZ, a new market model, and for almost a decade Cort stopped purchasing houses. Both tenants and the trust felt the crunch.

Cort tenants Patrick and Litia Lesatele in front of their unit in Mount Wellington. Photo / Community of refuge Trust in Auckland
Cort tenants Patrick and Litia Lesatele in front of their unit in Mount Wellington. Photo / Community of refuge Trust in Auckland

In 1991 the National Government cut benefit levels and merchant bank Fay Richwhite purchased the Government's mortgage portfolio, announcing a doubling of interest rates to 14 per cent. Cort survived with assistance from a series of donors and by persuading the new housing minister to postpone the interest increases for two years.

Group homes slipped out of favour in the late 1990's, the larger properties started to be sold off and were replaced with smaller units. A new era began for Cort as soaring Ponsonby property values made it financially stable.

Reviving its entrepreneurial spirit, the trust purchased council properties in Freeman's Bay, tenanting them with a mix of market and subsidised renters.

Cort's focus on housing at this stage was a vital mission. Significant numbers of state housing had been lost; there were many low-quality, crowded rental properties and people using mental health services were often rebuffed by landlords.

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The Labour Government's announcement of a housing innovation fund in 2005 was right up Cort's alley. After a rigorous six-month process applying for 10-year interest-free loans, written-off after 25 years, the trust was granted $4 million that it used to extend beyond the Ponsonby area, buying 24 flats over an intense two year period.

As one of the first community housing organisations in the country Cort took a leadership role in founding the Auckland community housing providers network in 2010. The network has become a powerhouse for critiquing housing policy and lobbying the Auckland Council.

Cort members protest on Ponsonby Rd against housing policy in 1992. BELOW: Progress at Waimahia Inlet has been swift with 293 houses built in two years. Photo / Community of refuge Trust in Auckland
Cort members protest on Ponsonby Rd against housing policy in 1992. BELOW: Progress at Waimahia Inlet has been swift with 293 houses built in two years. Photo / Community of refuge Trust in Auckland

They were strong advocates to the Government in 2010 to make their tenants eligible for income related rent subsidies (tenants pay only 25 per cent of their income on rent) alongside state housing tenants.

Cort became a developer in 2011 when it faced a shortage of one-bedroom units and Housing NZ demanded that social housing groups erect new homes if they wanted further funding. Redevelopments made use of under-utilised properties and modern German prefabrication technology.

Over the past three years Cort has been part of the bold experiment at Waimahia Inlet on the shores of Manukau Harbour. One of the first special housing areas, Waimahia offered the opportunity to be part of a consortium of social housing providers and iwi to build a community where affordable housing, social housing and open-market housing can all be delivered.

Over two years, 293 houses have been built at Waimahia while progress in other Auckland special housing areas has been painfully slow.

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Cort's 30 year journey has taken it from precarious finances to stability, from small beginnings to a place as one of New Zealand's larger social housing providers with a current balance sheet of $66 million worth of property.

It has five developments on the go and a plan to build 100 new homes a year for the next three years, all while retaining its vision to be a voice and home for vulnerable people.

• Angie Cairncross is communications co-ordinator for Community Housing Aotearoa.