Urbanerds Rahui Edition part 1: Cohousing

The May Urbanerds gathering, with its star-studded guest speaker lineup, was also blessed with an Urbanerd taking notes. Part 1: Charles Dawson’s dispatches from the Cohousing session


[Besides being an Urbanerd, Charles Dawson co-directs an interdisciplinary study programme for the Minnesota non-profit consortium HECUA, whose participants volunteer in various Wellington organisations.]

Co-housing and the Urban Habitat Collective

Guest speaker: Bronwen Newton

Visualisation of Urban Habitat, by architects Spacecraft

Bronwen is a lawyer, playcentre mother, property developer – a not very common skill set! She’s led the project management of the Urban Habitat Collective since the get-go, leading the design and community formation. Prior to this she worked on a range of parenting, development and community projects. She’ll be presenting on the plan for the property on Adelaide Road, as well as offering reflection on what it’s been like to try non-traditional developments in NZ, and the barriers and opportunities we face as we seek to develop housing options beyond the simple quarter acre or shoebox apartment.

The co-housing vision has needed to be built almost from scratch in Wellington because it’s not here.

  • (noted some efforts of communal building here but do not go all the way in co-ownership and development. One is Salisbury Garden Court in Wadestown/Wilton – check out the short film by Marie Russell).  

Key facts about Urban Habitat Collective from the presentation

(Bronwen’s presentation is viewable here for personal use only). If you want to share more widely, please contact Bronwen directly.)

  • 24 families / couples
  • a new take on an old idea. –  “villages for the 21st Century”
  • run a not for profit model
  • Other models include: Big Yard, Berlin; Swan Market, Oakland; Nightingale 1, Melbourne (massive waitlist there);  Earthsong, Ranui West Auckland, Cohaus – some of the few cohousing schemes in NZ.
  • Concept is: private spaces and shared amenities
  • Residents take take a shared approach to use of facilities, with some shared cooking for a potluck, shared guest room, shared bike and storage and workshop spaces
  • The aim is to build Forever Homes; factor in activities possibility in suburbs
  • They’re aiming for a diversity of extroverts and introverts in the cohort; purpose is all can get needs met easily. 
  • They’re developing a car share scheme: 5 cars between 24 households—much discussion on making this work; committed to trying it out!
  • A design innovation: we can make access across shared decks bc people are already known and friends
  • Space Craft Architects doing the design – they have been great to work with, taking 24 viewpoints and group needs into the design.
  • Families and householder to be have used Loomio software to make decisions – it helps the manage the balance between engagement and overwhelm
  • real privilege to meet these people and it’s forming and creating with a purpose
  • the group has similar values about co-housing and respectful and open conversations
  • “We love that we are not taking people out of our communities.”
  • Projects like this really help cement community and help us get through whatever comes next

Bronwen’s questions for the Urbanerds: 

  • How do we make housing  something that people and communities do rather than something that investors and developers do?
  • How might this make a difference to what gets built and how the city grows?

Urbanerds discussion – small groups

  • Discussion about the chicken/egg situation of land –  needs to be made available. Developers typically get the land first, but lots of development is high cost and they move fast with capital and lines of credit. this group had a long settlement fortunately and already had 6 families ready to roll. 
  • Discussion about the challenge that banks are leery of lending to co-house groups (just has they’ve only recently worked effectively with iwi on Māori own collective land). It was noted that concern is personal guarantees [hope the bank do not go for a joint and several model]
  • Discussion about market appetite. It is there Bronwen thinks, with the hope that once folks see this model there would be more interested as it’s different. Really at the moment there’s either suburban home or glass box in city; in NZ folks like green space  and workshop and so on. This can provide that. The model also appeals to older folks who do not wish to live alone or in a retirement village; [a growing demographic].

Q: How does the District Plan and investment rules open this up for not just corporate developers  – make it more accessible for random people?

  • Bronwen notes: WCC have been supportive BUT they cannot give you money, can’t give you land and can’t bend the rules.
  • It’s noted that we are to an extent innovating middle class housing – it’s not cheap and requires 30% capital up front.

Ideas: If council or gov’t could earmark land (not for free) that groups could cluster around that would help (they’d meet set criteria)

Q: Are there constraints in the unit title laws?

  • Bronwen: there are provisions within the Unit Title Act. for shared spaces like gyms etc; have not come up w issues yet. 
  • UHC will end up w standard body corporate unit title model at end of build.

We finish with a round of virtual applause to Bronwen and have a quick break.

In the break, Oliver encourages us to check out the Aotearoa Town Hall virtual gatherings that Thomas Nash and Tamatha Paul are running. FB: facebook.com/aotearoatownhall. IG: instagram.com/aotearoatownhall

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Part 2 of the May Urbanerds – Wellington City Council’s Vida Christeller on urban development – coming soon, watch this space.

Sign up to get the invitations to Urbanerds monthly gatherings (all welcome from anywhere while we’re in COVID rahui!)


Further reading: our excellent pieces on cohousing

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