Between single-home occupancy, apartment living and flatting sits an economical option that offers the best features of all three. The drawback is that—in New Zealand, anyway—options are scarce.
Cooperative housing has struggled to take off here, partly because it isn’t on most of our radars and partly because zoning regulations and lending options discourage it. Those who would like to share amenities in a community while maintaining private living spaces can either brave the wait lists and screening processes of existing cooperatives or begin the mammoth task of building one themselves.
A group in Auckland’s central suburb of Grey Lynn took the latter option and is among the lucky few who succeeded. In June 2021, residents began moving into a community they bought into and helped design.
David Welch is one of the founders of Cohaus. The group came together organically, beginning with himself, his partner, and another couple. The other couple, Thom Gill and Helle Westergaard, are also the project’s architects. Helle is from Denmark, where cooperative housing is more common.
Others in their circles joined until the majority of its 20 homes were spoken for, and they went through a co-design process so the community would represent what the residents value.
The result is a shared garden area partially surrounded by two-and three-story terraces and a renovated villa that was shifted to the edge of the site. Most other units are between 40m2 and 105m2 and have up to three bedrooms. One of the townhouses, for the largest family, has five bedrooms. Residents hold their own titles.
The ages of community members range from newborn to 80-something, and David’s own mother and her partner are among his neighbours.
“It’s so much nicer than a retirement village, having that mix of ages where the old people mix with the young people, and they’re looked out for,” David says.
The site has a communal laundry, six shared cars, guest accommodation, a bike shed and a communal lounge. To make their homes more affordable, residents decided to live in smaller homes and share what, in a typical development, would have been 20 separate garages, laundry rooms, backyards and spare bedrooms.
So their cost per square metre is similar to neighbouring apartments, David says, but with the feel of a neighbourhood and the perks of a single home setup. And those perks are significant; in their suburb, houses sell for more than twice the $550,000 to $1.25 million that Cohaus residents in the 1- to 3-bedroom units paid.
The hurdles they faced to get to this point illustrate why so few co-housing initiatives succeed. The first was a year-long search to find land with appropriate zoning. Despite being just a kilometre from the city centre, most of their suburb is still zoned for single residential homes.
Once they finally secured the 2400m2 section, they began an arduous resource consent process. Minimum car park requirements (which have recently been dropped) would have made them provide 20 parking spaces—even though one of the reasons they chose a central location was for the transport options. They succeeded in halving the number.
“People don’t understand how expensive parking is,” David says. For Cohaus—“The cost would be well over $100,000 per carpark once the land area, paving, and the opportunity cost of not being able to build more units was taken into account.”
Fortunately, the core group could fund the land purchase and the planning process, so it simplified the initial phases and provided the confidence others needed to buy into the completion of Cohaus.
“I think that’s where other groups have real difficulty,” David says. “They need to get a large number of people to agree to put in money, and it’s really hard to borrow money with a disparate group.”
David says he would like to see councils set aside land for co-housing projects and allow groups to form around it. He’d also like to see community housing providers gather people around developments and include them in the planning phase.
“There’s a lot of interest,” David says. “Every week, we get people writing to us wanting to buy in. If we could build ten of these, we would fill them up straight away.”
And the level of interest is probably warranted: “We had pretty high expectations before we moved in, and it’s fair to say those expectations have been exceeded.”