Recently I’ve been thinking about community. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about our need for company and companionship and how the built environment can add or subtract from that need. The other weekend, my wife went off to do a craft course with a bunch of friends. I decided that I didn’t really want to stay in a cold house on my own, so headed into town to hang out with my two boys.

Now my two boys have recently bought a new house and Dad has been roped in to give them some DIY help. To be honest, Dad is quite stoked to be asked to give them some help. So it’s really a win-win situation. I get some company, they get some free labour (and Dad buys them dinner to boot).

Anyway, I have a tendency towards being an early riser. I got up early the next morning on a cold but clear Christchurch winter’s morning and went for a walk around the area they live in. My lads are first-time homeowners and have together bought a house in a traditional blue-collar working-class part of Christchurch. The area they have bought in was once the domain of state houses built in that huge movement of social housing construction in the 1950s.

Walking around the area it is obvious that some of these houses were sold to private owners is the neoliberal trend of selling off state houses to private owners, a move that gained traction in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. For whatever reason, however, many of the houses in their area are state-owned and this means they are the canvas upon what is being painted part of the solution to the housing crisis.

Now this is in no way a comment on the success or otherwise, of KiwiBuild. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the state of the housing market to opine greatly on that. However, I will comment on some observations I made as I walked around. Within a few blocks of where my lads now live, there are literally dozens and dozens of building sites. Locations where those state houses were formally sited on relatively large sections, and have now been demolished to make way for far more intensive housing. In the three or four streets around the boys’ house, there must be 80 or so new homes that have been built for Kainga Ora.

Now there are a couple of things that I think about, as I observe this situation.

Firstly, while it does, indeed take time for central government initiatives to take action, it would seem that there is some real momentum to resolve the housing crisis right now. My sample size was tiny, only three or four streets in what is a very large country. However, if what is happening here, is also happening across the motu then I think it’s safe to say we’re starting to make a difference.

The second thing I’ve thought about, perhaps encouraged by the fact that the only reason I was in town was because I had a desire for companionship, was the way that these new houses have been built. Most of the existing houses in the area have large fences around them. Indeed, some properties have six-foot fences completely surrounding them. So there is no chance from anyone outside to look in, or anyone on the inside to look out.

The new designs would seem to be much more in keeping with a sense of community. There are shared spaces, granted often just a shared driveway. But sometimes there is a common area where residents of different properties can’t help but interact a little. There’s a commonality of design. Truth be told, this occurred back when state houses were being built in the 50s. But from my perspective, while these properties are being built on a budget, they have been built, at least with a sense of design.

And all of this gets me to my final point, which is about the market. Back in the old days, when a government decided to build thousands upon thousands of houses around the country, they would turn up the dial on apprenticeship schemes. And organizations such as the Ministry of Works would train and provide the labour to do the build. Today, of course, we live in a free market. The neoliberal initiatives of the 1980s mean that we don’t have any sizable public sector that can actually do the work.

As I walked around my boys’ neighbourhood, I observed that all of the building sites were being worked on by different contracting companies. While the government has made the necessary changes in terms of zoning, planning, and funding, it is private building companies that are actually doing the work in building the future homes of our citizens.

I don’t have a particular view on this. It is sad that the days of full employment are gone. But at the same time, with that full employment came a high degree of inefficiency. The private sector, it’s fair to say, drives efficiency around, in this case, the build process. But at the same time, it’s somehow less… human.

I can’t help but think that, back in the 50s, those individuals working for the public sector, building homes for their fellow citizens had a stronger sense of worth or value, than the current model of employees of private enterprise building homes for private profit. It’s a conundrum that I have mixed views about and one that is a lightning rod for discourse between the left and the right.

Notwithstanding the neoliberal impacts, however, my walk on that cold but sunny Sunday morning gave me hope. What I’m seeing is the emergence of new models of community. I hope that the people that live in those homes will explore the community will get to know their neighbours, and will invent a new form of community in the same way that the immigrants of the 50s who lived in all of those state houses created communities for and of their time.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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