Rethinking the Kiwi dream: How New Zealanders live now

by Sharon Stephenson / 22 April, 2019
Portrait photography by Rebekah Robinson
A post-war pavlova paradise – or a demographic blip?

A post-war pavlova paradise – or a demographic blip?

It’s Kiwi as, with a touch of Crosby, Stills & Nash – the two-parent household with 2.5 kids living in their own “very, very, very fine house with two cats in the yard”. Except that’s fast being consigned to the margins, as New Zealanders increasingly live alone or find creative ways to house themselves. Sharon Stephenson reports.

High St runs along the spine of the valley floor, the longest street in Lower Hutt. Its far reaches are largely flat and solidly utilitarian, thick with fast food joints and car dealerships with faded signs.

The dairy, once owned by a woman who smelled of hairspray and the menthol cigarettes she’d have when no one was looking, is long gone. But the house where I spent the rump end of my teenage years is still there. Six of us and a dog were squashed into that three-bedroom home, along with a grey cat that wandered in one day and never left.

Real estate agents euphemistically refer to the area as “up and coming”, but poverty still weighs down almost as many corners as it did 25 years ago. Back then, it was undeniably on the wrong side of the economic tracks, a jumble of cheaply built, almost identical dwellings occupied by immigrants, those with limited pay packets, those indifferent to contraception.

Depending on who you asked, it was idyllic: there was space for kids to play, room for vege gardens and fruit trees, it was safe and quiet. It was our pavlova paradise, almost identical to suburbs slapped up on the fringes of every major New Zealand city in a building frenzy after World War II. Owning a quarter-acre section in the ’burbs became as much a part of our national identity as jandals and Footrot Flats.

Watch today’s TV commercials for SUVs and power companies, and you’d think New Zealand still lives like that: two parents and 2.5 offspring cosily tucked behind a white picket fence. But you’d be wrong. Thanks to a messy stew of social, economic and demographic changes, the picture has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. From inner-city apartments occupied by child-free couples to retirees “going flatting”, the typical Kiwi household is vastly differently to the way it was when I called that Lower Hutt street home.

City workers and commuters may fantasise about life in the country – the lavender-growing, Orpington-chickens-in-the-yard version, rather than a working farm – but our main centres continue to suck up population. Increasingly, we rent rather than buy; sometimes by choice but often because stratospheric house prices and a lack of savings have left us unable to grab even the lowest rung of the property ladder. And the immigration surge of the past few years has largely pooled in Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton and Queenstown, adding further pressure to housing stock and straining infrastructure in those centres.

These days, we’re more likely to live alone. Single-person households, once the domain of elderly widows, are now one of the fastest-growing demographics, across all age groups. Hamilton-based demographer Dr Natalie Jackson (until recently a professor at Massey University) attributes much of the change to declining birth rates, which have been at or below 2.1 births per woman since the early 80s. In the early 60s, it was almost double that.

“Previously, women partnered, got married and started having kids at around 24,” she says. “And if you go back 100 years, people had around six children and spent most of their adult life parenting in the family home. But now people are having fewer kids and having them at an average age of 31.”

Social and attitudinal changes have reinforced these trends, supporting the choice of younger people to live alone and child-free – but also, conversely, to remain in the family home into their 20s and even 30s. “Many parents now allow partners to stay overnight so young adults don’t have to set up a home in order to have a sexual relationship, as they once did,” says Jackson. In such cases, older parents often choose to retain the family home to accommodate their adult children, rather than selling up and downsizing.

Single-person households and smaller families may be the trend – but that ignores bigger families on the poor side of town, often paying exorbitant rents for shoddy, overcrowded housing. And some of today’s “smaller families” are single parents, also relegated to struggle street on sole incomes or benefits.

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At the public housing end of the spectrum, there are some 64,000 households in state-run housing, with nearly 10,000 more on the waiting list. And the number of low-income earners receiving an accommodation supplement increased by 11,206 to 302,840 in the year to December 2018.

A defining change over the past 30 years has been the steady decline in home ownership. In 1986, three-quarters of New Zealand households owned their own home; in 2018, the rate was less than 65%. That’s forced more of us into renting, which, as economists Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub pointed out in their 2015 book Generation Rent, has not traditionally been part of the Kiwi dream.

In other countries, there’s no stigma attached to renting. However, in Europe and Scandinavia especially, rental policies give tenants far greater rights and long-term security. In contrast, many Kiwi renters live precariously, sometimes forced to move repeatedly from one property to another.

The 15th Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, released in January, saw New Zealand cities shoot even further up the unaffordable rankings, based on a price-income ratio. Tauranga is now the eighth most expensive housing market in the world, with a median household income of $68,800 per year set against a median house price of $623,000. Auckland and four other regions are also rated as severely unaffordable. An affordable ratio sits at around 3; New Zealand scores a dismal 6.5.

More and more Kiwis, like those featured in this article, are finding new ways to live – sometimes actively pursuing a more co-operative community and eco-friendly vision, but often in compromised living arrangements based largely on making incomes cover outgoings – with the hope of some rainy-day savings to spare.

hannah sheehan housing

Hannah and Miles with flatmates Freyja Stocker and Finnbar Lee.

Exes’ Caring and Sharing Arrangement

Sunshine filters through the French doors at Hannah Sheehan’s Mt Albert home, bathing her in an ethereal light. “It’s lucky no one’s home, because otherwise it would be chaos here,” laughs the 35-year-old greenstone jeweller.

She’s referring to the five other occupants of the three-bedroom rented home: her son Miles, nine, his architect father (Sheehan’s former partner) and his new partner, and two flatmates. It might be an unorthodox living arrangement, but for various reasons – chiefly financial and familial – it’s worked well for the past two years.

“Friends can’t believe I live with my ex and his partner, and do so in harmony,” says Sheehan. “Many of them could never do that, but we parted amicably and Miles comes first, so having both his parents under the same roof is the best thing for him.”

Sheehan, raised in Rotorua by a Kiwi mother and American father (who passed on his greenstone carving skills to his five children), says their relationship broke up in 2013 but the prohibitive cost of Auckland housing meant she was unable to move out.

“We even had to keep sharing the same bed because our flat was so small and we couldn’t afford to break the lease,” she says. “But in retrospect, it was the best thing, because we had a chance to talk through things and work out the best way forward.”

Sheehan and her son eventually moved into shared flats, first in Westmere and then Kingsland, but because of the cost of setting up her own business, she could no longer afford the $240 a week rent, plus expenses.

Trying to find somewhere cheaper to live proved difficult, she says, with at least 60 people at each viewing and landlords doing little to hide their disdain for solo mums.

“When they found out I was a single mother, I’d get that look and they’d say, ‘Sorry, the place isn’t suitable for kids.’ It was one rejection after another.”

So when a room came up in the house her former partner had been renting for a few years, which would save Sheehan around $100 a week, she asked if it would be awkward living together.

“He was thrilled to have us here and we’re super respectful of each other, so it hasn’t been a problem. We’ve always had week-on, week-off care of Miles, and that hasn’t changed, so whoever’s week it is will make Miles’ food and take him to school.”

Sheehan says she’d move out of Auckland “in a heartbeat”, if she could.

“I’ve never been interested in owning a home because that’s not the kind of person I am. Which is lucky, because there’s no way I could afford a house in Auckland! I see friends struggling to pay huge mortgages and I wonder if it’s worth it.

“My dream is to rent a rural place in Nelson, where I could have chickens and grow vegetables. But Miles’ father’s job is in Auckland so for now this arrangement works for us. But who knows what will happen when Miles gets older…”

Hannah Sheehan and son Miles, aged nine.

Hannah Sheehan and son Miles, aged nine.

Friends with Home-owning Benefits

It sounds like the beginning of a joke – a builder, a civil servant, a full-time mother and a philosophy student walk into a house. Except that’s what happened in the Wellington suburb of Mt Victoria. And the four of them liked the two-storey villa so much, they bought it.

“We could never have afforded to buy in this suburb on our own,” says Mike Sellers*, a builder who, along with his wife and two children, bought the 1904-built home with a couple of good friends and their daughter seven-and-a-half years ago.

“Back then, it cost almost $800,000, which was beyond both our budgets. We all wanted to live close to the city for work, for the kids to go to a good school and to be able to walk to cafes and the library. So we sold our respective houses in Lower Hutt and bought this place together.”

Although the house was in need of renovation, it had four bedrooms, a garden, even two off-street parks. “I’ve been chipping away at doing it up over the years,” says Sellers, pointing out the new kitchen and two renovated bathrooms. “We’re in no hurry.”

The two couples drew up a “social agreement” before they signed the joint mortgage, which included such things as how to divvy up maintenance and chores, but Sellers admits it’s been better than they imagined.

“The kids are under 10 and get on well and so do we. We all come from large families, so it’s really an extension of that. You just have to be the kind of person who doesn’t mind mess and noise. Of course, there can be the odd barney when it’s raining and we’re all cooped up inside, so we try to manage that by having one night a week when one family will go out for dinner, leaving the other to enjoy the house on their own.”

Not only does the arrangement save each family money, it’s also future-proofing their bank accounts, with the house increasing in value by around $300,000 since they bought it.

“Sure, rates will go up, but we only have to pay half, which is manageable. I get a few odd looks when I tell people about our living arrangement, but it baffles me why others don’t do the same. You get to live in a desirable suburb you couldn’t afford on your own, have great capital gains and a ready-made extended family. What’s not to love about that?”

Long-term renter Robyn Barry, who’s 60, says not owning a house at her stage of life means she’s treated like a second-class citizen “who didn’t work hard enough, lacks intelligence, can’t save or spends too much”.

Long-term renter Robyn Barry, who’s 60, says not owning a house at her stage of life means she’s treated like a second-class citizen “who didn’t work hard enough, lacks intelligence, can’t save or spends too much”.

The social stigma of being a lifetime renter

Robyn Barry screws up her eyes as she tries to remember the places she’s rented in the past 43 years. There was the boarding house in Mt Eden where the owner forbade Barry from using the kettle and she had to carry her own toilet paper, a communal house in Hamilton she shared with two other women and five children, even a mouldy garage.

Barry, 60, is a part-time student (currently finishing her PhD in philosophy), a part-time, not-for-profit support worker, a single mother of two, a Mensa member and a domestic abuse survivor.

She speaks in slow, carefully measured sentences from the room where she spends most of her waking hours, a pleasantly cluttered office at Auckland University. “I’ve had some pretty bad renting experiences in my time,” says Barry, who’s never owned her own home. “It got to the stage where it was easier to do all my living outside of home, so I’d leave early and return at 10pm, spending all day at uni where I have access to a microwave, fridge and free coffee.”

The third of seven children, Barry grew up in South Auckland, where her father built roads. There wasn’t much money but it was a happy childhood. She left school at 15 “because that’s what people did then”.

Jobs in factories, offices and behind the bar of working men’s clubs followed. At 21, there was marriage to a man who fathered her two daughters and held a knife to her throat. “That was the last time he assaulted me. I left and moved to Hamilton.”

Having discovered she had an IQ of 150, Barry enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Sciences at Waikato University. That eventually led to a Master of Psychology, but Barry put her career on hold for 20 years to care for her daughters: Waimarie, now 29, who was born intellectually disabled, autistic and non-verbal, and Ngawai, 25.

The family moved to Torbay on Auckland’s North Shore, where Barry’s brother owned a two-unit dwelling. “He was living in Japan so we rented one unit, paying $300 a week, and I rented out the other one for him.”

It was an arrangement that worked well until her brother’s ex-wife wanted to move back in. “We had to find somewhere else to live and Waimarie needed more help than I could give her. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but in 2008 she went into full-time care.”

With Ngawai off flatting, Barry moved through a succession of boarding houses, flats and apartments. She’s currently boarding with another brother and his partner, paying $200 a week for a room in the three-bedroom house they rent in Three Kings.

“I’ve been here nearly two years and it works for me because it’s close to uni and Waimarie, and my brother and his partner make me feel welcome. But I don’t feel free to do things like change the TV channel, because it’s their TV, or have people over whenever I’d like. I mainly stay in my room when I’m at home.”

Barry has never moved out of the bottom two tax brackets and has a student debt of just over $15,000. “I’ve resolved myself to the fact I’ll never be able to buy a house in Auckland, but I can’t move away because my family is here. Our unjust societal culture of using housing as a form of profit rather than as a place to live makes me incredibly angry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I feel worse for Ngawai’s generation, who I can’t ever see owning their own homes.”

There’s also a hefty social stigma attached to being a renter, especially at Barry’s age. “Many people assume I own my own home, as most people my age do, and think there’s something wrong with me because I don’t – that I’m a second-class citizen who didn’t work hard enough, lacks intelligence, can’t save or spends too much.

“It’s as if people find comfort in patting themselves on the back, believing they got where they are on their own merit, afraid to face the realisation they could be one incident away from joining those of us on this side of the gap.”

But Barry knows she’s got it better than some. From her time in Torbay, she’s still a trustee of the Bays Community Housing Trust, which provides boarding facilities on the North Shore for vulnerable people, including single women aged over 65 with limited assets.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great set-up. My point is, if you choose to live with others when you’re older, for the companionship and so on, that’s fine. But when you’re forced into that situation by a lack of resources, it can be hard.”

Apartment living in Hobsonville Point, Auckland.

Apartment living in Hobsonville Point, Auckland.

Comfortably Solo, Apartment Living

The call came shortly after 3am one foggy Sunday in May. Jeff, Lisa Jessup’s* partner of five years, was killed instantly when his car was struck by a drunk driver north of Wellington. That was in 2013 but for Jessup, now 36, life has never been the same.

“People say you’ll eventually meet someone else, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to,” says Jessup, leaning into the kind of white sofa it would be impossible to have with children or pets. “By this age, I thought I’d be married, have a few kids and be a stay-at-home mother in a lovely villa in the suburbs. I had my life all planned out.”

Instead, Wellington-based Jessup is a full-time communications director for a government department, with a $150,000 salary and an $800,000 designer apartment she bought off the plans two years ago. There are gleaming appliances that look as if they’ve just been unwrapped, a late-model European car in the underground garage, and a shoe collection that would make Imelda Marcos’ heart twang with joy.

“Jeff had a generous insurance policy, which helped me pay off the joint flat we owned and buy this place mortgage-free. I know I’m lucky, but I would give it up in an instant if I could have him back.”

Jessup isn’t surprised she belongs to the fastest-growing demographic globally. The number of people living alone rose by a whopping 135% between 1980 and 2011, and is expected to reach 334 million in 2020. Fuelled partly by an ageing population (in New Zealand, 64% of one-person households are projected to be 55 years and over by 2021), it’s also down to us coupling less frequently.

“Remember how people used to talk about a man drought a few years ago? Well, it appears to be just as prevalent now. I have so many single female friends who’d love to be happily partnered, but it just hasn’t happened for them. Almost all my friends live alone in the inner city.”

For Jessup, there’s a lot to like about living alone. “I’ve got the freedom to come and go as I please, the space and solitude to clear my head, and I can eat peanut butter out of the jar in my underwear at 2am if I want! There’s no one to judge me, ask me what time I’m going to be home or growl at me for leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor. There are worse ways to live.”

UK expats Mark and Arian Baynes with daughters Ruby (left) and Amelie at home in Auckland’s Earthsong Eco- Neighbourhood.

UK expats Mark and Arian Baynes with daughters Ruby (left) and Amelie at home in Auckland’s Earthsong Eco- Neighbourhood.

Loving thy Neighbours in a Co-Housing Project

About halfway up Auckland’s Swanson Rd, sandwiched between a mosque and a supermarket, is the Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood.

There’s the familiar cluster of weatherboard houses, the wedge of grass out front, the ubiquitous suburban soundtrack of lawnmowers and wind chimes. But this collection of 32 houses, scattered across 1.2ha, is no ordinary neighbourhood.

Earthsong is New Zealand’s first co-housing complex, a concept that originated in Denmark in the early 70s. Not only is the community modelled along socially and environmentally sustainable principles, the 65 Earthsong residents actively participate in its design and operation.

UK expat Mark Baynes, 44, bought into the development in 2016 with his wife Arian and their two children Amelie, now six, and Ruby, five. They were drawn to Earthsong by its relative affordability – paying just under $650,000 for their three-bedroom home – its sustainable ethos and the fact it’s safe and secure for children (the main living areas are car-free zones, with parking provided on the edges of the complex). New buyers must become members of the community, and ownership is by unit title, including a share of the common land and facilities.

Baynes, a musician who teaches at Mainz (Music and Audio Institute of NZ), liked the concept of purposeful living; “that like-minded people have united to make a conscious decision about how they want to live and the community they want to live in”.

It’s a diverse community that includes continental Europeans, Māori and Brits, among them lawyers, social workers, architects and public servants. Many are retired or thinking about it.

“I also like the fact that residents give a shit. Everyone knows and cares about each other. It’s less likely something bad will happen when you know your neighbours. So many places today have lost that sense of community.”

For example, when Baynes’ eldest daughter, who has cerebral palsy, was recently in hospital, neighbours rallied around with food and offers of babysitting.

Both Baynes and his wife were raised in terraced housing in the UK, so weren’t bothered by the compact sections. Besides, Earthsong has ample communal gardens, a purpose-built pond, a children’s play area and a community centre. Permaculture is also popular here, with residents able to grow their own vegetables if they wish.

Having rented various cold and mouldy Kiwi houses for 14 years, the family was drawn to the architecturally designed, well-constructed house, which has rammed-earth walls and is fully insulated for warmth as well as sound. “The founders also thought about things such as the way the houses face, so you aren’t looking into your neighbour’s back garden, which is great for privacy.”

Although it’s not compulsory to attend the twice-weekly communal meals in the airy community centre, the family tries to make it as often as possible. A musician who’s done everything from playing on cruise ships to supporting hip-hop artist King Kapisi, Baynes recently moved his grand piano into the communal space, so everyone can use it.

“When we can, we also volunteer for the monthly working bees that look after the shared grounds. It’s a great way to contribute to the community and work alongside neighbours.”

Co-housing is slowly gaining traction in New Zealand, with complexes in Dunedin and Grey Lynn currently in development. But ask Baynes about the negatives and his expression changes. “What can grate is sometimes there’s a social undercurrent of control; some residents don’t like it when you do something that doesn’t adhere to the social agreements all residents sign up to. I’m a musician and more of a free spirit who’s never been good at being told what to do, so that can raise some issues.”

For example, when the couple decided to build a carport to give their disabled daughter easier access, it took six months to get sign-off from the other residents. “It’s a bit rigid, and there can sometimes be a fear of change.”

Or the time he spontaneously built a shed in his back garden. “I got really excited about it, but it caused so much stress because I didn’t follow procedure and get the proper approvals.”

Baynes was eventually told he could keep the shed, but only after warnings it might have to be torn down.

“That said, there are definitely more positives than negatives. It’s not just about affordable housing and having babysitters on hand, we’ve also made genuine friendships with other residents and enjoy our life,” he says. “Until we can potentially live off the grid somewhere like Raglan, this is home.”

*Names have been changed on request.

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

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