All around us, two and three storey townhouses are being erected. They are the next big thing.
I have nothing against them in principle. Except… they remind me that housing for the rich is not the same thing as housing for the poor.
My friend MM, a Professor at the University of Auckland, is currently renting such a townhouse in a posh street in Parnell. Her unit is one of six. She talks of shared glasses of wine and meals together in a very nice environment. That is one face of the Coro street model – communities in harmony.
The other face is high levels of household crowding, stress, mental illness and criminality. It s not nice to live close to your neighbours if they are as mad as snakes. The case I know best is the woman who thought her neighbours were plotting again her and let down tires, killed cats and did other unspeakable acts.
Of course, most wealthy people seek a level of seclusion, even if they live in a high density block. This is achieved by a range of means including house size and good design.
My grandparents lived, and my mother was brought up, in 34 Feltwell Road, Anfield, Liverpool (see picture above). It is a generous-looking bow fronted attached house (the Americans call them row houses – I think we call them ‘terraces’ here). It had its strengths and weaknesses. I know that families were often, in that time and place, housed near to each other. Today it is privately owned and in a low-cost area of Liverpool.
But certainly it was a goal of my upwardly mobile parents to escape living in rows. They were able in around 1958 to purchase a semi-detached house in Hersham, Surrey. This is a property where two homes are stuck together to reduce building costs but each has a private space.
Later they moved to a detached house. Oh the joy of middle class aspiration! It was the peak of ambition. It was also outside of the aspirations of most ordinary working people then. Now, with that house and others selling for upwards of a million pounds, the housing divide is truly embedded in the UK. You could get change from $300,000 for Feltwell Road.
We know that many immigrants from the UK came to NZ for the additional space offered in New Zealand – the fact that there was not a terrace in sight.
I remember when I took my sister one year to the very poorest bit of Christchurch. The houses were each on their own sections and with plenty of garden. To her, comparing with the tenement blocks of London, this looked like wealth, not poverty.
I hear a lot of people I know well, people of good politics and a strong sense of social justice, arguing that urban intensification is the way to give everyone a space in our cities and extend affordable housing.
My anxiety now is that the burden of the upcoming intensification will fall unevenly on people on low incomes, with families and under stress.
It is already happening in Auckland and Wellington, where Kainga Ora has large scale plans for intensification across a range of areas. This is often described as modernisation. Modern may mean a warmer house but it also means far less garden and space around houses.
I do not think that the dangers of intensification into stressed communities has been fully explored or understood. It is not an unmitigated good to build more houses. It depends on so many things -design, principles of families living close to one another, supports in the community for mental health, poverty and the like, schools for the children, places to play, develop and live life to the full.
I fear that what we are doing is storing up major problems for our own futures, as well as extending the housing divide. The social costs may outweigh the benefits, in the end. I am interested in others’ views on this. Let’s get a conversation going!