Social mortgages and affordable housing

The Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood in Ranui, West Auckland, has 32 homes cemented by relationships. Photo: build magazine.


Could some of our problems with affordable housing be solved by establishing communities based on social mortgages where there are mutual responsibilities, shared values, and close relationships?

‘SOCIAL MORTGAGE’ is a term we have coined to describe the principle of traditional socially based land tenure whereby social payments to communities are expected in the form of responsibilities and chores.

It is comparable with a mortgage bond in individualised tenure except that it is indeterminate and requires continued investment to keep it vibrant. Social mortgages are also about the network of ties cementing communities together, which are arguably as important to housing developments as good design and planning but are sometimes overlooked.

Maori societies community-based

The social mortgage idea stems from research being undertaken as part of the Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities National Science Challenge. A starting point for the research is the way that traditional Māori culture tended to be community-based.

Land and resources were managed from a collective perspective and rights to use land entailed responsibilities to the group. Following signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, however, British forms of land tenure ushered in a new set of individualised norms that made land rights virtually independent of community responsibilities.

Could this apply today?

Other socially based principles have also been lost in the transition, including the tenet of land and housing not being marketable and creating and strengthening social networks through work (mahi, in Māori). This begs the question of whether any or some of those principles can be reintroduced to modern housing and development and to what effect.

Our research explores contemporary urban papakāinga – Māori housing developments – and co-housing communities, both in New Zealand and internationally, as examples of how socially based principles can operate in a modern context. This is to question whether housing delivery can have greater cognisance of social mortgages to create more affordable housing and more viable communities in the long term.

Principles from socially based tenure

The research focused on two main sites – the Kāinga Tuatahi papakāinga in Ōrākei, Auckland, and the Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood in Ranui, West Auckland. Both have around 30 households in communities cemented through whanaungatanga (relationships). A range of other national and international cases were also included in the comparative study.

Social mortgages were found to be premised on a few key principles.

Strong communities need a binding agent

A keystone of socially based tenure systems is that rights derive from group membership. Even in modern papakāinga, residents are generally linked through whakapapa (genealogy/shared ancestry). However, non-tribal communities can create comparable bonds by leveraging shared values and ideologies, such as the environmental ethic that is a factor in the success of the Earthsong community or working for the same firm. Community binding needs to be strong enough to survive the inevitable ebbs and flows of residents leaving and arriving over time.

A community is always a work in progress

The community associated with a housing development is co-extensive with the physical infrastructure but is perhaps better thought of as a garden that needs weeding and work if it is to continue producing. The social mortgage recognises that social dues and obligations are needed on an ongoing basis if a community is to thrive.

Work/mahi fosters belonging and self-worth

Intentional communities often set out concrete commitments to work and community behaviour through rules and responsibilities, though these can produce different levels of group bonding or cohesion. The weakest is symbolic work, or in other words tokenistic contributions or actions such as paying someone else to do the work. The strongest is survival work, engaging in tasks that are necessary to the survival or wellbeing of the group.

Ways in which this principle has been harnessed in developments today include leaving aspects of homes or communities unfinished for residents to complete over time. This is partly to reduce costs but also to foster creativity, agency and self-worth and to forge connections with place and between neighbours and keep these green.

Examples of how this has been achieved in practice include sweat equity opportunities or other models such as core housing in southern Africa, half-built homes in South America and naked housing in the UK, where a carefully designed shell is modified and improved over time. Cost savings are not only on the build but through the use of shared laundries, workshops, sewing rooms and kitchens, which also create opportunities for members to work together and strengthen community.

Housing is not just commercial

In traditional socially based systems, land and housing exists outside of the commercial mainstream. That is, individual use rights are inseparable from collective stewardship.

Principles could help affordability and communities

While design and ownership structures cannot guarantee community, it can help create favourable conditions for it to develop. Examples include designing communal areas where residents can come together, safeguarding private spaces and keeping cars separate to encourage walkability and spontaneous interactions.

Thoughtful design can foster cohesion and a shared vision, helping to bind residents and guide them through tough decisions. There are tried and tested strategies for keeping community ties strong in the long term and strategies for reducing costs and building community by recognising the importance of work/mahi.

State and local councils might also get more for their dollar from variations of community land trusts than from sale or lease of affordable housing. In other words, this involves taking some land out of the commercial mainstream where residents can only sell at controlled prices. Lessons gleaned from Kāinga Tuatahi as well as community land trusts and Canberra’s land rent scheme could offer a useful starting point here.

Challenges to face

Naturally, there are challenges. The financial and regulatory environment would need to become more flexible to enable alternatives like these. Judge David Ambler of the Māori Land Court spoke of ‘hybrid partitions’ where the regular cadastral legislation could not achieve the new kinds of development needed today. That and other legislation and bylaws need to be revisited with an open mind.

Given the current pressures on housing stock and affordability, perhaps this is the time to look seriously at such alternatives.

Originally published in build magazine, issue 177, April 2020.

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Date posted: 21 April 2020