Are you a hippy?
by Stephanie Pole
That’s the question I was asked by one of my bosses when he learned I lived in a Housing Co-op. And to be honest that’s the response from many people. They have visions of communes like Centrepoint and Gloriavale. But I live in the Peterborough Housing Co-op governed by the Otakaro Land Trust, situated in Central Christchurch. We have no religious affiliation and no charismatic leader promising to guide us to a better place!
The Co-op was created in 1980 when the Te Whanau Trust, that governed Piko Wholefoods, expanded to include a land trust. Four villas in a row on Peterborough St came up for auction but were passed in. Rod Donald, who later became co-chairperson of The Green Party, told us the story of how the real estate agent said they needed to come up with the deposit by the end of the day, leading to Rod cycling frantically around trying to scrape this together. So the properties were purchased for a grand total of $99K and the Peterborough Housing Co-op was born. Two of the houses were divided into two so six households in total. A large building at the back housed a garage, two carports and three other rooms of varying sizes. One of these would be the shared laundry with a bike shed out the back. Quite a bit of work was completed on the houses, adding extensions to two of them which required selling block of land that future residents sadly lamented.
The initial residents were a hardy, self- sufficient bunch with many working at Piko alongside a number of small businesses: chickens providing eggs for the market, automotive and kayak building workshops, and in time to come, a bakery, art studio, counselling room and an organic herbal coffee business. The DIY was done to a varying degree of expertise that was to become apparent in the future: levels and angles did not necessarily conform to any standard and much of the electrical work was borderline dangerous as one electrician pointed out after he had cut a live wire in the room upstairs, where someone had diverted some wires from a plug to power a light in a walk in wardrobe area! The phone technician was almost speechless when I called him to try and sort an issue. Eventually blurting out, “Who did this??!”
My personal experience with the Co-op began around about 1992 when I had returned from overseas and was working at an English school looking for somewhere permanent to stay. One of the teachers knew of a vacancy at one of the houses with a friend of hers. When I first visited I fell in love with the property: lots of grass and trees stretching across the rear of the four houses – no fences. I did feel I was a bit middle class and different to many of the others – I had a car which was frowned upon. The process for joining involved interviews with my soon to be flatmate, the Trustees and finally the rest of the Community. Some of the Trustees were slightly intimidating (my friend who came with me for the first visit described them as “The Witches”) but I was allowed in on the customary three month trial. As it turned out, while successfully making it through this time, I must have been away for the scheduled ‘celebration’ and then I think everyone forgot, which I was very relieved about as it was a very double edged affair. The Community members sat in a circle with you in the middle and they proceeded to tell people what they did and didn’t like about you as well as what you could improve on. While I missed out on mine, I had to take part in a few and it was pretty horrible. Thank goodness that once a few key people left this ritual ceased being replaced with a card and a cake!!
I gradually learned about the history of the Trust along with the charter. The Trust has charitable status donating to local charities each year. The primary objective is community development through the promotion of housing co-ops. The attainment of the objective is through common ownership of land and the creation and promotion of working examples, taking away the normal landlord/tenant relationship and empowering people to make decisions. There is a shared facilities philosophy: a shared laundry, tools, shed, community room, weekly shared meal, working bees, recycling scheme, shared fruit and vegetables with organic gardening.
The main activities you had to participate in were monthly working bees and the weekly shared dinners. Working Bees are a requirement as they offset your rent that is cheaper than market rent. Working Bees were on a Saturday: starting at 9 and finishing at 4 with a lunch break. Back in those days everyone took part with no excuses. There were lots of maintenance jobs – one of the first tasks I was set was to take off, plane and re-hang a door!! Crikey, that was a new experience for me. Thank goodness over the years attitudes changed and qualified tradespeople were called in to do more difficult jobs, especially where plumbing and electricity were involved. That’s not to say we haven’t got members who aren’t perfectly capable of hanging a door, but rather than the philosophy that everything is done in-house with quality at risk, we have taken a more realistic approach.
Saturdays were tricky for me in winter as I played hockey so had to make up those hours at other times. The working bee day has continued to be an issue with the increase in weekend trading hours, markets and the overall change to most of the Community working during the week therefore weekends become more precious. Since I have been here, working bees have changed to Sundays, then Saturday or Sunday and now it is divided up to Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon. This is because we will be rebuilding the Community, so we don’t have the amount of on-going maintenance to do, plus we have increased the number of planning meetings that happen in the evenings.
Working bees have always been successful if there is a big project so everyone can get stuck in for example when the Honeyshed was demolished: even the tamest of residents took delight in swinging the hammer! There have always been the regular jobs and some years it seemed that the same people ended up doing them whether they were the cruisy type of jobs – driving the trailer to the dump with another person and perhaps stopping for an ice-cream on the way home, cooking morning tea or lunch for everyone as opposed to turning the compost bin full of rat babies!
Over the years we have tried many ways of organising the weekly dinners, working bees, recording the hours and running meetings: I don’t think it will ever be perfect but the way we currently do it is easy to follow. Each household has a turn as duty house and they are responsible for facilitating the working bee, the meeting, checking the community email and organising the dinners. There is no dinner on the weekend of the working bee as we have a shared lunch. The meetings alternate between the first Monday and Tuesday of the month with the working bee on the Sunday. The days of meetings and working bees are continually revisited as people become involved in evening activities or work and are unable to attend. Dinners changed from Sunday to alternating Friday and Saturday as residents felt Sunday was often a day to go out and do things, or getting organised for work or school the following day so many didn’t really feel like sticking around to chat. For a long time dinners were always in our community room but we changed to houses as our community room became pretty grotty.
Dinners have always been vegetarian/vegan: we have always had vegetarians and vegans but also meat eaters. This would be discussed every now and then usually when a meat eater would decide they should be able to bring meat. This would normally be resolved by pointing out that a meat eater can eat veges but not the other way round. In saying that, every now and then a meat dish would make its way in. Newbies to vegan cooking would take a while to get their heads around it – one time we had popcorn as a dish! More difficult to cater for are the gluten free and FODMAP diet residents who quite often brought their own meals. We have never quite got around to organising what each household will bring as it was just too difficult. Sometimes it would be a last minute decision to come or people just brought what they had in the fridge. Another community used to have a roster for mains, salads and desserts. Ours usually works out, but over the years we have had dinners where everyone has brought potatoes, or salad or a more memorable one where we had three spaghetti bolognaise dishes! Despite many being very health conscious, everyone is delighted when a packet of hot chips arrives! When we had teenagers living here, if someone brought hot chips there needed to be two as we found by the time the adults had their soup, the chips were long gone!
While the dinners are encouraged but not compulsory, the meetings are: if you are unable to attend you need to read the minutes that are put up on a google doc. Facilitating a meeting is such a skill or else it gets out of hand with people either talking too much or not getting their say. Controlling the meeting so people don’t interrupt and talk over others is necessary to keep everyone happy. Reading back the decision or action needed is important, as sometimes they are referred back to in the future.
Over the years the Community has featured in various publications and before the earthquake we had participated in tours with the other housing co-ops in Christchurch. After our rebuild we hope to run monthly tours to promote community living. Before the earthquake we had created a fund to provide financial assistance to groups who wished to combine their properties – to cover the legal fees to combine the titles, building and landscaping. Unfortunately we had to take this offer off the table as we needed the money for our rebuild. We had tried a couple of other projects: one with housing New Zealand to provide social housing, but the government cut the funding to the South Island before we could set it up. Three houses came up in a mortgagee auction sale but the owner found the money on the day of the auction. We lent an amount of money to another group but their finance fell through and we had funding to turn one of our buildings into a flat for emergency housing for teens but the earthquake put an end to this.
Where one path ends another opens up: We are working through the concept phase of our new community rebuild with Craig South from Cymon Alfrey Architects. It has taken us about five years to get to this stage: first, the process of having our houses assessed by EQC (Earthquake Commission) with a result that eventually all were deemed to need a rebuild, meaning we could start with a cleared site. Then we had to do battle with the Insurance company who, because we wanted to change the footprint of our site, would not rebuild for us (this would reduce the risk for us). Enter Annette, the Quantity Surveyor we engaged to amass as much money as possible! And she did! We were paid out four times what the insurance company initially offered. This allowed us to purchase two adjoining properties that had been damaged during the quake. We are planning to increase the number of dwellings making the houses more efficient and warmer, with a smaller footprint offset by a large common house with a commercial kitchen, large dining room, lounge, laundry and a guest room. To get to the concept stage has taken many meetings and workshops.
The 2011 earthquake was a tragedy that changed lives for ever. In our community one family had up and left before I made it home from my school. A number of residents had set up tents in the back lawn with a brazier for cooking. The houses all had to be checked before you could go back in: this took quite some time. Most of our neighbours had left, so the area was pretty quiet. I went to stay with a friend then spent a week in Dunedin as our school was closed. When we returned two cats adopted us: Mrs Cat, who was pregnant, and Tabby Tabster (the Dad). With no power or water for at least eight weeks, we were lucky to have a log burner for light, heat and comfort, although being summer it wasn’t too cold. When the five kittens arrived we were provided with endless entertainment, a very cute distraction to a quite nerve-racking situation. One of the eeriest situations was at night, with no street lights, a six pm curfew and very few residents left in the area: life in the centre city became totally quiet. It was times like this that I really appreciated living in a community: security and companionship.
With my school open again I negotiated the damaged and cracked roads everyday then returning, showing my photo ID and utilities letter showing proof of residence. The houses were all liveable: wonky and cracked but liveable!
Six years on and we finally feel like wheels are in motion for our rebuild: it’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Advantages of living in a community: Security, friendship, sharing of resources and skills and a really big back yard! Children have a huge play area and other kids to play with. The children that have lived here become socialised to other adults, learning about sharing and tolerance. The five that grew up while I have been here have gone on to be well-adjusted high achievers. I would like to think that their time here, in the community attributed to this. We have regular social gatherings – overnight trips to Hanmer, day picnics, parties at the community for friends and the rest of the street, Christmas functions and a long-standing tradition of the Christmas Day water fight that sadly I miss as I spend the Christmas break in Central Otago. When there was an article about us in a national newspaper, one of the ladies from work said, “Oh I couldn’t cope with all those people in my house,” But it is just like any other home – you don’t have to have anyone in there if you don’t want to. Sometimes you only see people at the weekend in the laundry or going down the driveway. You can be as social as you like.
Disadvantages: Not always getting on with other residents. We have had a couple of conflicts that have resulted in them moving out. It is never a nice situation: our conflict resolution policy encourages mediation early on rather than letting them build up to bigger things. Trying to come to a consensus decision with twelve plus adults, Meetings, meetings, meetings – say no more!
The advantages by far out- weigh the disadvantages. I hope in the future more groups take up community living to reap the benefits of this lifestyle.