Building apartments in the suburbs seems like an alien concept to many of us, but is it really that foreign? Or have we been here before?

The middle and outer ring of suburbs where most Aucklanders live shapes our experience of our city – the standalone homes on large sections; the quiet streets with their green berms and occasional passerby; the views of the maunga and the harbours; and the main arterial roads clogged with traffic.

This picture is set to change in a fairly major way over the next couple of decades as the city responds to the need for more housing.

The Unitary Plan is aimed at guiding the city toward a higher density in a way that makes it more, rather than less, liveable. A key motivation to ‘densify’ is the love of our coast and bush. Few Aucklanders want to see our great outdoors swallowed by sprawl, so we need to up the density of our existing suburbs.

Another huge driver of change in our suburbs is the government’s replacement of its aging state houses. The urban development team at Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities is removing old state houses across Auckland and delivering new state, KiwiBuild and market homes, intensifying as they go in order to use the land more efficiently and bring the cost of housing down. The Auckland Housing Programme (AHP), as it’s known, is already underway in Northcote, Mt Roskill and Mangere.

Māori have a proverb, ‘ka mua, ka muri’, which describes walking backwards into the future. Kāinga Ora’s Mark Fraser (General Manager - Urban Development and Delivery) says we can look to the past for a few clues as to how to move forward.

“Look around the city fringe suburbs such as Parnell and Mt Eden and you’ll see lots of pre-war apartment buildings known colloquially as 'flats'. If we turn back the clock a hundred years to one of our earlier population booms we responded with apartments and those apartment buildings are still lived in and loved today.”

These flats, which predated the motorways, were built on or near the arterial routes where people could walk to a tram stop or the local shops. Today, it’s not just the fact that the flats are close to the city that makes them so desirable – they are are also in walkable neighbourhoods surrounded by amenity. It’s easy to get to a bus stop or train station and the streets are interesting and vibrant without being hectic or crowded. The feel of the streets and the low-rise form of the buildings puts them in Auckland’s Goldilocks Zone – they’re the kind of places we like to be.

Kāinga Ora will significantly increase the density of suburban Auckland by building 40,000+ new homes. A big proportion of the homes they build will be apartments, and for good reason. Auckland has a growing number of small households. Apartments provide more housing choice to the market. They can be clustered, thanks to the Unitary Plan, in places where there is good access to nearby town centres and public transport, making for more walkable neighbourhoods. Apartments use land more efficiently. That cost saving is reflected in their price, which gives more people the chance to live in desirable suburbs. They’re cheaper to maintain and have lower energy costs than standalone housing, especially older homes.

Kāinga Ora’s urban development arm started life as HLC, the masterplanner of Hobsonville Point. Fraser says that private developers are now catching up with Aucklanders who have been ready to embrace suburban apartments for some time, as long as the product is right, the place is right and the price is right. Hobsonville Point’s first apartment building, circa 2013, was a hit with buyers and HLC has continued to ‘test the market’.

“A good example is walk-ups,” says Fraser. “They are common in Europe and New York because they use land very efficiently. A ground floor single-level dwelling sits below a separate double-level dwelling on the second and third storeys. In 2015 this was so outlandish to our builder partners that we offered to underwrite construction to get them to take them on. They all sold off the plan.” Today Hobsonville Point offers walk-ups and a wide range of other apartment types, from compact studios to lavish penthouses. 

Kāinga Ora Urban Development has now taken the knowledge gained at Hobsonville Point and applied it to an existing neighbourhood – Northcote. The first of the AHP-produced homes to sell on the open market are apartments in Fraser Avenue, by NZ Living. The developer purchased land made available by the Auckland Housing Programme and designed 102 apartments in five separate three-storey buildings around a village green. The low-rise, solid block and brick buildings punctuated by big windows are the city-fringe ‘flats’ of the 1920s-40s updated for 2020 living. Two thirds of the new apartments sold off the plan within the first fortnight of being on the market.

NZ Living aims to reduce building costs and construction time by up to 25% each so that those cost savings can be transferred to the buyer. They also aim for a 50% reduction in long-term maintenance costs for the homeowner. The Fraser Avenue development has been awarded a HomeStar 6 rating. The rating provides the assurance that the home will be healthier and cost less to run than a typical new house built to building code. NZ Living has also kept the development to three stories so that elevators aren’t needed as they add to the purchase price and ongoing maintenance cost for owners.

Northcote is seeing public investment in the new state housing, a new greenway, park upgrades, redevelopment of the town centre and a rebuild of Onepoto School. NZ Living plans to build further developments in the Northcote Development area, says developer, Shane Brealey. “Our projects will always be in suburbs with good amenity and public transport options.”

Fraser says that, like Northcote, all of the AHP neighbourhoods will benefit from new or upgraded infrastructure and amenity. This balancing of higher density with higher amenity is at the core of the Kāinga Ora urban development model evolved at Hobsonville Point.

“Hobsonville Point residents live on a smaller piece of land but they take up more room than people in the post war suburbs,” says Fraser. “By that I mean that they inhabit the whole neighbourhood; they use the parks, the coastal walkway, the waterfront, the local shops. They walk more because everything is close by and they know their neighbours better because everyone lives closer together.”

So are we ready for more apartments in our hitherto low-density suburbs?

Our love affair with the car has certainly cooled as we spend more and more time stuck in the purgatory of a daily commute. More apartments on and near the arterial roads means more people have a choice about how they get around. Walk, cycle, bus, car share? Check the weather and take your pick.

We all know that Kiwis build way too big – our 200sqm average dwelling size is two and a half times that of Britain (80sqm). Worldwide, there’s a trend for more compact homes as people pare back their belongings and prioritise experiences over 'things'. Blogs like The Minimalists promote ‘living with less’ and freeing up time and cash for doing the things that matter most, inspiring a huge online community of ‘rightsizers’.

Whether we’re ready or not, it seems certain that suburban apartments will be coming to a street near you. They are too useful a part of the remedy for Auckland’s growing pains to be left out of the picture. And, if built in high enough numbers, they will make home ownership achievable for a significant portion of Aucklanders who are currently priced out of the market.