22 May 2023

Māori-led housing effort bringing peace of mind to Tai Rāwhiti

1:30 pm on 22 May 2023
A pre-loved home at the Builtsmart site, waiting to be transported to its new family

A pre-loved home at the Builtsmart site, waiting to be transported to its new family. Photo: Kate Green / RNZ

In rural Gisborne, there's a street where the population has doubled, and where children play by the roadside after school.

Best of all, whānau can sleep easy at night knowing they have a permanent home on the land of their tīpuna.

Pearl Poki lives in a Toitū Tairāwhiti whare, a three-bedroom home with weatherboards and a deck on Waihirere Domain Road.

There is room for her whole family, including her parents, daughter and two grandchildren, and she says their door is always open for any of her family who want to come home.

She first heard about Toitū at a community hui at the marae two years ago. Families with their own whenua and paid employment could qualify for a house - even a new one.

Her youngest daughter just lost her first son, and they had recently been thrown back into the rental market. Their family was going through a lot: "Losing our baby, as well as not having anywhere [to live] at that time, and unsure if this dream was going to come true."

Pearl Poki with the pinboards holding pictures of her home being built and delivered

Pearl Poki with the pinboards that display pictures of her home being built and delivered. Photo: Kate Green / RNZ

Did it feel unlikely? She nods, a little teary. "It did, I'll be honest. It felt like, hey, there could be a chance that we may not."

And then; "I've just got to get something to show you," she says, and hurries out of the room.

She returns with two of what turn out to be five huge pinboards full of photographs. She takes down three, close-ups of cladding, a window frame and some scaffolding.

"I think the biggest thing was the day Annette [Wehi, from Toitū] sent me a text message, and she sent me pictures of our house. And that made it real."

It was built off-site in Henderson, and arrived in the dead of night, months later. Pearl points to another photo, a black background with a glowing orb of light in the centre.

"When she arrived, that's what we saw. We were just coming down the road, my daughter and I, at 2am in the morning, and I must say - don't do it (she leans over and covers her granddaughter's ears) - but I was almost jumping out of the car, we were screaming, and in tears, because we could see the beautiful outline of our house."

A Toitū home on the truck, ready for delivery

A Toitū home on the truck, ready for delivery. Photo: Kate Green / RNZ

They brought the house in through the corner of the property, and put it down on its piles. "I just had to touch - she's real, she's real."

They moved in several months later, with work to do to connect services and put in the septic tank - that took two goes, Pearl says, as the ground was so wet it floated up to the surface again by the next morning.

The most important thing, she says, is the peace of mind.

"It's wonderful to be home, and to be able to bring Dad home."

Her parents' home is now on the market, and they will move in when it has been sold. Then, they will have four generations under one roof.

Tangiwai Ria has been involved in the project from the beginning. She is also Pearl's neighbour, and she knows the peace that comes with feeling like you are home.

"There's a whole other, deeper feeling - the earth, papatūānuku. This is our whenua, and our whenua is the same thing that flows between you and I. It's the blood that flows when you have children, and there's all that connection there that you don't talk about."

Pearl nods agreement. "That sense of belonging."

Tangiwai goes on: "When she looks out, all the hills around, they're hers. It makes a huge difference."

Pearl's story is one of many.

Toitū Tairāwhiti began as a collaboration of four East Coast iwi, formed in response to Covid-19.

After its success helping Māori communities through the pandemic, it expanded its horizons to meet the challenge of housing, providing low-cost homes with a not-for-profit model, and funding from the government.

Now, its housing arm is a coalition of six iwi - Ngai Tamanuhiri, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Ngati Porou, Te Whanau a Apanui and Te Whakatohea.

Toitu Tairāwhiti Housing and Builtsmart managing director, Annette Wehi (Ngāti Konohi/Whangara), says the money from each family's house repayments goes straight back into the business to build more homes. By next year, Wehi says they expect to be recycling $50 million a year.

"We've got 201 homes in the current pipeline," she says.

"None of those six iwi, we had to agree, we weren't going to get asset-rich from this - this is all for our whānau."

Annette Wehi on-site at the Builtsmart facility

Annette Wehi on-site at the Builtsmart facility. Photo: Kate Green / RNZ

The housing deprivation in Tai Rāwhiti is "tragic", she says. "We're right up there in terms of statistics."

They have made progress through joint ventures with companies like Builtsmart, a company which specialises in transportable homes.

At their site on Aerodrome Road, a complete 97-square-metre house takes eight weeks to build.

One of six smart shelters at the Toitū Tairāwhiti Builtsmart site, each capable of having four 97-square-metre, three-bedroom homes built a time.

One of six smart shelters at the Toitū Tairāwhiti Builtsmart site, each capable of having four 97-square-metre, three-bedroom homes built a time. Photo: Kate Green / RNZ

Pre-loved houses are brought here too. With a new roof and some other renovations, they are good to go.

There are multiple clusters of their homes around Tai Rāwhiti, including at Te Karaka, Whāngārā and Whareponga.

"We move at pace," Wehi said. "Start with the need, find the whare. They sort out their land. We don't get involved with their whenua issues."

Waihirere Domain Road is a testament to the project. With the addition of ten homes, a combination of pre-loved and new, permanent and temporary, the street's population has more than doubled.

By Māori, for Māori

Whare Manaaki project manager Willie Te Aho (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui/Raukokore) says the solution has to come from Māori.

"If iwi are leading the initiative, then we're accountable for the success or the failure of it," he said. "These are not strangers, these are not clients, these are our whānau."

He says the problem with the current system is that Māori are often identified in the worst statistics, but they are not put in the position to be the solution.

Tangiwai Ria and Willie Te Aho on Waihirere Domain Road.

Tangiwai Ria and Willie Te Aho on Waihirere Domain Road. Photo: Kate Green / RNZ

Toitū Tairāwhiti maintains control over every stage of the process; soon they will be making their houses from their own trees, processed on their own sites, constructed in their own yard.

It comes down to "mana motuhake", meaning self-determination, which is the only way to make sure they are not let down, Te Aho says.

Demand soars after cyclones Hale and Gabrielle

After Cyclone Gabrielle hit the coast on 13 February, only a month after Cyclone Hale, demand for homes spiked.

Families were evacuated from flood-ravaged homes and dispersed to stay with family and friends, or find temporary accommodation in hotels, surrounded by their salvaged belongings and cooking with only a microwave and perhaps - if they were lucky - an air-fryer.

Now, it is Toitū Tairāwhiti's goal to get the 104 families who are currently unhoused back into homes of their own by winter.

Te Aho says these range from sleepouts to entire units, from Potaka to Wairoa, and they are on track to be finished by the end of May.

Red Cross funding will then furnish 25 of them, for the most vulnerable families.

Te Aho says his people were let down as soon as Cyclone Gabrielle began. At Te Karaka, they were evacuated in the middle of the night, by which time the river had risen ten metres.

"They were taken to a place where they had no food, water or comms," he said. "None of us knew what was happening out there, let alone here in this village [Waihirere] until five days later.

"The system failed us, and it failed us miserably. And so, will my people of Te Aitanga-a-Māhanga ever have faith in that system? Never."

Through three contracts signed in July 2021, November 2021 and May 2022, Toitū was funded $78m to build 201 homes. Te Aho says more than half of those are completed and all 201 are under construction.

Another $15m came from Te Puni Kōkiri and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development post-cyclone, in February 2023, allowing for 104 temporary houses (a combination of whare āwhina, which are two-bedroom homes with a lounge but no services, and whare hihiko, which are 30-square-metre houses with full services).

These are the families Toitū has promised to have in homes by winter.

With the support of Te Runanga o Turanganui a Kiwa, Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou and the Red Cross, the most vulnerable 40 whānau who lost everything will have their whare fully furnished.

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