Cort Community Housing: 30 years in Auckland

Over its 30 years of existence, Auckland’s CORT Community Housing has experienced the troughs and peaks of community housing in New Zealand. Angie Cairncross from Community Housing Aotearoa (CHA) reports on an organisation that has seen it all.

Providing homes for 250 low income and vulnerable tenants, this year marks three decades of extraordinary change at CORT Community Housing, as well as the achievement of their long-time Chief Executive, Peter Jeffries, receiving an internationally recognised award for his outstanding achievement in social and affordable housing.

Many of CORT’s first tenants were survivors of the psychiatric deinstitutionalisation of the 1980s

Based in Ponsonby, many of CORT’s first tenants were survivors of the psychiatric deinstitutionalisation of the 1980s. With few options other than boarding houses – a large number of which were sold-off in the gentrification of Ponsonby – Mike Riddell, the then Minister of Ponsonby Baptist Church, and community worker Helen Moroney saw the need for a community response to meet the growing housing demand in the area. In 1987, the two quickly established a non-profit trust, Community of Refuge Trust (CORT).

CORT walked a financial tightrope surviving through grants from the Lotteries Board.

The week of being founded, CORT purchased its first house with 100 percent finance from Housing Corporation at 7 percent interest. With no equity in its properties and no reserves, CORT walked a financial tightrope in these early years surviving through grants from the Lotteries Board.

The purchase of Picton Street in 1988 marked the beginning of CORT’s specialisation in the field of mental health. Many volunteer hours were spent restoring the slum building to its 19th century elegance and it became a symbol of dignity for its tenants.

By 1989, CORT was finally able to afford to pay their treasurer and a four-days-per-week salary for the manager. Thirteen new flats were also purchased that year, bringing the total number of tenants to 60 in 25 homes.

The 1990s heralded the change from Housing Corporation to Housing New Zealand – a new market model.

The 1990s heralded the change from Housing Corporation to Housing New Zealand – a new market model – and, for almost a decade, CORT forewent house purchases. Both tenants and CORT felt the crunch.

In 1991, the recently elected national government cut benefit levels, and merchant bank Fay Richwhite purchased the government’s mortgage portfolio while announcing a doubling of interest rates to 14 percent. CORT survived with assistance from a series of donors, and by persuading the new housing minister to postpone the interest increases for two years.

Group homes slipped out of favour in the late 1990s, and the larger properties started to be sold off and replaced with smaller units. A new era began for CORT with soaring Ponsonby property values making it financially stable and, reviving its entrepreneurial spirit, CORT purchased Council properties in Freeman’s Bay, tenanting them with a mix of market and subsidised renters.

At this stage, CORT’s focus on housing was a vital mission. Significant numbers of state housing had been lost; there were many low quality, crowded rental properties, and people using mental health services were often rebuffed by landlords.

The Labour Government’s announcement to introduce a Housing Innovation Fund in 2005 was right up CORT’s alley. After a rigorous six-month process applying for ten-year interest-free loans – written off after 25 years – CORT was granted $4 million that was used to extend beyond their Ponsonby area, buying 24 flats over an intense two-year period.

CORT took a leadership role in founding the Auckland Community Housing Providers Network (ACHPN) in 2010.

As one of the first community housing organisations in the country, CORT took a leadership role in founding the Auckland Community Housing Providers Network (ACHPN) in 2010. ACHPN has become a powerhouse for critiquing housing policy and lobbying council. They were strong advocates to the government in 2010 to make their tenants eligible for Income Related Rent Subsidies (they pay only 25% of their income on rent), alongside state housing tenants.

CORT assumed the role of developer in 2011 when faced with a shortage of one-bedroom units.

CORT assumed the role of developer in 2011 when faced with a shortage of one-bedroom units, and Housing New Zealand demanded that community housing groups erect new homes if they wanted further funding. Redevelopments made use of under-utilised properties and modern German prefabrication technology.

Over the last three years, CORT has been part of the Waimahia Inlet development on the shores of Manukau Harbour, partially funded by the Crown through a capital grant from the Social Housing Fund. One of the first Special Housing Areas (SHAs), Waimahia offered CORT the opportunity to be part of a consortium of community housing providers and iwi (Māori communities) to build an affordable housing development. Over three years, 293 houses have been built at Waimahia, while progress in other Auckland special housing areas has been painfully slow.

CORT’s 30-year journey has taken them from precarious finances to stability.

CORT’s 30-year journey has taken them from precarious finances to stability – from small beginnings to a place as one of New Zealand’s larger community housing providers with a current balance sheet of $66 million worth of property, five developments on the go and a plan to build 100 new homes a year for the next three years.

CORT has managed to achieve all of this while retaining their vision to be a voice and home for vulnerable people.

Angie Cairncross was the Communications Co-ordinator at Community Housing Aotearoa (CHA). Angie was also previously editor of the Occupational Therapy New Zealand magazine, OT Insight.

With a background in the social service sector and qualifications in editing, social policy and social work, she has spent many years working within the not-for-profit sector in New Zealand. This includes responsibilities at the interface of housing and mental health for Kites Trust in Wellington, advising on funding with NZCFA and the Department of Internal Affairs, and managing Vincent’s Art Workshop.