Why Ricky mortgaged his home to buy 20 hectares of farmland for the homeless

Ricky Houghton has dedicated his life to helping people find stable housing. Source: Dateline

Auckland is ground zero for New Zealand's housing crisis, but the problem has spread, and small towns are struggling to cope with the homeless.

Watch 'What Happened to the New Zealand Dream?' on SBS OnDemand

Ricky Houghton has a very straightforward philosophy. This Maori community leader, a gentle giant of a man, is showing me around a derelict house that’s been plonked in a paddock. Vandals have taken everything of value, including the kitchen sink.

“You have to have an ability to look beyond all of this,” Ricky insists. “To see what it can look like, whether it’s a house, or whether it’s people’s futures. You have to be able to see the goodness in everything.”

This simple appeal to optimism lies at the heart of Ricky’s mission - trying to solve the housing crisis in Northland, New Zealand’s fastest growing region, and one of its most deprived.

Tourists might flock to Northland for its unspoilt beaches and islands, but in recent years it’s also been attracting Aucklanders, often Maori, moving here in search of affordable housing.

“It's very much a reversal of the 1960s urban drift”, explains Ricky, “where 95 per cent of all Maori lived in the rural areas and moved down to the cities. We're seeing a reverse of that today in 2020.”

A man sit in his home in Kaitaia.

The average house in Auckland now costs over NZ$1 million, and the average rent is almost NZ$600 a week – it’s one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, ranked just behind Sydney and Melbourne. This is ground zero for New Zealand’s housing crisis, which is pushing its most vulnerable people into desperate situations, but the problem has spread.

In Northland, where it’s almost impossible to find a rental property in town, this sometimes means families living in Third World conditions – crowded into lean-tos, cowsheds, even an abandoned bus and a tree house.

A view of the homes built by Ricky on the farmland on the outskirts of Kaitaia.

Ricky says it’s more than a crisis, it’s an emergency – and that’s why he mortgaged his house in order to buy 50 acres of farmland on the outskirts of Kaitaia, and trucked up abandoned public houses from Auckland, four hours south. He’s transformed farmland into medium density housing, in the hope of giving his community a new lease on life.

Recycling the homes is just the first step – the goal is to take people who are homeless, and turn them into homeowners within just 14 years.

“Our mission”, Ricky tells me, “is assisting families to move from state housing dependence, to housing independence.”

Leonie and her family outside the house provided by Ricky.

There are now 10 families living in houses here that they will one day own – and by the end of this year there will be 20. Families pay $275 a week, most of which goes towards paying off the $160,000 cost of their house. They must complete a home ownership course, where they learn about interest rates and insurance, and how to manage their money. Ultimately, they can keep their house here, on the land owned by Ricky’s trust, or move it onto their own tribal land.

Ricky hopes this is just the beginning – he wants to turn around a historic decline in Maori home ownership. He’s disappointed that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who vowed at the last election to tackle the housing crisis, hasn’t done more, but he says everyone needs to step up.

“Homelessness and housing isn't a housing organisations problem. It's not the government's problem. It's not the family's problem. It's all of our problem.”