Sitting on just under an acre of land, Kōtukutuku Papakāinga is a community housing complex in Ōtara, Tāmaki Makaurau. Catering primarily to Māori but inclusive of all, the establishment is run by community housing provider Mahitahi Kāinga Trust and supported by its sister organisation Kaupapa Māori mental health and addictions service provider Mahitahi Trust. The establishment opened its doors in February 2021 and is currently occupied by thirty-six people, some of whom may occasionally access wellbeing support services. For tenants, the Papakāinga is not only a home, but a refuge, a house of healing, and where they are free (in fact, expected) to be Māori, as Raewyn Allan, Mahitahi Trust Tumu Whakarae (CEO) puts it.
A papakāinga is a group of three or more houses built on whenua Māori, operating as a community steeped in kaupapa Māori and wrapped in whānau support system. ‘Papa’ stands for connectedness to Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother) or returning to the soil, while ‘kāinga’ emphasises the communal living. “People can have different ideas about what a papakāinga is, but we thought about it in the original sense of a marae and the community living around it. We wanted to build a community within a community,” explains Louise Minhinnick - Service Manager, Te Oranga Pūmau. The systemic challenges some tāngata whaiora (‘people seeking wellness’) face when being admitted to mental health services can also lead them to losing their job or home. “Our aim is to reduce barriers our whānau are facing in the housing and mental health systems,” says Traci-Mae Nathan, Director - Ūkaipō and Tikanga. Wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the two trusts, with roles and teams that work across both. “We’re one in terms of our philosophy and how we deliver our services, but with two distinct areas of work,” Traci-Mae explains.
Grounded in whakapapa
Sitting on the land where Mahitahi Trust started about three decades ago, Kōtukutuku Papakāinga holds a special spot in kaimahi’s hearts. Still, getting to this point was no easy feat, as Daniel Harrison, Finance and Operations Adviser tells us. In 2015, Mahitahi Trust was able to buy the 2000 m2 section of land from Housing New Zealand (now Kāinga Ora) – that’s where the original Kōtukutuku Whare, one of the seven accommodation houses Mahitahi Trust was running at the time, was built. A neighbouring property also came up for sale, so they decided to purchase that one too. “We had the land but not the money for development, so we went on a journey of finding the right people to make our vision a reality,” Daniel states. Things kicked into gear when Mahitahi Trust registered Mahitahi Kāinga Trust to become a community housing provider with the Housing Regulatory Authority in Wellington, which opened the door for upfront funding from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.
Before laying the groundwork, the team thought long and hard about what kind of development would best serve their community. Voices of whānau whaiora and their whānau were central to the design planning, and no detail was too small or irrelevant. Future tenants shared their aspirations on what safe, warm and affordable housing meant to them and provided input on the design, from room layout to colours and lighting. After several years of planning, admin and construction, the result was a stunning and palpable tribute to the whakapapa, whenua, and stories of hononga and resilience. The rich wairua of Kōtukutuku Papakāinga permeates every square meter of the whare and its surroundings, abundant in plantings of kai, fruit trees and rongoā. The building’s unique design is based on a waka, with a waharoa at the entrance designed to keep everyone safe. “If we reflect to our cultural wellbeing models, waka brings out our collective skills. The kaihoe (paddlers) must be of one mind and work in unison to get to their destination,” Louise Minhinnick explains.
Spaces that nurture connections
The Papakāinga is made up of forty single-bed units, a whānau apartment for tenants’ family members’ visits, and a Whare Manaaki, a gathering place for hui and celebrations where kaimahi and tenants come together as whānau. The Whare Manaaki houses an office for the Tenancy Manager and two additional spaces to host health and wellbeing initiatives. Having the units facing each other was a deliberate decision to help foster whanaungatanga among tenants. “At Papakāinga, I see you, you see me, and that’s part of that connectedness,” says Matt Haua, Tenancy Manager. He points out the importance of reaching out to those that tend to stick to themselves, making sure they’re also living well. It’s often the case, Matt adds, that tenants who have found their footing take those who are struggling under their wing. “You see the community evolving, tenants helping one another. We’ve had situations when one person needed to go to the hospital, and others would clean their unit, so the person could come back to a clean and tidy home,” he says. Dwayne, one of the tenants, sums it up beautifully: “Every day when I wake up in the morning, we all greet each other, give each other a hug, and say good morning. And in the evening, I’ll put up some hot, beautiful kai to share with others. It’s an amazing place to live.”
Since its opening in early 2021, the Papakāinga has had to deal with a few curveballs to the way it operates. The COVID-19 lockdowns pushed kaimahi to think creatively about maintaining the same level of service and nourishing whānau social and cultural needs, while also keeping everyone safe. The teams split into two bubbles, with one kaimahi group focused on supporting tenants with any mental health needs, and the other dedicated to tenancy-specific support. With Jody Babbington, Service Manager at the helm, a Covid-response team was in charge of administering RAT tests, keeping the tenants abreast of the latest news and rules, and making sure everyone felt supported during these rocky times. “We had a bubble with 40-odd people, so of course tensions would sometimes arise. Reassuring everyone they were going to be safe and okay was incredibly important. It was heartening to see tenants looking out for each other,” Jody tells us.
“We are one”
Matt Haua knows all too well how crucial it is to be connected – not just to yourself and others, but with a sense of home – something many of the tenants didn’t previously have. If issues come up, it’s part of his role to equip them with tools to work through any disagreements themselves. Many tenants, he explains, had to relocate or rezone to access services or employment. That can create a sense of failure in whānau whaiora life, disconnecting them from whānau, hapū, iwi, whenua, which can induce mental health issues in the first place. The Mahitahi team knows that repairing and reestablishing these relationships is key to people’s healing and recovery, but they’re clear about one thing: it’s the tāngata whaiora whānau who are the decision makers, and kaimahi are there merely as safety vehicles to help them make those decisions.
The philosophy and tikanga underpinning Mahitahi's work are deeply rooted in the acknowledgment of the intimate connections to our environment. “Being connected with te taiao, our land and our water, is important – because we are one. When we talk about rongoā, it’s not just medical treatments – for us it’s also healthy kōrero, healthy thinking,” Louise Minhinnick shares. “We have never been a disconnected culture. Prior to colonisation, we lived long and healthy lives. This is what we’re trying to reestablish and reintroduce with our whānau here at the Papakāinga, rather than reinventing the wheel,” she concludes.
We mihi the extraordinary vision, mission and determination of the Mahitahi team to bring the taonga of Kōtukutuku Papakāinga to life. Their story is a simple yet powerful reminder about the power of connection, and proof of what can be achieved when it's embedded in the care of tāngata whaiora whānau.