Avondale: Gentrification amid poverty

Bronwen Beechey is a Bachelor of Social Practice student, and lives in Avondale, Tāmaki Makarau / Auckland, and studies community development and social work.

This article will be published in Fightback’s magazine on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City. To subscribe, click here.

Avondale is a suburb about 12 kilometres southwest of the Auckland CBD. The area, known before colonization as Te Whau, was important to Maori as a transport route, as it is the narrowest point of the isthmus and canoes could be transported between the Waitemata and Manukau harbours. It was an important source of food, particularly kai moana (seafood), tuna (eel) and birds such as kuaka (godwit) and kereru.

The 2013 census showed that the Avondale population was made up of 22% Pasefika peoples, while 35% of Avondale residents identified their ethnicity as Asian. Avondale had an average unemployment rate of 12.1%, compared with 8.1 percent for all of Auckland. For people aged 15 years and over, the median income in Avondale was $23,067, compared with a median of $29,600 for all of Auckland. 23.6 percent of families were one parent with children families, while sole parents with children made up 18.4 percent of families for Auckland. 51.5 percent of people in Avondale owned their own home, compared with 61.5 percent for all of Auckland.

Avondale town centre reflects the economic and ethnic makeup of the suburb, with shops selling traditional Pacific Island clothing and food, cheap bakeries and takeaways (for a couple of months in 2016, Avondale had the dubious distinction of the highest number of D-rated food outlets in Auckland), and several two-dollar shops, interspersed with empty shops. Since 2012 there have been no banks, and no post office. Sports facilities include the Avondale Racecourse, which is also the venue for the popular Avondale Sunday Market. There are few other entertainment venues; and the Community Centre is only partly usable due to dampness and mould issues.

As Auckland housing prices soar, Avondale has become more desirable for property owners with its proximity to the city and affordability compared to inner city suburbs. The average house price has risen steadily from around $400,000 in 2012 to $753,200 in March 2016, and the average weekly rent from just over $350 to $480 per week in the same period. Avondale was also selected by Auckland Council as a Special Housing Area (SHA), with a mix of social and private housing developments to take place. However, the requirement for private developments to include a proportion of “affordable” housing was later dropped. While these developments will bring improvements to the area, there is also the danger of gentrification pushing out lower-income residents, as has happened in suburbs such as Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. As houses – particularly the desirable 19th and early 20th century villas – are sold and renovated, the original fence or hedge is often replaced by what some locals refer to as “gentrification fences” – high, solid walls. These suggest that the new residents appreciate the local character and diversity of Avondale, but only as long as it doesn’t get too close.

Mural created and painted by local Avondale residents for the 2016 Whau Arts Festival, on an empty building site in the main shopping strip.

Community development

Community development, according to the United Nations, is “a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems.” It can encompass anything from local residents organising a petition to have a pedestrian crossing installed near their children’s school, to protests against major developments such as the proposed water treatment plant in the outer Auckland suburb of Oratia. Australian academic Jim Ife, in his book Community Development in an Uncertain World, sees community development as “the process of establishing, or re-establishing, structures of human community within which new, or sometimes old but forgotten, ways of relating, organising social life and meeting human need become possible.” Community development principles emphasise sustainability, diversity, empowerment and valuing local knowledge and skills.

There are several community action organisations operating in Avondale, including Avondale Community Action, the TYLA (Turn Your Life Around) Trust which focuses on “at-risk” youth and Whau The People, an arts collective which organises the annual Whau Festival and other events. ACA and TYLA are both involved in a government-funded community project called “Together We Are Avondale”, which is designed to “encourage locals to participate and engage more in our community”.

One issue that has caused concern is groups of young people huffing glue in public spaces, including on the grounds of Avondale Primary School. A workshop involving Together We Are Avondale and other groups identified the need for upgrading some of the spaces to make them safer. Other strategies include stopping local retailers selling glue to minors, and making contact with the young people to provide them with appropriate help.

This illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of community development as currently practiced. The fact that a community response was initiated to deal with the issue, rather than just relying on police or bodies such as CYFS, is commendable. However, the issues that cause young people to huff in the first place are not addressed. This is largely due to the limitations that government funding places on community organisations, and perhaps to a lack of vision in some organisations. Jim Ife refers to the tension in community work between the achievement of immediate goals and the ultimate vision of a better society. He argues that maintaining a balance between the two is vital: “immediate actions cannot be justified unless they are compatible with the ultimate vision, and the ultimate vision cannot be justified unless it relates to people’s immediate day-to-day concerns.”

Although it has its own character, Avondale is representative of many other communities around New Zealand which are struggling with the legacy of neo-liberal cutbacks. Community-building and activism provide an opportunity to engage with the people most affected and promote an alternative vision of a fair and just society.

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