Tāmaki Innovation Campus

A new housing model – the inside story

Robyn Barry
The purpose of the research by PhD Student Robyn Barry is to evaluate and monitor a new housing model for older women


John Donne (seventeenth-century preacher, poet, and essayist) said, ‘No man is an island.’ In like manner, no house stands alone. No family exists in isolation. We must concern ourselves always with the ‘big picture.’ That is why ‘a well-built theology’ includes the house, the people who built and funded it, those who live in it, and the larger community and world in which the house is located.” (P.119, Millard Fuller 1994, founder of Habitat for Humanity)

We asked PhD candidate Robyn Barry (School of Population Health) to tell us a little about her topic. Her response, a new housing model for elderly people, expands not only on the quote above, but also recognises a personal journey filled with challenges and achievements. 

Here’s Robyn’s story, in her own words.

“When I heard about the next project that Bays Community Housing Trust was planning, I immediately knew I wanted to be involved.  They had plans to build a house for women over 65 to share.  It had all the components I was passionate about: affordable rental accommodation, ageing, and community. 

The concept of sharing a house with girlfriends in our future was often a topic of discussion amongst my friends and acquaintances. I am a baby boomer. I don’t own my own home, but I am curious. I wanted to know if this could work for me or those I know. I also believe I was called to this project, and as such, consider my involvement in this as part of my spiritual journey. 

I put forward my expression of interest in December 2012, saying: “The purpose of my proposed research is to evaluate and monitor a new housing model for older adults, documenting the development of this model and its effectiveness as a feasible choice of accommodation for older adults. 

I am involved in a community housing trust, which will build and manage a purpose-built house providing independent, shared accommodation for five older women with limited assets. I am in an exciting position where I will be part of their lives and experiences over a long period of time.

Not only is this project aimed at offering affordable accommodation, it also creates an opportunity for natural social supports to develop, reducing the risk of social isolation. This house has the potential to become a model of accommodation not only for older adults, but also other groups, and robust research at this stage is important for the success of future projects. “

But behind this professional approach, is a surprising background. Robyn grew up in Otara, where there were no higher education mentors, apart from her college teachers.

“I didn’t know what an BA was. I’m the only one in my family to do a degree, although my daughter Ngawai is currently completing her Engineering degree and I am so proud of her. I did an IQ test at school and joined MENSA, so I knew I might have some intelligence. If not for these results, I doubt if I would have even known there was a pathway to university.

“I started as an extramural student at Massey University, then full-time at Waikato University, working at the same time to support myself. As I finished my Master’s thesis, I had my first child, Waimarie, who had health and developmental challenges, with a diagnosis including severe autism and intellectual disability. I was five months pregnant with my other daughter when I fled from domestic violence and raised them on my own. While at home being a mum, I longed to make use of my degree; however, motherhood and caregiving (for my own mother) took precedence.

“Any attempts at getting back to learning, or even earning, were thwarted by lack of support. Waimarie went into full time residential care at aged 19, and, after not using my degree or having a career for so long, the only job I managed to land was a low-paid community support worker in mental health.

“I couldn’t rise above this position without doing a full social work or other bachelor’s degree, as my Masters of Social Science in Psychology was not a recognised qualification for registration. So instead, I chose to do a higher degree: because I’d been constrained from learning and personal growth for so long, a Doctorate was a challenge I wanted to undertake.  Studying at this level is a privilege that many women don’t have.

“I literally walked off the streets and looked for a supervisor for my PhD, but it was difficult. I was not known and those that were suitable already had full caseloads. I found a Professor of Evaluation in the Faculty of Education who took me on, and he enlisted Kathy Peri from the Faculty of Nursing as my co-supervisor. When he left, Associate Professor Janine Wiles, who was always my first choice, agreed to supervise me. With Janine’s expertise in gerontology, geography and qualitative research as well as supervisory experience, I was very lucky. 

“One of my biggest challenges is walking the tightrope between academia and real-world research. Finding the acceptable balance between writing for an academic audience and writing with and for those who have an interest in this research. I want my research to be accessible.”

During this time, Robyn faced challenges in her personal growth and confidence. “I recall my nervousness and anxiety at my first conference presentation. Public speaking is a challenge for me. One other reason for doing a PhD is that I wanted to be an expert at something. I am now. I don’t know where this will lead me personally or professionally, but I do know it has implications for policy and communities.”


This article was first published in the July 2018 Tāmaki Update