Fixed vs. floating: Anthony Gardiner's solution to the Auckland housing crisis was to buy a boat. So could aqua living become a legitimate option?

When you think of people living on their boats, you might think of swarthy old seadogs, seekers of adventure, the super-rich (or, more accurately, the staff of the super rich) and maybe recent divorcees. App developer Anthony Gardiner is none of the above. But he reckons he's managed to hack the Auckland housing crisis by living on his tiny, painstakingly renovated, heritage listed boat in Westhaven Marina in the middle of Auckland. 

Anthony Gardiner. Image via stuff.co.nz

“A house is just a poorly built boat that can’t leave its moorings,” he says. “I’m doing it backwards. All the others [who live in Westhaven Marina] are boaties who happen to live on their boat. For me it’s a house first that happens to move. I’ve probably only taken it out 15 times in the last year.”

Gardiner says the 101-year-old boat was “a piece of shit” when he bought it for $8,000. It had no floor, no running water, no gas and no lights. So he spent another $13,000 and over 1000 hours bringing it back to a liveable standard, with a whole heap of help from all kinds of people along the way. 

He says the boat was originally built in 1915 as a pleasure craft for the boss of the harbour board. 

“If those walls could talk,” he says.

The boat (foreground) in 1925. 

And while he says he probably doesn’t get to have quite as much pleasure as the previous owner, it does have all the creature comforts, like a 50 inch TV, Apple TV, wi-fi, air conditioning, polished kauri floorboards and even marble benches (which were previously found on the bar of the Hilton Hotel before it was renovated).

Not only that, he also has a dog called Cashew, “a Tibetan Spaniel Pomeranian Papillon mix”, on board. Like an animal born in a zoo, living on the boat is all she’s ever known. And, as one of Gardiner’s friends said recently, effectively she lives in the world’s biggest kennel. It’s just that the owner lives in there with her. 

He also uses the boat as a pseudo office, working on the deck with a coffee or a beer (depending on the time of day) as he looks back at the city. He is still involved with 25 Most Played and his latest venture Mad Applications—which stands for ‘Made at Didas’—has a goal of building “two fun apps a month and we’ll spend the rest of the time working for clients”. So far he says it has some interesting backers, including a couple of guys from a large investment firm, an ex dentist and Gary Richards from One Room, who has found success live streaming funerals.

So far he says it has launched a one-handed keyboard app called Thumsta, which is selling for $2 on Google Play and will soon be live on the App Store. And one of the developers is also behind the Netflix Superbrowse add-on for Chrome and Firefox, which he says has around 118,000 daily users. It also has a number of other clever ideas in the pipeline. And, now that Skinny Mobile has launched its broadband over 4G offer, his phone bill has gone from around $360 a month for 30gb of mobile data to $55 for 60gb.

Much like when city slickers watch an episode of Country Calendar and think about packing it all in and moving to the provinces, the romance is often better than the reality. In essence, it's a bachelor pad that floats and while Gardiner loves his current situation, his girlfriend doesn't. He realises there are pros and cons, he knows it's probably a short term option and, as it's so small, it’s not suitable for everyone. 

“Mine’s basically a kayak with a tent on it. It’s eight and half feet wide, whereas a modern boat might be 15 ft wide, so there’s so much more space … I bang my head at least once every week, normally when I’m doing the dishes because there’s a big overhang. There’s also things like filling up the 150 litre holding tank with water every few days. That’s a pain in the ass.”

But, despite the annoyances, when you take into account the initial cost of his boat, the $1000 a month fee to stay in the “best spot in Auckland” (it also comes with two car parks) and the $11 electricity bill he had last month, he says it works out financially compared to renting and he thinks there is potential to look more closely at the idea of houseboats to ease the pressure in Auckland. 

He tells the tale of watching an auction from his girlfriend’s flat (where he has the luxury of staying when he wants some space) and seeing it hit $1 million.

“She’s in Arch Hill. The place had a beautiful outlook of the motorway. It’s ridiculous. Why would you? Imagine the debt. It’s obscene.”

And he believes there’s no real incentive from any of the stakeholders to change it.

“The banks want to loan more money. Your rates bill is a percentage of the council valuation. Real estate agents get a percentage of the sale. And the owners always want the price to go up. The only people who don’t want it to go up are the people who are trying to get in. I’m no economist, but that sounds a bit dodgy to me.”

One of the major drawcards of homeownership—and, in Auckland, the crippling indebtedness that is likely to follow—is that houses tend to go up in value, whereas he says Statistics New Zealand actually classifies boats as liabilities, not assets. 

“Although the old historic vessels are one of the few that are a seller’s market. There’s one on Trade Me that has an asking price of $95,000.”

But when there are restrictions, humans tend to get pretty creative, as Jonathan Cotton's story about some of the innovative and potentially more affordable housing solutions showed. In some cities overseas like Paris, London and New York houseboats are common. And many of them are pretty classy. So how popular is living aboard in Auckland? 

Gardiner estimates there are around 20 people living in Westhaven, “Bayswater is pretty loose with their liveaboards” and in West Harbour he says you can live aboard even if your boat is up on the hard stand (elsewhere, Fairway Bay and Alex and Corban Walls, previous winners of the The Block NZ, are also planning on building 20 floating homes in Gulf Harbour). 

“I don’t know why they’re fucking around with all these special housing developments when they could just truck in a bunch of shitty boats," he laughs, perhaps only half-joking. "They can park them pretty tightly too."

According to Luke Henshall, media relations advisor at Panuku Development Auckland (the recently merged Auckland Council Property and Waterfront Auckland), there are just 12 permanent live-aboards in Westhaven Marina. He was unable to provide data about the number of liveaboards at other marinas. 

“It’s generally the likes of world cruisers that are invited to stay at Westhaven, as opposed to those seeking budget accommodation.”

Historically, liveaboards at Westhaven weren’t permitted, largely because it is difficult to dispose of sewage, he says. But with the recent addition of Y Pier, there was an opportunity to create a facility where reticulated sewage was available.

“Westhaven commenced a one year trial on a limited number of liveaboard berths, which finished at the end of last year and as far as I know hasn’t yet been reviewed, although it was generally a positive outcome for the marina.”

He says future projects at Westhaven will increase the sewage removal infrastructure and enable a greater number of liveaboards. 

According to results from the 2013 Census, 98,000 New Zealanders—or 2.3 percent of the population—live in what is called "alternative" housing. According to Stuff, this includes people living in aged care, boarding houses, hotels, motels, guest accommodation, jail and "other occupied private dwellings". The last category is where those living in boats fall into and there were 8,410 people in that category nationwide. But if things continue as they are in Auckland, don't be surprised if that number increases.