New Zealander of the Year

Hero of the Far North

Ricky Local Hero of the Year

When 2018 Kiwibank Local Hero Award winner Ricky Houghton left state care at the age of 11, he promised himself that he’d take every opportunity to help others. Ricky’s more than fulfilled that promise by bringing affordable housing to over 6400 Kiwis living in one of New Zealand’s most deprived regions.

Community leader Ricky Houghton has dedicated his life to giving people in the Far North a pathway to a better future and improved quality of life. 

As CEO of He Korowai Trust in Kaitaia, Ricky helps vulnerable Kiwis out of cow sheds, buses, lean-tos, tents and condemned houses and into safe, affordable, sustainable home ownership. 

Ricky has also launched initiatives to provide emergency accommodation, childcare, budgeting, counselling, trades training and many other services to people living in one of New Zealand’s poorest areas. 

Now winner of the 2018 Kiwibank Local Hero Award, Ricky attributes his fierce community spirit to his tough early childhood years and the shock treatment he was given while committed to various state institutions. 

At 11, Ricky left state care and went to live with prominent Māori leader Sir Graham Latimer and his wife, Lady Emily Latimer, on a whāngai (Māori customary adoption) placement. He also met the person he says has been the biggest influence on his life: his wife, Rosie. 

“I tried to integrate into school but I was too far behind. I used to sit on a seat outside the cooking block and one day a window opened and a girl’s voice said, “Hey, you want these?” And there was Rosie with a plate of scones.”

Ricky became a dad for the first time at 14 and moved into his own home at 17. At 20, he used his life savings to spearhead the development of a West Auckland community marae, Te Piringatahi o te Maunngarongo Marae. 

Ricky’s mother was from the Far North, with affiliations to Te Paatu, Ngāti Kahu and Ngāti Whātu. She died when Ricky was 36, and when he went back to bury her he reconnected with his tribal roots. 

“When I left state care, I made a personal commitment that if I ever had a chance to help someone else, I would do it,” says Ricky. 

“There was lots of negative talk about the Far North, but all I could see were opportunities. I decided I wanted to stay and help put people into houses,” says Ricky. 

Seventeen years on, the trust Ricky established has saved more than 550 homes in the Far North from mortgagee sales.

He Korowai Trust’s rent-to-own housing scheme, Whare Ora, relocates former state homes from Auckland to land it owns on the outskirts of Kaitaia. Families pay around $250 in rent each week, and own their home in 17 years. 

The trust has turned the former Kaitaia Hotel into emergency accommodation, offering residents access to counselling and budgeting services as well as a safe place to stay. 

Altogether, says Ricky, He Korowai Trust has helped ensure more than 6,400 Kiwis have a roof over their heads. While the trust is based on Māori concepts, its services can be accessed by anyone in the region. 

He Korowai Trust’s latest project is a soon-to-be-launched academy to train 20 students a year in carpentry and painting. Graduates will be able to work on renovating the latest group of former state houses to be relocated to the Whare Ora estate, but the long-term plan is to set up a house-building company to employ them. 

Ricky’s challenging early life gave him resilience, and he says he has always been the kind of person who comes up with an idea every five minutes. His community work has been based on the belief that communities in the Far North must come up with their own solutions, rather than relying on government help. 

“We can’t wait to be rescued – the cavalry’s not coming. We have to find ways to free ourselves from the shackles of state dependency.”

Ricky says he’s delighted to have his work recognised by winning the 2018 Kiwibank Local Hero Award. “The award means the world to me,” he says.

“I don’t have any academic qualifications, but this award helps to reduce the stigma I felt from being in state care. I have 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and this will be something for them all to remember about me.”

The Kiwibank Local Hero Medals and the New Zealander of the Year Awards celebrate those people who use their passion for New Zealand to make our country a better place. These awards are an opportunity for New Zealanders to honour extraordinary Kiwis whose selflessness, creativity, and vision make us proud to call New Zealand home. Find out more about the New Zealander of the Year Award winners.