Sunday 21 June 2015

Dirt And Squalor: The Housing Crisis Comes Full-Circle.

Planned Response: Squalor and dirt was the market’s solution to the acute shortage of affordable housing, and the First Labour Government’s heroic, state-organised, response has become the stuff of political legend. How Mickey Savage, keen to find an outlet for the restless energy of John A. Lee, his great rival for the masses’ affections, gave him responsibility for organising a massive programme of state house construction. And how Lee, by mobilising both the public and private sectors, built thousands of houses for the working poor.
THOUSANDS OF NEW ZEALANDERS are at the mercy of a “slum landlord”. Unfortunately, that slum landlord is the Government. The person who put into words what so many people have, for the best part of a fortnight, been feeling, was Dr Bryce Edwards. The political studies lecturer from Otago University was speaking as panellist on Television New Zealand’s Q+A programme.
It is a measure of how fraught the housing issue has become that TVNZ was only able to persuade the Housing Minister, Dr Nick Smith, to appear on the programme if he was interviewed alone, and was given the right-of-reply to the following interview with Labour’s housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford.
There was a time when Government and Opposition spokespeople felt up to the job of defending their respective positions in head-to-head debates, live, on national television. To my knowledge, guaranteeing a Government Minister a separate right-of-reply constitutes an editorial concession without precedent on either of this country’s free-to-air networks.
The Minister’s sensitivity was, of course, understandable in a week when New Zealanders learned that sub-standard conditions in a solo mother’s state house accommodation had materially contributed to the death of her infant daughter. Then to learn, just days later, of another death attributable, at least in part, to sub-standard state accommodation. When asked by journalists to comment on these tragedies, Dr Smith responded that: “People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new.”
This was the context in which Dr Edwards’ “slum landlord” comment was able to strike such a raw public nerve.
How has it come to this? What has permitted the housing conditions wheel, over the course of 80 years, to come very nearly full-circle?
In his book, We Call It Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand, Ben Schrader describes how the Truth newspaper, just one week after the election of the First Labour Government, in 1935, began campaigning against “the slum problem”.
“The article began”, writes Schrader, “by vividly juxtaposing the newly completed National War Memorial with its sordid surroundings.” Truth compared this “beautiful piece of architecture”, erected to ensure that the “supreme sacrifice” of the Great War was not forgotten, with that of the Wellington slums, standing “a stone’s throw away” from the Memorial’s tower. In these dwellings, Truth observed: “men, women and children are making a different kind of sacrifice. They live in squalor and dirt, in little shacks lacking even the ordinary comforts of existence.”
Squalor and dirt was the market’s solution to the acute shortage of affordable housing, and the First Labour Government’s heroic, state-organised, response has become the stuff of political legend. How Mickey Savage, keen to find an outlet for the restless energy of John A. Lee, his great rival for the masses’ affections, gave him responsibility for organising a massive programme of state house construction. And how Lee, by mobilising both the public and private sectors, built thousands of houses for the working poor.
So successful was Labour’s scheme that the town planner, Cedric Firth, could write, more than a decade later, about the citizen’s right to a “decent dwelling being regarded as on the same level as the right to education, sanitation, to good and abundant water supply, to an adequate road system and a certain amount of medical care.”
These are no longer the expectations of either those responsible for supplying social housing, nor, sadly, of those obliged to seek shelter in New Zealand’s decaying stock of state houses. Having forgotten (if he ever knew) how manifestly inadequate the market’s “solutions” were to the problems of the 1930s, Finance Minister, Bill English, appears hell-bent on resurrecting a social housing market – even if he has to dig up the corpse with his bare hands!
Commentators across the political spectrum, joined just this week by economists from the OECD, are urging John Key’s National Government to launch a state-financed and directed effort to address directly the lack of affordable houses for the poorest New Zealanders. As Dr Edwards’ fellow panellist on last Sunday’s Q+A programme, Fran O’Sullivan, put it: “It’s been done before in our history.”
The problem, says Dr Edwards, is that the political parties’ housing agendas are “a bit deluded and empty”. National and Labour are “still quite timid” when it comes to committing themselves to the sort of low-cost housing construction effort that offers the only truly effective solution to New Zealand’s twin housing crises. The first, which condemns far too many Kiwis to lives of “squalor and dirt”. And the second, fuelled by the speculative mania currently gripping Auckland’s runaway housing market.
Market delusions and political timidity allowed slum landlords to thrive in the 1930s. Eighty years later, identical failings on the part of their state-owned successor have added an ironical twist to the community’s demand for radical housing reform.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 June 2015.


Anonymous said...

Incredible when we consider what palaces these places become when sold into private hands and cared for by the owner/occupier.


Galeandra said...

Incredible indeed; it's wonderful what having sufficient money can do for one's outlook on life.
I hope Andrew did not mean to imply that tenants in state-supplied houses live in 'squalor and dirt' only because of their own slackness and indigence.
That would be to add insult to the deep and persistent institutional cruelties we are already party to.

Grant said...


Not so incredible really when you get real and apply some intellectual honesty and common sense to the situation. I've watched what happens when ex state houses get sold on the open market and the buyers often have at least one and often two middle class incomes with the disposable income to actually achieve something beyond bare survival. Are you suggesting that people who require social housing should be responsible for the upkeep on the property? I've lived in places like the ones that have been in the news lately and with the best education and will in the world it is often not possible to keep them warm and dry and free from damp and mould when you don't have the income to throw lots of heating at them. Three elements are required to make a house livable to a healthy standard. Insulation, ventilation and heating. Any two of those on their own will either leave the house cold and / or damp and / or too expensive to heat on a low income.

Grant said...

@ Galeanda. Snap

Anonymous said...

Galeandra: it's wonderful what having sufficient money can do for one's outlook on life.

The reverse is even more wonderful: how a change in outlook can improve one's financial situation.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

And what Outlook are we ascribing to people who live in statehouses? Christ if all it took was a change in outlook to get rich, we'd all be bloody rich.

greywarbler said...

Both statements presented are true. It is true that a change in outlook
can improve one's financial situation but you must remember it is a truism that humans are very adaptive and those brought up in poverty and scraping by, will be adapted to that. It then is hard to change to a middle class aspirational approach.

The answer is not to adopt free market laissez faire neo liberal economic approaches that have carelessly wiped out jobs from unfair competition, instead ensure that thriving local business employing thriving local workers are sheltered by a low tariff and never have the sadness of falling into poverty just so that the farming sector can get red-carpet treatment. Now the carpet is being rolled up and put in storage, has the sacrifice of a stable economy offering modern living conditions been a stupid, callous political disaster?

David said...

There is one large party with a policy of affordable large scale housing built by Government and that is The Greens. All people have to do is vote for them. That they vote for parties who don't act in their interest but speaks to their prejudices puts at least a part of the blame on themselves.

Jigsaw said...

In the last few weeks we have had media reports of people in state houses that have obviously had extremely rough treatment by their occupants and as well as a house that had mice and cockroaches. No mention at all of people's ability to control them in their own houses. I recall living in a state house on the volcanic plateau in the 1970's -we had young children-the house had no insulation at all-no houses did at that time and we had only an open fire and electric heaters.
I really can't see the point of comparing the way state houses were in the 1930's with today. People managed - we managed in the 1970's and our kids were fine. The state house system suited the 1930's I doubt that the same system would suit people today. As usual the media tell half the story and refuse to tell us more-privacy of course.

Richard Christie said...


The reverse is even more wonderful: how a change in outlook can improve one's financial situation.

I expect you can only be referring to selling up the Auckland family home, pocketing the substantial difference between that and the palatial new home, complete with native bush outlook, in a rural or small town setting.

I can't see any other way your comment can make sense without it being base victim blaming.

Davo Stevens said...

Gosh the victim bashing knows no bounds here!

Firstly, for those of us in comfortable middle-class lives it is always easy to bash those below us. What so many don't realise is that those below us have to fight for years just to get to the level where we started. We forget that we had contacts that got us on the road to our particular success, contacts that those at the bottom simply don't have.

What pisses me off so much is the rightwing attitude of "I'm alright Jack, stuff you". Here's a good idea, how about giving up some of your well-paid free time to actually going to help those at the bottom and find out what it is really like there. You're in for a real education!
I'm a very busy person but I can find several hours a week helping people find their way thought the bloody minefield that our Welfare system has become. You should try it too.

Food Canoe said...

Does Housing Minister Nick Smith's behaviour in respect of his interview on TV1 Q&A, equate to that which is alleged to have occurred in respect of Maori TV Native Affairs, namely: “Editorial interference is a clear breach of Section 10 the Māori Television Service (Te Aratuku Whakaata Irirangi Māori) Act 2003 which states that ‘the responsible Minister, or any person acting on behalf of or at the direction of any Minister ... must not direct the service or any director, officer, or employee of the Service in respect of ... the preparation or presentation of current affairs programmes.’

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Victim blaming Richard, it's what they do. That and false equivalence. You'll notice jigsaw mentions the 1970s, open fires and electric heaters. Neglecting to mention that wood was cheap if not free, and so was electricity compared to today. Obviously didn't hear of the family that was given heaters but couldn't afford to run them.

Davo Stevens said...

Exactly GS. people look back at their history through rose-coloured glasses. I grew up in an old farm house that was a cold, draughty place. Our Mum did all her cooking on a coal range and we had one fireplace in the lounge. Used to wake up in the bed with ice on the inside of the windows too.

The fire in the lounge was going all day and night and we had an endless supply of firewood for it. The kitchen was warm as the range was going all day too.

Little point of having electric heater when one can't afford to feed them,. That is the problem today for those at the bottom of the heap.

pat said...

when comparing housing of the 1930s or 1970s consider this expectancy in 2015 is significantly higher

Jack Scrivano said...

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s easy to build an argument around sound bites and ideological axioms. The poor are poor because they are poor; the rich are rich because they are bastards. But that neither tells the whole story nor suggests a solution.

I grew up in a family that was seriously poor. But we got by. And without any assistance from the state – other than family benefit. (I seem to recall that it was ten shillings a week. Please correct me if I am wrong.) We got by because my parents cared, toiled, scrimped, and saved.

From about the age of ten, my sibling and I earned money – and we paid my mother board. I know it’s not easy to get part-time jobs in this day and age; but, contrary to the popular narrative, it wasn’t that easy back then either. You had to offer your employer some real value. If you did that, your employer would pay you part of that value. Not a large part. But part.

When I see state house tenants grumbling about mould and mouse droppings, my first thought is: Why don’t you just clean it up? That’s what normal people do. They don’t phone some agency. They just do it.

Of course if people are too dumb to do the simple stuff, we have a different problem. And kicking the government is not the solution. We need to focus on the people who lack the required attitude and skills.

Jigsaw said...

Wood was never free and we certainly had to get out and get it-in the 1970's even if we did buy some that was dumped on the lawn and we still had to get it inside and stack it up to dry. That involved planning and some actual work in which the kids helped. As usual the call for people to show some initiative and help themselves is turned into 'victim bashing' by those who it seems would like to make poor people as dependant on the state as they possibly can. It often seems that some on the left want to strip away the last vestiges of independence and pride from these people for their own political ends.
Jack Scivano is quite right - most ordinary people look at many of these news items and wonder why people just don't get stuck in and help themselves.
Don't forget that the last Labour government increased electricity charges 73% in their 9 years in office-year after year.

Grant said...


I take it you are talking about the post WW2 years and into the 1950's? In 1950, about the smallest adult male wage was approximately 300 pounds per annum, which breaks down to about 5 pounds 15 shillings per week. As your family was so poor lets assume this was your family income.

For the benefit of those aged under 55 years old, there were 20 shillings in a pound.

The family benefit was increased to 10s per wk from 1946 and remained at that figure until 1958 when it was increased to 15s per wk. Ten shillings per week was the equivalent of 26 pounds per year (52 pounds per year in your family for two children). At this income of 300 pounds your father would have paid 22 pounds per annum in social security charge and NO income tax. The family benefit would effectively cancel out the SSC and leave an extra 30 pounds or ten percent increase in income over and above a tax free income of 300 pounds. Quite generous really. These years were hard as the country fought its way out of the poverty, deprivation and loss caused by the great depression and the war. They were also the years when the economy was booming, Britain and other markets took all the primary exports we could produce, unemployment was practically non-existent and the welfare state was in full swing with cheap state houses, full unionisation, low but livable minimum wages and high subsidies for everything from electricity to milk including free milk in schools. Speaking of schools, this was the era when they really were free.

Of course if you were a wharfie locked out in '51 things were pretty desperate, but these were the years when my working class grandparents, also very poor, were able to fight their way back to the point where they owned their own homes by the time I was born in 1958 and were even able to save enough to live comfortably when they retired in the very early 60's.

I spent a lot of time with them as a child and am left with an abiding memory of how grateful they were to the first Labour Govt for giving them the chance to better themselves and see their children set on the path of entry to the middle class. They also had plenty to say about slum lords and harsh bosses who made their lives a misery before the game was changed by the aforementioned Labour Govt which stopped the worst abuses.

Of course the 60's would have been about the time you were entering into your own adult working life and the sixties and seventies were the great years for the NZ economy for those lucky enough to be the right age demographic to take advantage of those times.

Many a middle class baby boomer has managed to insulate themselves from the cold winds of change by judicious manipulation of the head start they got during those years, to the point where some of these nouveau riche who came from humble beginnings have forgotten their roots and now make tut-tutting noises about the undeserving underclass.

Guerilla Surgeon said...


1. Full employment.

2. Welfare state.

3." I know it’s not easy to get part-time jobs in this day and age; but, contrary to the popular narrative, it wasn’t that easy back then either."
Yes it bloody was. I had several.

4. You can't just clean up mould that is the result of a damp house. It just comes back. The complaint is not necessarily about the mould, but about the dampness which is unhealthy. In other words, clean up the mould it's still damp.

Jack Scrivano said...

There is no point in us getting into a ‘my childhood was harder than yours’ debate. Although perhaps I could mention that my journey to and from school was a six mile bike ride – uphill and against the wind in both directions.

But, regardless, over the past 60 years, people’s expectations seem to have zoomed; and their readiness to contribute to the realisation of those expectations seems to have diminished.

When I was growing up poor, we had some ‘rich’ neighbours. And I am sure that we would not have been averse to sharing their lifestyle. But we didn’t expect the government to make it happen. If it was going to happen, it was up to us.

Charles E said...

Very strange term this 'middle-class' reference to NZers. Here it is about income but elsewhere it's not just about income, it's about aspiration. But to get back to the subject, if someone living in economic poverty can't keep a house in the NI dry, that may be more a case of poverty of knowledge and ability. Unless the house leaks. All year round there is on average plenty of sun during the day to help warm up a bit then dry a house if you know how to manage it. Ventilation is the key and opening the curtains. Not having gas heaters which give off water vapour; drying clothes outside; airing bedding daily; opening the bathroom window when having a shower. You know all this and perhaps long ago everybody knew how to keep bedrooms dry. And we wore wool which is best even when damp. Cold and damp is a killer, but it is the damp that magnifies the cold and transmits it. I don't think the landlord is that relevant mostly.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Bike, I would have killed for a bike. I used to have to pull a cartload of coal to 't school every morning uphill for 20 mile. But even so, there was less poverty then, and things like heating were comparatively cheap. And Charles, if you lived in my house which is in the North Island – without some form of heat you would bloody freeze. The sun might warm it up from 8° to 10, but not much more. Even with double glazing. I don't know where you live, probably a JAFA. There are parts of the North Island that would freeze your socks off in winter. Blaming the victim again I see. The right seem to have this desperate need, perhaps to justify their own callousness, to show that the poor are responsible for their own situation. It couldn't be that they can't afford to heat the house, of course not, it must be a lack of knowledge. Thereby suggesting of course that the poor are stupid. And that's good because that's why they're poor.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jack, you claim to have never received anything from the state. I presume then that you never got sick and used the subsidised medical system.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grant said...

@ Jack

"But we didn’t expect the government to make it happen. If it was going to happen, it was up to us."

And you still refuse to acknowledge the debt you owe as a child of "the poor", to the first Labour Government and the welfare state it locked in place for two generations, despite several people pointing out exactly how you benefited above. I went to some trouble to research exactly how your family was helped by the government during your childhood and yet you still claim that everything you achieved was by first your parents efforts and then your own, without any tail wind from the state or the society in which you were raised.

@ Charles. The only thing that's strange here is your weird insistence that NZ is essentially classless, or if it has classes that they are somehow magically different in some strange manner to the class structure of every other nation on Earth. You and several others here also seem to be strangely incapable of taking on board the argument that the things being discussed here are; A) upkeep of social housing (Housing Corp have already admitted that they have not performed well in this area); and B) energy poverty, the fact that people living in urban social housing without fireplaces or access to firewood have only one option; electric heating which they CAN NOT AFFORD to run. You are also living in LaLa land if you think that anyone living in any house anywhere in the North Island merely needs to throw a window open at any time of the year to adequately ventilate and dry a poorly maintained and unheated house. Even if this were true, which it most certainly is not, it wouldn't compensate for the lack of heating which by itself is a health risk factor. Wake up man.

pat said...

there were 150 of us living in shoe-boxes in middle of road...

Anonymous said...

Many of the problems with state houses go back to the fact they were built wrong in the first place.

After the Depression new building techniques were adopted to allow the use of cheap but inferior wood. That accommodation may have worked in the Californian desert but in New Zealand it made many houses much colder and damper than their predecessors, the best examples being the period's state houses. Non slum housing from before the Depression was often warm and dry which is something New Zealanders may find hard to imagine.

Clumps of state houses can be picked out at sight by their run down appearance and threadbare yards. The children growing up in them have their values distorted by the housing situation of their family and their neighbours'. It's a fair bet there's a strong statistical link between the likelihood of a house being burgled and its proximity to kids living in state houses. The better able people are to own their own home, the better off society is.

The best maintained houses are those that are owner-occupied. Privately owned rentals are noticeably more run down but in a normal market their owners have an interest in performing basic maintenance to obtain a return, and they are periodically sold to owner-occupiers. But state houses are some of the worst as the inhabitants are desperate and the administrators are expected to keep costs down and have no personal stake in the housing beyond their employment. The same forces that served up Turkey Twizlers to school dinners in the UK can be seen in New Zealand's dysfunctional state houses.

As effective as the state house programme was at solving the housing shortage at the time it didn't create good housing and the long term social processes they were creating have ultimately made a failure out of it.

"...the family that was given heaters but couldn't afford to run them."
A dehumidifier would have been far more effective and much cheaper to run.

Jigsaw said...

Goodness -once was more than enough GS! So many times gives us an even better insight as to how your mind works....

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Er.... Grant... Charles is impervious to facts. You should know this before you reply to him. I only do it because there might be other people reading :-).

Grant said...

Hi GS. Same here. Sure don't do it for my health or to change his mind. ☺

Grant said...

@ anonymous 14.38

"A dehumidifier would have been far more effective and much cheaper to run"

And would still have left the family in question living in a damp house because, guess what, they don't have the money to run heaters. Sheesh!

As for the claims about sub-standard State houses built in the 30'-50s; I call bullshit on that assertion and suspect deliberate mendacity on your part in making that assertion.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It was posted three times jigsaw because the site kept locking up, and I wasn't sure that it had actually been posted. So I persevered until the site unlocked itself, because I knew you'd want to read it. And you'll maybe notice I have removed two of them. I notice as usual you haven't replied to the substance however.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I lived in an ex-Statehouse for a number of years. There wasn't a right angle in the place, but it was solid. It lacked insulation, but so did everything that was built at the time. And – building statehouses trained thousands of apprentice builders, instead of importing them from overseas as we seem to do now. Wouldn't mind an answer jigsaw on whether you believe you can heat a house anywhere in the North Island by sunlight? Not holding m'breath.

Grant said...

@ GS 19.10 "I persevered until the site unlocked itself, because I knew you'd want to read it."


I wonder how many of these "I did it all on my own without the help of the Govt", types used a State Advances or Housing Corp loan at low interest or capitalized on their family benefit to get into their first home?

Charles E said...

I live in CHCH and it can be cold and cloudy but almost every winter day we get sun for a few hours. So we open the curtains and some windows to keep moisture levels down. Humidity is the real killer, especially in the north where it is naturally higher so even more liable to create mould.
So yes if people allow their houses to become damp it is either ignorance, negligence or it leaks. Only the latter is the landlords fault. The other causes are the tenant's fault. Some call that blaming the victim but if that is a child I am not blaming the victim.
The only heating we have is a large log burner and a pellet wood fire. Both better options than electricity and way better than the free standing gas fires some people use which pump litres of water into the room. Wood is free if you scavenge and pellets as cheap as the best heat pumps. But I don't suppose the state has houses with log burners and I do accept the state can be the worst landlords. Privatise the lot and then give rent subsidies .....Be cheaper AND more effective.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Plus, as Pres Obama said – they use roads, bridges, railways, and everything else that is provided by the state. And Charles, I've done exactly the same as you and still had mould. All over the clothes in one of the wardrobes in a back room. You're just not thinking. Not to mention that Christchurch is flat, and everybody gets a fair suck of the sav on Sun. Some places in Wellington hardly see it. Not to mention that capital expenditure is something poor people can't afford, just as they can't afford to buy five for five dollars at the supermarket. Personally I think ban all private landlords, or at least build lots of state houses and put them out of business. Might be a little more expensive, but the houses would be better quality hopefully, and we wouldn't be subsidising slumlords. Once all those people sell off their spare houses, young people will be able to afford to move into one :-). There – problem solved.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Grant, jigsaw and I don't get on. And there's precious little humour in the relationship, so I do like to provide a little every so often. Right wing people seem to lack humour except for the cruel sort that takes the piss out of those less fortunate than themselves. Probably the reason why there are so few right wing comedians – let's face it I can only think of that arse 'Tay' Radar, who is never very funny. God help us he can't even be funny on seven days, most of the mediocre talent on that seems to get at least a few laughs. A lot more than their stand up does anyway :-). Never ceases to amaze me how seven days can be so funny, yet their individual stand-up acts are crap :-). Still, hardly germane here.

Davo Stevens said...

@ Anon 14.38"

What planet are you on? Not this one apparently. State Houses were built of very high quality materials. Heart Rimu framing, Matai floors, Totara joinery and concrete tile rooves. ALL MATERIAL WAS UNIQUE TO NZ! But like all houses they need to be maintained, something that has not been done in 40 odd years. They were all built with created money too and as the returns came in the money was written off.

@ Jigsaw: My parents and we kids developed a 200ha farm in the southern King Country. Yes, we had to work to collect the firewood but it cost us nothing -- splitting hairs again?

@ Charles: another from another planet, I live in Chch too and it gets bloody cold here where I live. I am fortunate that I have a huge supply of firewood for free but I still have to cut it up. That costs me money!

I also note that the Govt. Stormtroopers are going around measuring the smoke from the chimney's in the town, especially over on the east side where people are not wealthy and forcing the people to shut down the fires that don't equate to the new Clean Air Act here.

Yep, privatise the State Houses and send more Tax payer money off to your rich mates again!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I've just completed an experiment, over the protests of my family I must say, by leaving the heating off today. My son stayed in bed with his electric blanket on, the wife and I went out. But we opened up all the windows and the curtains to let the sun come shining through the house and heat it up. (Mind you, we always do this.) It's roughly 1:45, the 'hottest' part of the day. We get good afternoon sun. It's 13° outside. It's 13° inside. So does it work Charles? – Does it buggery! Excuse me while I go and turn the gas on again.