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.