The beginnings of state housing in NZ

This September celebrates the 75th anniversary of New Zealand’s first state house – number 12 Fife Lane, Mirimar, Wellington.

The decision to build government-owned housing developed after the decline in construction following the Depression. That decline, combined with a belief that a decent home was a fundamental right of all Kiwis, set in motion the state housing project by the then Labour Government.

Ref: 139 Greys Avenue state housing, 7-A1264, Sir George Grey Special Collections
The opening of the first house in 1937 was attended by Prime Minister Michael Savage, along with hundreds of curious folk who traipsed through the brand new home for a look. The tenants were the family of council tram conductor, David McGregor, who had 'won' the home via a ballot system. That system did not, however, last. It was the subject of claims that it was unfair, and was later dropped in favour of a merit system.

Ref: PM Michael Savage, 1093-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections
The McGregor family eventually purchased the house and following Mr McGregor’s death, sold it back to the government. It was recognised by The New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) as a place of 'very great social historical significance' and entered into the NZHPT register in 1986 as a Historic Place Category 1 building (Register Number: 1360).

Ref: Glenn Innes state housing. By kind permission of Archives New Zealand/Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga, Wellington Office, AAQT 6401, A74 175
The cost of building the houses, however, proved to be problematic, and the government’s attempt to get around the financial issue by building cheaper multi story flats out of fibrolite ended up creating ghettos rather than the envisaged ideal family communities. Among the areas that fell victim to this were parts of South Auckland and Porirua, and in later years, flats such as the Glen Innes Talbot Road flats, were demolished altogether.

Ref: Glenn Innes state & private housing. By kind permission of Archives New Zealand/Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga, Wellington Office, AAQT 6401, A74 168
The original state house, though, has in some areas enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, with homeowners taking advantage of the sturdy construction and heritage appeal. Savage Crescent in Palmerston North, for example, was deliberately designed to be a safe, family-oriented, ideal suburb, built around a public park.  It is now considered one of the most intact examples of early state housing in New Zealand, so much so that the Palmerston North City Council has recognised it as a Conservation Area (see Section 10.7.4, page 10-30) of the city.

Author: Joanne Graves, Central Auckland Research Centre


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