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UNAFFORDABLE AND UNSUSTAINABLE HOUSING IN NEW ZEALAND

Talk by Moggie Grayson on the World Socialist Party (New Zealand) on Discord 8 January

I came to live in New Zealand from England in 1967.  The houses here are quite different from English ones.  I had been used to brick houses with slate roofs.  New Zealand houses are built from wood with roofs made from corrugated iron.  They were all painted white and the roofs were painted red.

Building materials are sourced from what is locally available and houses have to be built so that they will stand up to local conditions.  Most Wellington houses are perched on steep hillsides.  They also have to stand up to severe earthquakes.  Wood is ideal for this whereas bricks would be shaken apart.  Slate roofs would never stand up to our gale-force, sometimes hurricane-force winds whereas corrugated iron can be screwed down firmly.   Bricks were made locally and usually only used for chimneys.

The wooden framework and floorboards in older houses was made from matai, a local hardwood.  However, much of our native forest was cleared to make farmland and pine plantations were set up to provide a constant supply of building timber.  Pine trees (pinus radiata) can be harvested 20 years after planting. The outside cladding of the houses is made from long planks of pine, known as weatherboards, nailed horizontally to the framework and overlapping like fish scales so that the rainwater will run down without getting into the joins..  If these are given a coat of paint every few years they will stay waterproof.

In the years following the second world war the New Zealand government built thousands of state houses to provide low-cost rental housing for the many immigrants we took in to build our industries.  The State houses were built on flat sections of land so that they could all be built to the same plan and made from the same materials, hence the white painted facades and red roofs.  A famous New Zealand folksong has a chorus which goes:-

I’ve got a house just like your house

You’ve got a house just like mine

It’s a great house it’s a State house is my house

And the government plans mighty fine.

However, in the 1970s the government started selling off the state houses to private ownership.  More housing was required for our increasing population, which by this time had topped 4 million, so houses had to be built quickly and cheaply.  Now, (you can see this coming, can’t you?  This is where capitalism raises its ugly head).  Chipboard was being used for flooring panels. Chipboard is simply wood shavings stuck together with glue.  When it gets warm it gives off toxic fumes.  As soon as it gets damp it turns to weetbix (Weetabix for you guys in England).  Not only were houses crumbling to bits but the chipboard provided a breeding ground for mould and mildew.  This caused respiratory problems for the tenants.   Another big problem is that designers and householders wanted houses that had a “Mediterranean” look, so instead of cladding the outside of the timber frame with weatherboards they clad them with various kinds of plaster-like materials which depended on keeping the rain out by not having any cracks, but because these materials were fixed to timber frames, which move slightly in the wind etc. the plaster cracked and let the water in. The regulation that required the timber framing to be chemically treated so that the pine would not rot if it got wet had also been rescinded, so the framing got wet and rotted. Within 10 years the insurance companies were inundated with claims for house repairs.  This became known as The Leaky House Syndrome.

Old houses are draughty.  They were never built to keep out the cold, but draughty houses don’t get condensation problems.

In the 1980s we were told the benefits of double glazing.  Okay if you can afford it, but I was quoted $2,000 just for one window!  Houses were being built in a different way.  Every door and every window had to be sealed tightly.  This caused condensation if you had any form of heating.  House-owners were then required to fork out for ventilation systems and dehumidifiers.

Heating a home can be expensive.  If you live in a sunny area then solar panels are an option, if you can afford them.  Wellington, being one of the windiest places on the planet, makes use of that natural resource by having wind turbines on the hilltops.  The government gives a subsidy to pensioners for getting a heat pump installed, but these are only really effective if you have an open-plan house.  If you like to close internal doors then you still have to provide alternative heating for the rooms that don’t have a heat pump.  We all want to do our best for the environment and at the same time have a warm, comfortable home, but the initial cost of building such a dream home is beyond the means of the average worker.

You might like to have a look on the internet at the Hockerton Housing Project, in Southwell, Nottingham.  This is a 25-acre site which has 5 earth-sheltered houses built on it.  They have been carefully designed to have minimum impact on the environment.  They maximize the sunshine so that they stay warm throughout the year without the need to use heating.  Nothing on this scale has been tried in New Zealand.  I have read the occasional article about a few individuals who have bought a few hectares of land in the country and built an eco-friendly house and they grow their own organic vegetables etc. but so far nothing in the way of eco-friendly, affordable housing has been produced on a large scale for the average worker.

When I first came to New Zealand a kind friend offered me some sound advice.  He said,  “Never spend more than one third of your income on rent.  That way, you will have enough left over for your living expenses.”  I always tried my best to live within my means.

The minimum basic wage in New Zealand is $18:90 per hour, which works out at $31,000 per year, or $596 per week, if you are lucky enough to be offered 40 hours of work per week, after tax has been deducted. T he average price for renting a house in Auckland, the biggest city, is $578 per week, and in Wellington, the capital city $517 per week.  So, if you only have $596 per week coming in, it is therefore no wonder that people have very little money left over to buy groceries or pay their bills after having paid their rent.


Auckland has had a poverty problem for years.  People are living in garages or even in their cars because they can’t afford to pay the ridiculously high rents that are being asked for even shabby hovels. Now the problem has hit Wellington.  Because it is a university city, houses and flats that are anywhere within walking distance of the university are getting increasingly expensive.  University students can just about manage if they share the house with lots of other students, but for a small family it is impossible.  Most of their income would go on paying the rent with very little left over for groceries or other expenses.  Never mind trying to save up for a deposit to buy a place.  There is something very wrong with society if people are working full-time and still cannot make ends meet.  Landlords can increase the rent as and when they choose and force their tenants to live in sub-standard conditions if they choose not to do any maintenance on the property.

The most expensive area to live in New Zealand is Porirua, a city 20 kms. North of Wellington.  Porirua has always been a low socio-economic area with a lot of unemployment and low-wage workers.  Rents have soared to the extent that some tenants have had to leave their houses and sleep in their cars.  Forty years ago I taught at a school there where the staff provided breakfasts for the pupils because the children were coming to school hungry.  Now, the problem of poverty is much worse.

Over 100 years ago in Scotland, Glasgow received an influx of roughly 70,000 new residents in the three years leading up to 1915. The city did not respond with enough new housing and in fact built fewer than two thousand tenements to meet this need, which created high demand for a small number of apartments. By this time, Glasgow had become the most overcrowded city in Britain. Many landlords, sensing that there was money to be made from this unfortunate situation, chose to increase the rent on their properties to exorbitant rates, often with little to no notice. Landlords promptly evicted tenants unable to pay these increased rents, and because of the housing shortage, landlords were secure in the notion that their properties would not remain vacant for long and they could charge another person or family the higher rate.  Councillor Mary Barbour led a rent strike to protect these tenants from unscrupulous landlords.  More than 100 years later, in New Zealand, we are facing the same problem.

Thirty years ago, a young couple, both working full-time could save up for a deposit on a house and have a home of their own by the time they were thirty years old.  Now, for many young couples, their only chance of ever owning a house of their own is to inherit their parents’ house, assuming that the parent doesn’t have to sell it in order to buy their way into a retirement village.  Capitalism has created the type of society where the average house has only 3 bedrooms and there is no room to accommodate our elderly relatives who are no longer contributing financially to the household.  

In a socialist society we could completely re-structure our living arrangements.  The small, nuclear family would be a thing of the past.  Why not build houses that have 12 or even 15 bedrooms so that the whole extended family can be accommodated?  This worked well for the clan system in Scotland and for the Maoris in New Zealand where the extended family, or whanau can live together, co-operating with one another.  In Maori families the elderly relatives are revered and respected for their wisdom and experience.  They live useful and fulfilling lives by looking after the little children while others do the more physical work.  I am not saying that rest homes and hospices would be entirely abolished.  We would still need such places for those who have dementia or terminal illnesses and need full-time specialised care.

Most houses are built far too small.  It is hard to keep a house clean, tidy and hygienic if it is cluttered and untidy.  John Mayall, in one of his blues songs says,  

“How can you live in one room

And smell the dust from your neighbour’s broom

How can you live like that?”

Under capitalism we are limited to what we can afford, if we can afford it.  A million dollars can buy you a very modest, small house with only a small garden which is not big enough to grow your own food.  Capitalism is spiralling out of control and more and more people are becoming homeless every day.  I am not trying to impose my idea about housing but I am simply saying that in a socialist society we could allow ourselves to think outside of the square and structure our lives so that we can have happier and more fulfilling lives for ourselves and our families.

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