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New Zealand's Post-Colonial Housing Crisis (a second post on housing)

Published
February 26, 2019
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NEW ZEALANDERS like to think their country leads the world.

With a proud history of social reforms, the country has often rivaled Sweden for firsts. New Zealand was for instance, the first country where women fully got the vote (in 1893). And for a long time New Zealand was also famous for the affordability of its housing.

Government after government treated housing as a number one priority issue.

In the mid-twentieth century, the New Zealand state built entire new towns from scratch, on new commuter railway lines.

Detail from Plate 6 in John W. Mawson, ‘The Hutt Valley development scheme’, in Planning (Wellington), Bulletin №19, Series 2, July 1941. A new electric railway line runs up the middle of this area, a suburb of Wellington. The ‘special residential’ area in white, inside an outline, was to have a net density (i.e. of actual housing sections) of 21 persons per acre and the areas shown in grey to have a net density of 50 persons per net acre. Black referred to shopping centres, etc. All were part of a state development scheme.

Before, during and after World War II, private contractors were engaged under large-scale government contracts to produce as many houses as fast as possible, like Liberty Ships.

As with production more directly related to the War, the government issued all the necessary credit itself. Even during the War, housing production remained a high priority so that returning soldiers would not be ill-housed or forced to pay speculatively inflated prices.

Cartoon from the magazine Building Progress (March 1944) critical of the New Zealand Government’s railway-housing policies of the day (cartoonist A. C. Patterson). The ‘state housing’ was built by private contractors, but under large-scale government contracts similar to those used to build .

Our latest Government doesn’t seem to intent on anything as radical as that, even though New Zealand has now been reported as leading the OECD in homelessness.

Nor does it plan to produce its own credit, nor to exceed a self-imposed public debt ceiling of 20% of GDP (far less than in many other OECD countries).

Why is the housing problem in New Zealand being treated with so much less urgency than it once was?

Rather ironically, in view of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent donning of a Māori cloak to meet the Queen, a growing ethnic divide may be part of the issue.

In the mid-twentieth century, New Zealand’s cities were just about entirely inhabited by New Zealand’s European or settler population. In the 1860s, the Māori had largely been driven out of the areas now occupied by New Zealand’s cities in the course of the New Zealand Wars.

This established a pale of almost exclusively New Zealand settlement on land that was often, ultimately, confiscated from its original Māori owners. The whole of the New Zealand city of Hamilton is built on confiscated Māori land, as are several Auckland suburbs.

The area north of a Thermopylae-like narrows at Otahuhu, a historic canoe portage, was unshakably in the possession of the settlers, but the area to its south came to be disputed, and its Maori population evicted. The area south of Otahuhu came to be known as South Auckland.

Location of Otahuhu Portage. North at top.

Here’s a map of some of the battles that were fought to the south of Auckland.

From James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period, New Zealand Government Printer, first published 1922 and 1923. North at top.

For nearly a hundred years, New Zealand’s cities and their immediate hinterlands remained overwhelmingly white.

Their European occupants soon forgot about all that old frontier violence and busied themselves with the construction of a full-employment, affordable-housing welfare state along Scandinavian lines.

Though later disparaged by free-marketeers, New Zealand’s welfare state was a great success in many ways. For instance, over a period of more than twenty years between 1949 and 1970, not one single person was shot dead by the New Zealand Police. Nor were fatal car chases a regular news item either, it seems.

On the other hand, just as the old frontier violence was forgotten about by the Pākehā majority in a peaceful mid-century New Zealand where unemployment and ill-housing were virtually unknown in the cities, also forgotten were the surviving Māori, who for the most part continued to live in places of exile remote from the city and the most fertile parts of most fertile parts of New Zealand or, as the country is also known in Māori, Aotearoa.

In the first, 1959 edition of his History of New Zealand, Keith Sinclair could still write, in a critical tone, that “the two peoples have succeeded in finding a way of living in harmony. They live apart.” (page 289)

Obviously, this whole business of confiscation and exile is a blot on New Zealand’s progressive record. Yet by the same token, for several generations, many urban New Zealanders hardly gave it a thought. They consigned it to a dustbin of forgotten frontier history, while the country got on with being progressive in other respects.

But these days, the history has returned — literally. 150 years on from the New Zealand Wars, cities like Auckland are now roughly one-quarter indigenous in their ethnic composition once more, either in the form of Māori who have returned to these areas, or Pacific Islander immigrants.

Cover of the June 1959 issue of the magazine Te Ao Hou / The New World, published by the New Zealand Department of Maori Affairs. Already, in 1959, the separate development of which Sinclair wrote was breaking down.

Issues like ill-housing and homelessness have returned and are highly concentrated in what are now, in effect, indigenous ghettos; of which the largest is South Auckland. Fought over in the 1860s, South Auckland has since been reoccupied by Māori; but mainly now as tenants of the descendants of those who took their land.

In the 1970s this great urban influx was viewed with suspicion by the National Party in the mid-1970s, which won the 1975 election on a platform of anti-immigration populism.

In the 1980s, Labour’s adoption of ‘Rogernomics’ would have been inconceivable had it not been tacitly understood that the main victims would be recently-arrived Māori and Islanders, who not only saw their manufacturing jobs disappear, with Māori youth unemployment hitting 40 per cent for a time (and most Māori were young), but the retraining budgets slashed as well. It was a recipe for creating an underclass, and it worked.

In effect, the Pākehā (settler) city retreated behind its old historical palisades, such as the Otahuhu Portage, leaving recently arrived Māori and Islanders to stew outside, like the Catholics outside Derry’s Walls. The atavism of these developments is truly astonishing; as is the degree to which mainstream political commentators have failed to join the dots.

Today, just as in the 1860s, the area north of Otahuhu remains very much the European side of town, and is also the area where a more recent wave of prosperous East Asian immigrants prefers to settle.

As a result, greater Auckland is now not only one of the most diverse cities in the world, ethnically speaking, but also one of the most divided, along a line runnng through Otahuhu that is as as clear and definite as the green line in Jerusalem or Nicosia; or for that matter, the ancient walls that have divided Protestant Londonderry from the Bogside for last 300 years.

Clip from a 1960s Irish newspaper, shown in a British TV documentary about the Irish troubles. Fair use claimed.

As the journalist Simon Collins wrote in a 9 October 2010 New Zealand Herald article called ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, “in social and political terms, there is a stark divide somewhere around the narrowest point of the isthmus at Portage Rd in Otahuhu, where the Tainui canoe was famously carried across from the Otahuhu Creek to the Manukau Harbour.”

Ms Ardern’s government relies very heavily on Māori and Islander electoral support — a quarter of the New Zealand population overall, as well as that of cities like Auckland — but it seems that the Government’s hands may be tied in dealing with a housing problem that mostly affects the indigenous minority, sizable as it is.

For, on the other hand, many European New Zealanders have a strong interest in high house prices as they are the owners of the land.

An irresistible force thus confronts an immovable object across an old community dividing-line in ways that really do have parallels to Jerusalem, Nicosia and Northern Ireland.

On pages 27 and 28 of his 2009 Auckland crime noir Cut and Run, the author Greg McGee, writing as Alix Bosco, describes a member of New Zealand’s sizable diaspora community, living in Australia, who says that “she’d left New Zealand because she thought it was ‘about to explode’. She wasn’t talking about volcanoes: she’d been a social worker in South Auckland.”

We’re ten years on now, and Aotearoa/New Zealand hasn’t exploded yet. Is that another reason why the the worst homelessness in the OECD isn’t being treated with the same sense of wartime urgency that earlier urban housing crises in Pākehā New Zealand were?

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