A State House story
Shot at the opening of the Labour government's first state house in 1937 at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington, this image is one of New Zealand's iconic photographs: Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage lifts a cumbersome dining table through a cheering throng toward the house's threshold. For the government, the Prime Minister's deed was intended to emphasise that he was the servant of 'the people', not above manual labour. David McGregor, son of the original tenant, wasn't convinced by the gesture. He wryly recalled that Savage dropped the table as soon as he was through the front door. Whatever the motivation, the image endured in the public imagination and became, for many, the defining symbol of the first Labour government's state housing programme.
The first tenants of the first state house were David and Mary McGregor. Besides the Prime Minister, the opening day ceremony saw 300 others stomp though their home, muddying floors and fingerprinting freshly painted fixtures. Growing impatient at this 'home invasion', the McGregors eventually told their guests to leave, but for days afterwards they encountered sightseers peering through their windows.
David McGregor was a tram driver for the Wellington City Council. For his efforts he received a wage of £4 7s 9d per week. Out of this total he paid the state £1 10s 3d in rent, just over a third of his pay. In the early 1950s the National government introduced measures enabling state tenants to purchase their home. The McGregors took up the offer and bought, later declaring it to be 'our little bit of New Zealand'. When the McGregors died in the early 1980s, their son David sold the home back to the state. In 1983 the New Zealand Historic Places Trust registered it as a place of 'very great social historical significance'.
At the 50th anniversary of the house's construction the politicians were back. In an act of overt symbolism the Minister of Housing, Labour's Helen Clark, and local MP Peter Neilson carried a coffee table through the same door that Savage had entered 50 years before. As inheritors of Labour's state housing tradition, Clark promised the watching crowd that the government would remain an active player in New Zealand's housing market.
The house's 60th anniversary, in 1997, went unmarked. At this time the house was tenanted by the Nysse family, John and Winnie and their three children. The family told the New Zealand Herald that they were finding it difficult to make ends meet under the regime of market rents introduced in 1991. The family's sole source of income was John's pension, which brought in $292 per week. After paying a rental of $215, the family was left with just $77 to live on. Whereas the McGregor family had handed over about a third of their income to live in 12 Fife Lane, the Nysse family paid nearly three-quarters of theirs.