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State housing

Page 8 – Outside the mainstream

Many of us associate the beginning of state housing with the hipped-roof cottages built by the first Labour government of the 1930s and 40s. But the origin of state housing has much earlier roots. It has also been provided under a multitude of different schemes. This section highlights three of the non-mainstream schemes.

Workers' dwellings

It was not the diminutive Labour Prime Minister, 'Micky' Savage, who laid the foundation for state housing in New Zealand, but his larger than life predecessor, 'King Dick' Seddon. The Liberal Premier wanted to give working-class families the opportunity of moving from the crowded and insanitary areas of the inner city to spacious and healthy homes in the suburbs. He pledged to provide a total of 5000 houses for families earning less than £200 per year.

Workers could either rent their home or buy it outright, on the condition that it was returned to the state on the owner's death. Houses were soon constructed on the outskirts of the four main cities; the first were completed in Petone, Wellington, in 1906. Yet the scheme failed to prosper. High rents, and the cost of commuting to city jobs, priced the houses above the reach of most workers. The Reform government finally pulled the plug on the programme in 1919, by which time only 648 dwellings had been constructed. Nonetheless, the seeds of state housing in New Zealand had been sown.

Railway housing

Even before workers' dwellings, there were Railways houses. Since the 1880s the Railways Department had provided homes for some of its workers. Growing demand after the First World War, especially in the central North Island, led the Department to establish a factory at Frankton, Hamilton, where timber from its own forests was fashioned into prefabricated houses before being freighted to sites for erection. (No houses were built in the South Island because of the greater shipping costs.) To keep expenses low, houses were small and came in a number of standard designs. Most had three bedrooms, although another could be added to accommodate large families. The kitchen was the largest room and social hub of the home. It was designed so that a dining table and easy chairs could be placed around a cosy coal range.

During the 1920s the Railways Department built a whole suburb at Frankton and another in Moera, Lower Hutt. Smaller settlements were scattered along main trunk and secondary lines. Between 1923 and 1926 increased efficiencies saw production rise to 500 houses per year and the cost of a five-room house fall from £831 to £635. Ironically, this success led to the scheme's downfall. Timber companies threatened by state competition scuttled the scheme by convincing the government that private enterprise could build workers' houses more cheaply.

Māori housing

Until the late 1940s Māori were excluded from mainstream state housing, on the grounds that their presence would allegedly 'lower the tone' of state housing communities and because few could afford the rent. Instead, state assistance for Māori housing took the form of loans. For example, in the 1930s, monies allocated for Māori rural land development were also used to replace dilapidated housing. While smaller and simpler than state-sponsored Pākehā housing, these homes were still a vast improvement on what had existed before.

Increasing Māori migration to cities after the Second World War eventually convinced the government to admit Māori into mainstream state housing in 1948 through a scheme administered by State Advances and the Department of Māori Affairs. At first Māori families were pepper-potted into Pākehā neighbourhoods to encourage their assimilation into Pākehā society. However, as more Māori were accommodated in state housing – partly due to their lower than average income levels – areas of concentration began to develop, such as in Porirua and South Auckland. Although this created 'ghettos' of Māori deprivation, it also facilitated the forging of a new Māori urban culture and identity.

How to cite this page

Outside the mainstream, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated