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Address at the launch of "We Call it Home" - PM

Monday 20 June 2005

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Address at the launch of
We Call it Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand

Housing New Zealand
Dixon St Flats

5.30 pm

Monday 20 June 2005

It is a great pleasure for me to launch this social history of state housing in New Zealand. As a Labour Prime Minister and as a former Minister of Housing, funding state housing is a high priority for me and my government.

As you’ve heard, many people have had a hand in bringing this history to fruition. I understand the idea was sown about four years ago, in discussions at Housing New Zealand, on ways to provide a broader historical perspective on and increased public understanding around the role of state housing in New Zealand.

We must thank historian Ben Schrader, who found his way into the homes of many people living in, or who had lived in, state houses. Everyone had an interesting tale to tell, and I’m very pleased to see here tonight some of those interviewed for the book.

New Zealand’s major state housing programmes are associated with the First Labour government, elected in 1935. But before then, in 1905, appalling housing conditions prompted Richard Seddon’s Liberal government to build the first state houses under the Workers’ Dwellings Act.

Seddon’s government built around 120 homes in Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. They were built on the margins of cities – in places like Petone and Newtown – for the ‘deserving poor’. Another 650 houses were constructed under other workers’ dwelling schemes over the next decade.

These early houses were built to a very high standard — so high that their rent was just too steep for those they were to house. You can still see these houses, for example in Jackson St, Petone; and there are two in Newtown which are still owned by Housing New Zealand today.

Thirty years and several housing schemes of varying success later, in September 1937, members of the First Labour government gathered at an attractive, modest, stucco house at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar.

This was the first house of the biggest state housing scheme New Zealand has seen. The photograph of Michael Joseph Savage carrying that dining table into the house for the first tenants — the McGregor family — has become one of the iconic photographs of state housing, and indeed of political history in New Zealand. Fifty years later, in 1987 as Minister of Housing, I was involved in a re-enactment of that event. Times and lifestyles had changed though, and it was a coffee table that Peter Neilson, the local MP, and I lugged into the house.

The sixtieth anniversary of that house's construction was not celebrated by the National Government in 1997. That’s hardly surprising, given that the market rental was $215 a week and the tenants’ pension was $292 a week! Even taking into account the accommodation supplement, state housing had become very expensive.

This history covers the major changes in thinking and policy around state housing. What comes through strongly is that government has an important role to play in helping people on low incomes into good, affordable homes. The disastrous change to market rentals under the National Government in 1991 caused poverty and demonstrated starkly that we cannot rely on market forces to deliver decent, affordable housing to all New Zealanders.

This book is also a history of the people and families who lived and live in state houses and their experiences. The book’s title, We Call it Home, says it all.

There are many personal experiences of state housing here, from past and current tenants, and the designers of the houses. There’s even a state house song, sung to the tune of ‘Goodnight Irene’.

As well as Victoria Birkinshaw’s wonderful colour portraits, there are moving stories: the apprehension and excitement of a family arriving at the front door of their new home; another picking wild puha to help make ends meet.

This is deliberately not the story of those who may have lived in a state house and then became famous. What this book gives is an insight into the lives of ordinary New Zealanders who are an essential part of our social fabric and history.

The picture it paints of life in New Zealand state houses over the years is realistic and not always rosy. It reminds us that many New Zealanders live on a limited budget, and life can be very difficult. A history of state housing without reference to ‘neighbours from hell’, ‘chores and housework’, and ‘chips in the veneer’ — all section headings in the book — would not ring true.

This book is a valuable contribution to our social history at a time when many New Zealanders are taking a greater interest in where they have come from and what makes us the people we are today. It is part of a range of initiatives undertaken by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to make our history and heritage more accessible to New Zealanders.

I want to congratulate the Ministry’s historians on their work. They have also prepared a website feature on www.nzhistory.net.nz which includes music, film, and sound. I also thank Housing New Zealand for commissioning the work and recognising the importance of recording our state housing history.

The book is a tribute to the many people who have shared their personal stories and photos. I thank them for participating in this project. Finally, congratulations to Ben Schrader on his skillful telling of our state housing story.

It now gives me great pleasure officially to launch We Call it Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand.


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