Archaeological evidence from 14th-century sites in Palliser Bay, south Wairarapa, shows that Māori lived in whānau- or family-based kāinga (villages) near to food-rich rivers, beaches and forests. Their dwellings were rectangular in shape and resembled those of their former homes in Polynesia. This basic form became the wharepuni (sleeping house). The Palliser Bay settlements were permanent, but groups also occupied temporary settlements as they moved from one seasonal resource to the next, returning to a permanent base in winter.
English explorers James Cook and Joseph Banks, visiting in 1769, observed some Māori communities living in fortified settlements or pā. Such were the size of some of them that they were described as towns – in one pā there were reportedly 500 dwellings. However, the hapū- or whānau-based kāinga remained the norm in most parts of New Zealand. These featured a variety of building types such as pātaka (storehouse), kāuta (cooking house) and sometimes a wharenui (meeting house). The most common type, however, was the wharepuni.
The passing through kūwaha (doorway) and pare (carved lintel) of a whare has great symbolic importance. The pare carvings often represent the separation of the originators Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, and relate to the cancelling of personal tapu by a female figure on entering the whare. Other pare figures include particularly tapu ancestors, who are the protectors of the whare.
Traditional wharepuni had a proportion of length to breadth of 1.5–2 to 1. Roofs were gabled (with a sloping pitch). Some had a whakamahau (porch) and an interior hearth. Kūwaha (doorways) were low and while some had a matapihi (window) others did not. Most were constructed of timber, raupō (bulrush), ponga (tree fern) and kiri (bark) with a thatched roof. They had earth banked up against the walls and some had earthed-over roofs. The earth floors were sunken. There was a single space inside with a central passage and hearth; sleeping places lined either side. Smaller wharepuni had no central passage. The whakamahau was a work and social space, a place to receive visitors and engage in activities that were tapu inside, such as eating.
A second type was free-standing wharepuni without earthed-up walls. These were constructed of less-durable materials such as raupō and kiri, and became more popular after the arrival of Europeans.
From the early 1800s settlers introduced the European house to New Zealand, where internal space was divided into rooms with different functions: kitchen, living room, bedrooms and so on. Some Māori chiefs were early adopters of European-style dwellings. Ngāpuhi chief Rāwiri Taiwhanga was the first prominent Māori to live in a European-style dwelling, erecting a large cob cottage with a shingle roof in Paihia in 1831. In the early 1850s Te Āti Awa chief Wiremu Tako Ngātata (known as Wī Tako) lived in a small cottage at Ngāūranga pā, near Wellington.
In 1892 a Waikato government official reported that of those Māori who had built wooden houses, few actually occupied them. ‘There is a want of sociability about a wooden house that makes it unsuitable for the Maori mind (and body) for permanent residence. They cannot sit all round the fire as in the case of the fire in the centre of a Maori whare. They do not feel at home, or at ease, on the boarded floor of the pakeha house as on the fern and mat-covered floor of the Maori whare.’1
Most Māori however continued to live in wharepuni. From the 1870s some of these included European materials, such as door knobs, nails, sawn timber, sheet metal (for roof ridges) and glazed windows. From the mid-1880s free-standing whare began to incorporate chimneys and have higher walls and doors. Chimneys allowed smoke to escape, paving the way for internal cooking. At the same time the side-entrance whare with a verandah became popular. This resembled a European cottage, but was based on the side-entrance wharau, a temporary wharepuni.
From the 1870s the government encouraged Māori communities to build wooden houses in the European style as these were seen as more civilised and healthy. In 1882 an official reported that most houses in Māori communities in Canterbury and Otago ‘are now built of wood and contain three or four rooms, besides a kitchen … some of the dwellings are comfortable, commodious and well furnished.’2 By 1886 the Wairarapa settlements of Te Ore Ore and Pāpāwai both had ‘very good’ timber houses.3 In other regions the shift to European-style dwellings was slower or even resisted until the early 20th century.
In colonial society most Māori lived in rural kāinga (villages). While Māori had built up immunity to some European-introduced diseases, bacterial diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis, and viruses such as influenza, affected Pākehā and Māori alike. Their spread was aided by poor nutrition, and insanitary and overcrowded living conditions.
In cities bacterial disease rates dropped off from the 1880s with the introduction of piped drinking water and underground sewers. But such facilities were lacking in most kāinga, which continued to experience regular outbreaks of disease. Government officials blamed the situation on inferior diets, poor hygiene (polluted wells encouraged typhoid), the location of many kāinga on low or swampy ground, and overcrowded housing.
In 1880 an official in Northland reported that during September and October up to 20 children had died from a fever in the vicinity of Rarawa. He noted that such fevers usually occurred in spring when good-quality food was scarce after winter. ‘The want of proper ventilation in their houses, they being damp, and overcrowded, and the absence of ordinary cleanliness in their persons, is another cause of disease’, he asserted.1
Eventually the government intervened. In 1900 territorial Māori councils were created and given the power to enforce sanitary regulations in Māori communities. In 1901 Māui Pōmare was appointed New Zealand’s first native health officer and was able to order the demolition of dwellings. Two years later native sanitary inspectors began house-to-house inspections. Each recorded the annual total of houses demolished and built in his district.
In the five years to 1909, 1,256 houses were destroyed and 2,103 wooden cottages built throughout New Zealand, all paid for by Māori. ‘The order of the day is the “whare pakeha”’, proclaimed one inspector.2 A critic acknowledged the improvement, but argued that ‘the great majority of Maoris still live in wharepunis, void of ventilation and reeking with tobacco smoke’. Further education was needed to overcome the problem, he concluded.3
The disproportionate impact on Māori communities of the 1918 influenza epidemic – the Māori death rate was more than eight times that for Europeans – led to new initiatives to improve housing and public health in kāinga. During the 1920s Māori rural land development schemes included provision for building new houses. A programme initiated under the Native Housing Act 1935 provided loans of up to £750 to applicants who had land and could make repayments. A 1938 amendment set up a special housing fund of £50,000 for poor and needy Māori.
The three initiatives were based on the principle of self-help; housing assistance was through loans rather than the provision of social housing. A lack of funding and materials, complexities over land titles (because Māori land was generally owned jointly by many people), and the fact many Māori were too poor to service loans hampered the schemes’ effectiveness. Accordingly, most new houses were built under the rural land development schemes (1,244 by 1940) rather than the Housing Act schemes (368 by 1940).
In 1933 Dr Harold Turbott conducted a housing survey of Māori kāinga in Waiapu district (East Cape). He found 60% of houses were overcrowded; 50% had unsafe water supplies; 50% of pit toilets were faulty; 30% had no toilet, and only 6% had a bath and 13% a sink.
Many of the houses built were Public Works Department designs. To cut costs, most dwellings had two bedrooms and relief Māori labour (unemployed workers) was used to erect them. Their designs mirrored the dated bungalow styles of the 1920s, an aspect that distinguished them from the fashionable English cottage-style state houses built for Pākehā. The small size of dwellings did not suit the inter-generational living arrangements of Māori communities, but the government did not want to encourage this model because it believed it led to overcrowding.
The housing schemes did little to relieve Māori housing need. In 1939 it was estimated that half of all Māori were inadequately housed and over £4 million ($420 million in 2020) was needed to fix the situation. Many Māori still lived in impoverished and unhealthy conditions, contributing to a tuberculosis death rate that in the mid-1940s was seven times that of Pākehā. Eastern Maori MP Tiaki Ōmana asserted that Māori owned enough forests to make cheaper houses, but lacked the finance to mill them; more government funding for Māori housing was needed.
Attracted by work opportunities and the ‘bright lights’ of city life, rural Māori began to move to Auckland and Wellington in the 1920s. However, many faced problems finding accommodation. The reputation Māori had among Pākehā for overcrowding and taking poor care of their homes meant few landlords were prepared to have them as tenants. As attendee James Rukutoki told a Māori leaders conference in 1939, ‘the only dwellings open to the Maori are the ramshackle discards of the pakeha’.1
After the Second World War the migration of Māori to cities increased. Most settled in inner-city areas such as Freemans Bay (Auckland) and Newtown (Wellington), where rents were cheaper but houses were old and slum-like. On the positive side it led to concentrations of Māori within particular communities, allowing new migrants to live near and receive support from kin who were already urbanised. In Freemans Bay, Māori valued being close to central city entertainments and the Maori Community Centre, the hub of Māori social and cultural life in post-war Auckland.
Many urban Māori lived in old houses that had been subdivided into ‘apartments’. In 1951 a survey of such dwellings in Auckland reported some Māori families with four children or more had to crowd into one- or two-room apartments. Cooking was often done on a primus stove, and bathrooms or washrooms were shared with the other tenants. Few units had heating. In one instance, water had to be carried up steep and narrow stairs.
The influx of rural Māori saw the creation of boys’ and girls’ hostels in the main cities for Māori youth of working age. These provided safe places to stay, facilitated friendships among tenants and offered advice on adapting to city living.
Legislation never barred Māori from accessing state rental housing. However, the perception of officials that few Māori could afford the rents and that their presence would lower the tone of state-housing areas effectively excluded them. This changed in 1944 with a scheme to create a separate pool of Māori houses to be built by the (state) Housing Division and be managed by the Department of Māori Affairs and the State Advances Corporation (SAC).
To encourage their integration into Pākehā society, Māori families would be pepper-potted or dispersed into streets of Pākehā families. (There were a few exceptions to the policy, such as at Waiwhetu in Lower Hutt, where state housing for local Māori was erected around the marae.) But between 1948 and 1954 only 97 houses were placed into the Māori pool by the Housing Division.
In the late 1950s the pool system was abolished and many needy Freeman’s Bay Māori families were re-housed in mainstream state housing in Ōtara (Auckland). From the 1960s Māori communities also developed in the state housing suburbs of Porirua (Wellington) and Aranui (Christchurch).
Māori were also able to access low-interest Māori Affairs loans to build their own homes. Applicants had to own a section, stump up a deposit and be able to service a 25-year-term mortgage. Some Māori took advantage of the provisions and built their own homes, but others were unable to afford the costs of home ownership.
New housing for Māori paid no attention to Māori tikanga (cultural values and traditions) because of the state’s aim of assimilating Māori into Pākehā society. This meant notions of keeping noa (non-sacred or ordinary) and tapu (sacred) separate were sometimes violated, such as having a washing machine next to the kitchen sink. Many Māori nonetheless adapted their homes to allow the practice of tikanga. For instance, before the creation of urban marae, bodies were sometimes laid out in garages for tangihanga.
The concept of manaakitanga (hospitality) means Māori may accommodate guests even when there is little room. In the early 1990s a woman told a researcher of staying in ‘a one bedroom house, it was my aunty’s and we had 16 of us living there … we turned the garage into a bedroom, my brother turned what used to be a tool shed into a bedroom, and the caravan … it was really bad there’.2
Research in the 1980s showed most Māori wanted to own their own homes, but Māori household home ownership rates were sharply lower than for the total population – 49% compared to 73% for the total population in 1986. Factors contributing to the situation included lower incomes, higher unemployment and larger family size than the national average.
A high proportion of Māori households lived in overcrowded conditions. This was attributed to a preference for extended family living, the doubling up of families to share living costs and continued discrimination against Māori tenants by landlords. Researchers argued the existing Pākehā needs-based housing provision policy had failed Māori. What was required was a Māori-based solution to the problem.
The declining rate of Māori home ownership led to Māori demands to be given more power to solve the issue themselves. In 1988 the government agreed to hand over to iwi (tribal) authorities some degree of ownership and control of housing resources. This saw an expansion of papakāinga (Māori village) housing schemes, where low-deposit state loans were provided to build homes on Māori land that had multiple owners, usually around an existing marae – few private sector lenders lent on multiple-title land.
There have been a number of other schemes:
Some urban Māori received housing support from Māori urban authorities and trusts. However, most remained reliant on social housing providers such as Housing New Zealand (in 2006, 12% of the Māori population lived in Housing New Zealand housing) or the market to meet their accommodation needs.
In 2011 the Pukaki Trust received a $770,000 loan and a $770,000 grant from Housing New Zealand’s Housing Innovation Fund to build 10 houses on its papakāinga near Auckland airport. The development would provide affordable rental housing for low- to middle-income Pukaki whānau and would allow them to retain their independence while also having access to outdoor communal areas and their marae.
In the early 21st century many of the problems that had long beset Māori housing remained. Houses where Māori lived were often sub-standard, cold and damp. This was sometimes because it was these dwellings that were the most affordable. At other times it was due to a willingness of Māori households to accept lower-grade housing to live close to whānau. Overcrowding remained a problem. In 2006 about 23% of the Māori population lived in crowded households, close to six times the rate for Europeans. As before, this contributed to poorer health outcomes for Māori. In 2009 health researchers found Māori children aged 5–14 had an acute rheumatic fever rate 10 times higher than that of Europeans. One of the identified risk factors was household crowding.
Low average incomes, unemployment and rising house prices (especially in Auckland) continued to be barriers to Māori home ownership. In 2006 the proportion of Māori aged 15 and over who owned or partly owned their home was 29% compared to a national rate of 50%.
From 2010 the government sought to improve Māori housing outcomes through the Whānau Ora (well families) scheme. Its aim was to reduce welfare dependency among Māori by making them financially independent and healthy members of society. The policy acknowledged that housing was only one element to Māori wellbeing: health, education and legal issues were important too. The vision was for government housing agencies to work with Māori trusts to build housing for Māori who were prepared to be part of Whānau Ora – this might include agreeing to things such as not smoking and not drinking excessively. The scheme, initiated by the Māori Party, highlighted how Māori solutions to housing problems had now become part of mainstream thinking.
Ferguson, Gael. Building the New Zealand dream. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1994.
Lange, Raeburn. May the people live: a history of Maori health development 1900–1920. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999.
Maori Women’s Housing Research Project. For the sake of decent shelter. Wellington: Housing Corporation of New Zealand, 1991.
Martin, David Robert. ‘The Maori whare after contact.’ University of Otago, MA thesis, 1996.
Schrader, Ben. We call it home: a history of state housing in New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 2005.