Housing and colonisation
The most basic idea of housing is as a place of shelter, where inhabitants are protected from climatic elements and perceived threats. For colonial settlers the construction of houses also symbolised colonising the landscape. While the first settlers often lived in Māori-style whare, these dwellings were soon replaced by European housing. This created a built environment that expressed European cultural values and submerged Māori ones.
In Auckland and Wellington, Māori pā and kāinga were progressively removed and their inhabitants rehoused in European-style dwellings. Since the 1950s some Māori and Pākehā architects have attempted to build houses that make reference to Māori design traditions.
A citizenship right?
The 1930s Labour government declared that access to good quality housing ought to be a right of New Zealand citizenship, ‘on the same level as the right to education, sanitation, to good and abundant water, to an adequate road system and to a certain amount of medical care.’1 However, to realise such an ideal the state would have had to intervene in the housing market on a scale no government since has been prepared to entertain.
The family home
A powerful and enduring idea about housing was that of the family home. Before 1800 families in Britain often worked and lived in the same building, but during the 19th century the idea that work and home should be separated became popular – a breadwinner husband would travel to a workplace while his stay-at-home wife managed the household and raised children. At the working day’s end the husband would return to the refuge of family and home life. Here too he could find solace in nature by working in the backyard vegetable garden.
In New Zealand, this ‘separate spheres’ ideal was widely promoted by reform groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who wanted husbands to spend less of their leisure time in pubs and more of it with their families. Government policies such as the 1935 family wage (which set the male wage at a level that could also support a wife and children) further strengthened the ethos. But from the 1960s feminists argued that the ideal imprisoned housewives in their homes. They encouraged women to seek paid work outside the domestic sphere.
By the early 21st century few families could make ends meet on a single income, and in many households both parents worked, full- or part-time. Unchanged was the notion of the family home as a private retreat from the public world of work. The ubiquity of the single-detached dwelling on a fenced section continued to highlight the importance New Zealanders placed on the pursuit of privatised family life.
In 1938 a New Zealand magazine carried the following joke:
‘Well,’ remarked a married man, after examining his friend’s new flat. ‘I wish I could afford a place like this.’
‘Yes’, said his friend, ‘you married men may have better halves, but we bachelors usually have better quarters.’2
Social status and identity
For most New Zealanders their home is an expression of their social status and sense of personal identity. A large house with ostentatious features on a spacious garden expresses the owners’ wealth, power and aesthetic taste. A state house on a barren plot in a low-income suburb suggests the tenants are poor and powerless. As well as signifying where people stand in a community’s social hierarchy, housing offers insights into the lives, values and aesthetic sense of those who reside in them.
Housing as an investment
For most home owners their house is their largest ever purchase. Almost all view it as an investment that will improve in value over time and from which they can make a lucrative capital gain when it is sold. This idea is so strongly embedded in New Zealand culture that in 2020 the nation was almost alone among developed countries in not having a capital gains tax – and proposals for such a tax excluded the family home.