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Inner-city living

by Philip Morrison and Ben Schrader

Once the scene of seedy lodging houses and commercial buildings, New Zealand’s inner cities have become cultural hotspots and home to the affluent and urbane.

Early inner-city living and its decline

The inner city refers to the central business district (CBD) and immediate surrounding residential areas – a total of about 2 square kilometres. Before the advent of large-scale public transport, most city dwellers lived within walking distance of their workplaces. The exception was the wealthy élite, many of whom rode in carriages from their homes in the outer suburbs. The introduction of cheap public transport in the late 19th century gradually allowed middle-class families to also live outside the city. With ample space for gardens and safe outdoor play, suburbs were considered to be the best place to raise children.

Decline in living conditions

As middle-class families left for the suburbs, investors bought up vacated houses and rented them to working-class families and the poor. Large houses were often converted into multiple dwellings, which were individually leased. Conversions were usually rushed and makeshift – thin walls and ceilings meant there were few secrets between neighbours. High rents encouraged overcrowding and the subletting of rooms. The speculative nature of such housing meant that despite profitable returns, few landlords maintained their properties properly, and many buildings fell into disrepair.

By the 1920s there was a zone of boarding houses and run-down dwellings between the CBD and suburbs. This area included ethnic enclaves, such as Wellington’s Chinese community.

Boarding and lodging houses

Boarding and lodging houses were concentrated near inner-city ports and railway stations, where they could cater for new arrivals – mostly single men. Many of these establishments were the converted former homes of wealthy city merchants. Bedrooms were let to individual tenants and bathroom facilities were shared.

Homes of despair

Often home to the despondent and desperate, boarding and lodging houses were scenes of many suicides. In 1867 Elizabeth Irvine hanged herself in a Whanganui lodging house. Having recently migrated from Ireland expecting to marry, she arrived to discover her fiancé had taken another wife – ‘too common’ a story, regretted the Evening Post.1 In 1886 former Royal Navy officer Theodore Berhew ‘blew his brains out’ in an Auckland boarding house after failing to prosper in New Zealand.2

Boarding-house meals were cooked by the landlady and served in a common dining room. The living room, also shared, was a place to read, converse or play cards. This communal emphasis distinguished boarding houses from lodging houses, where meals were not provided and lodgers cooked for themselves in a shared kitchen. Usually there was no common living space, forcing the residents to stay in their rooms or go out on the town.

Because boarding houses provided meals, they had a higher status than lodging houses. For new arrivals and city visitors, boarding houses were respectable places to stay. Tenants were mostly men, but couples and single women also took rooms. However, lodging houses were considered cheap accommodation for the working class and poor. With less oversight of comings and goings, they were also suspected places of ill repute.

In the 1920s boarding and lodging houses became seen as equally unwholesome. Wealthy tenants deserted boarding houses for more fashionable blocks of flats. Women left too – the decline of live-in domestic service and the rise of clerical and professional work saw women move to inner-city hostels, away from places where they were vulnerable to sexual advances.

St Elmo’s rise and fall

The grand St Elmo Boarding House in Christchurch’s Worcester St suffered a loss in status over time. As late as the 1920s it was advertised as providing ‘superior private accommodation’, but by the early 1930s it had been demolished. In its place rose St Elmo Courts, a seven-storey block of one- and two-bedroom flats for the city’s affluent.


Hostels were similar to boarding houses, but were institutionally rather than privately operated. Often run by welfare organisations, they were segregated into men’s and women’s accommodation. They catered for young people beginning their careers, and staff took a mentoring role, warning fresh-faced arrivals from the country about the pitfalls of city life. Hostels gave new arrivals immediate access to social circles – groups often went out to movies, dances or sports games. They also provided opportunities to meet a partner among the other residents or their brothers, sisters and friends. Hostels declined in popularity in the 1960s, when flats – shared-house accommodation – became the preferred lodging of young people.

  1. Evening Post, 13 March 1867, p. 2. Back
  2. Grey River Argus, 7 December 1886, p. 2. Back

City flats

Despite the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs in the early 1900s, there were still some wealthier people who preferred to live within walking distance of city workplaces and amenities. In the 1910s, developers responded to this market by building blocks of flats. Until then, they had avoided building them because of their association with the squalid tenements of European cities. Even terraced housing had been treated with suspicion, and very little of it was built. The ideal New Zealand home had long been a single dwelling on its own section.


The trend towards suburban living was challenged by two Auckland businessmen, William Stanton and Ernest Potter, who in 1914 built New Zealand’s first block of flats – Courtville, in Parliament St. With its bay windows and long street-front balconies it resembled a contemporary Viennese block. At the same time another developer built two semi-detached, three-storey London-like town houses (since demolished) in nearby Greys Ave. Both buildings epitomised big-city living, and were designed to appeal to sophisticated professionals unmoved by the charms of suburban bungalows.

Courtville style

Bill Sanders, who lived in Courtville from 1916 to 1923, remembers its well-heeled occupants: ‘In those days the tenants of Courtville were mostly professional people with offices in the City and naturally all walked down Shortland St or Bowen Ave. They looked rather an elegant lot in bowler hats and walking canes.’1


Because of their greater association with modernity and big city life, blocks of flats rather than town houses took off. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch experienced a spate of inner-city apartment building in the 1920s and 1930s – more than 30 blocks had been built in central Wellington by 1939. Their growing appeal was attributed to shrinking incomes (due to the economic depression), a lack of servants and increased pressure on people’s time. People were looking for housing that was relatively inexpensive, centrally located and comfortable. Equipped with electricity and featuring streamlined, built-in furniture, these flats offered freedom from the domestic chores associated with large houses.

Inner-city flats were intended for single adults and childless couples, although some families also lived in them.

Government flats

The first Labour government supported inner-city living, and in 1936 promised to replace slums with modern blocks. However, it soon dropped this focus in favour of building new state rental homes in the suburbs. Even so, in the 1940s it built a number of blocks of state rental flats in inner Auckland and Wellington for those ‘who have interests other than gardens and babies’2 – mainly the single, childless, and elderly. These blocks were architecturally modern and striking. In Wellington the Dixon St Flats (built in 1943) dominated the city’s skyline. However, subsequent governments rejected the high-rise option and refocused their efforts on suburban housing.

‘The Radiant City’ – in Wellington

In 1947, inspired by European architect Le Corbusier’s plans for a new Paris, a group of Wellington architecture students proposed rebuilding Te Aro in a similar vein. The whole area would be razed and rebuilt with modern buildings and apartment blocks set in park-like surrounds. The students mounted an exhibition of their plans in the central library. More than 20,000 visitors marvelled at their vision; however, their plans were too radical and were never realised.

Post-war developments

After the Second World War the inner city remained home to workers, the poor and transient, and the urbane. Many of these people moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, when much of the dilapidated housing was replaced with commercial and industrial premises. Inner-city populations continued to fall. Nonetheless, the construction of a number of high-rise flats in 1960s and 1970s Wellington indicated a continuing demand for such accommodation.

  1. ‘Potter/Stanton: the start of the Courtville years.’ (last viewed 6 July 2009). Back
  2. Arthur Tyndall, ‘Department of Housing Construction, Wellington, NZ: details of the scheme.’ Building Progress, March 1939, p. 4. Back

Inner-city revival

There was a revival of inner-city living in Auckland and Wellington in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Facing a weakened office market at the end of the 1980s, Wellington City funded experiments with waterfront apartments, confirming a latent demand. By this time the English term ‘flat’ had been replaced by the more fashionable American ‘apartment.’ Developers were tentative at first, but within a decade 2,000 new apartments had been approved in Wellington and by 2008 the number had trebled to over 6,000. In 2009, inner Auckland had 17,500 apartments.

Reasons for growth

The growing demand for inner-city living reflected:

  • the greater relative price of detached single-unit houses
  • the increasing distance to new subdivisions from central-city jobs
  • a growing younger population who spend longer in tertiary education and delay having families
  • the building of new offices in Auckland and Wellington, which created a demand for city workers and released older office buildings for conversion into apartments.

Residential boom

Between 1996 and 2006 residential growth in Wellington’s inner city exceeded its employment growth. There was a 38.5% increase in the number of people living in the inner city, but only a 20.1% increase in the number of employees working there each day.

New urban culture

The social reforms of the 1980s and 1990s also led to the revival of inner-city culture. Weekend shop-trading hours, liquor sales, bar opening hours and gambling laws were liberalised, encouraging more cafés, nightclubs and casinos. In port cities, old wharfing areas were redeveloped into bustling café, museum and leisure precincts. City centres, once empty in the weekends, were filled with life.

This new vitality attracted students and others back to the inner city. Old warehouses and offices were converted into dwellings and serviced apartments. Developers once more put up purpose-built apartment blocks, many of them in the central business district. Some went up in bustling entertainment districts such as Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour, creating a symbiotic relationship between apartment residents and café or nightclub owners.

Apartment style

A few of the new apartment blocks were arresting and stylish. Others were dull and dated, and some apartments were tiny, raising fears that developers were building slums-in-the-making. City councils responded to this concern by encouraging better design and ordaining stricter building controls, including minimum apartment sizes (35 square metres in Auckland).

Other cities followed the trend set by Auckland and Wellington, with new apartment blocks also redefining the skylines of Hamilton, Tauranga and Christchurch.

Noisy neighbours

In 2002, residents in a new, poorly soundproofed Wellington apartment block complained that music and chatter from the long-standing Matterhorn nightspot was keeping them awake. Critics said residents should return to the suburbs if they wanted quiet. But the city council forced the bar to install soundproofing.

Suburban refugees

Many of the new apartment dwellers came from the inner suburbs. One 2003 Auckland survey found that most came from suburbs on the immediate edge of the inner city. The main reason for the move was to be closer to places of work and study, followed by the desire to be near entertainment. But the transition from suburb to city was not always easy. Complaints from new residents about street and traffic noise both amused and irritated longer-term city dwellers. ‘What did you expect?’ they asked. Noise remained the number-one bugbear of Wellington apartment dwellers in 2009.


Most apartments continued to cater for people without children; it was still believed that family life was best pursued in the suburbs. But, as before, a few families with children also took up apartment living (12% of central-Wellington apartment dwellers were families in 2009). City streets and parks became children’s playgrounds.

Inner-city people

In their 2005 report using 2001 census data, Statistics New Zealand examined inner-city apartment living in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The comparison group was those living in apartments in the wider metropolitan area of each of the cities. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of people living in inner-city apartments grew 240%, from 2,532 to 8,607. The number in Auckland quadrupled, and that in Wellington tripled. It increased by only about a quarter in Christchurch.

Age and marital status

The median age of inner-city residents was 28 years, compared with 33 years in similar dwellings outside the inner city. One-quarter were between 20 and 24 years – a reflection of the fact that many educational institutions were nearby. Inner-city dwellers tended to be single: 47% had never been married and were not in de-facto relationships, compared with 34% of apartment dwellers elsewhere.


Immigration had a lot to do with the increase of apartments. Some 18% of those living in inner-city apartments in 2001 were recent immigrants (compared to only 4% of the national population). About 33% were students – 22% were enrolled in full-time study and 11% in part-time study.

Government landlord

In 2001 many inner-city poor lived in state rental flats. Of these, 35% lived alone and 18% were aged over 65. Because the rents of low-income tenants were subsidised, state tenants paid significantly lower rentals than other inner-city renters.


In 2001 only 8% of those living in the inner city were children. The survey noted that becoming a couple did not cause inner-city residents to move to the suburbs, but that having children often did.

Education and work

Inner-city dwellers in 2001 had higher levels of formal education. They were more likely to hold a bachelor degree or higher at all ages – particularly in Wellington – and were far less likely than their counterparts outside the inner city to have no formal qualifications. They were also more likely to be employed: 75%, compared with 66%. Just over half of inner-city apartment dwellers in paid employment worked in the central city (62% in Wellington), compared with 28% of suburban apartment dwellers.

Long hours

Some 33% of inner-city residents worked at least 50 hours a week, compared with 25% of those who lived in outer urban areas. A large proportion were professionals in jobs demanding long hours. Demographics also played a role – the single and childless had more freedom to work long hours than those with families.


Just over 70% of inner-city residents rented their dwelling. There was a strong relationship between age and tenure: 88% of those aged 20–24 were renting, whereas 58% of those aged 55–59 owned their apartment.


Inner-city apartment dwellers had higher incomes than their suburban counterparts. In 2001 the median income for the former group was $27,000, against $19,800 for the latter. Wellingtonians had the highest income ($31,200) and Christchurch residents the lowest ($21,400).


The revival of inner-city living has extended the range of housing options, mostly for non-family lifestyles. The market has supplied high-density living that can compete with alternative commercial land uses. Local government support, a trend to delay or forego marriage and children, interesting and well-paid city jobs, and vibrant street and night life have also contributed to the revival.

However, in 2009 most New Zealand dwellings were still single units – the change has taken place in a relatively small, concentrated area.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Philip Morrison and Ben Schrader, 'Inner-city living', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 November 2023)

Story by Philip Morrison and Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010