Story: Māori housing – te noho whare

Page 2. Whare and health

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Sanitary conditions

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.

Spring fevers

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

Government intervention

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

New housing schemes

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).

Housing survey

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.

Housing designs

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.

Housing problem continues

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.

  1. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1880, G-4, p. 2. Back
  2. Raeburn Lange, May the people live: a history of Maori health development 19001920. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999, p. 152. Back
  3. Wanganui Herald, 12 Jul 1909, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Māori housing – te noho whare - Whare and health', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 March 2023)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013