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 still 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 inspector 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 were 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 ‘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 eight times that of 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 new 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 social housing provision. A lack of funding and materials, complexities over land titles (because Māori land was generally owned by many people rather than just one title-holder), 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.
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 ($373.3 million in 2012) was required to fix the situation. Many Māori still lived in impoverished and unhealthy conditions, contributing to a tuberculosis death rate that by the mid-1940s was seven times that of Pākehā. Eastern Maori MP Tiaki Ōmana asserted Māori had the enough forests to make cheaper houses but lacked the finance to mill them; and that more government funding for Māori housing was needed.