Workers Dwelling Act 1905
In 1905 the Workers Dwelling Act made New Zealand the first nation in the Western world to provide public housing for its citizens. The government built and rented ‘workmen’s homes’, with large gardens, on the outskirts of the main cities. The high quality of these houses, however, meant that the rents charged for them were more than most working people could afford. Also, most of these houses were located beyond the limits of tram and rail systems. Shift workers, especially, could not afford to live far from their workplaces. The government admitted that its pioneering state house scheme was not successful, and all the ‘workmen’s homes’ were eventually sold to private landlords.
State finance for housing
The Advances to Workers Act 1906 made cheap finance available for the first time to people wishing to build or buy a home. From the 1920s the state provided further low-cost loans to buy both sections and houses. This guaranteed credit fuelled a boom in land and housing speculation. The frenzy of property development that occurred on the edges of every major city resulted in suburbs such as Mt Albert in Auckland, Karori and Khandallah in Wellington, and St Kilda in Dunedin.
Prophecies of profits
The developers who sold suburban properties during the boom years of the 1920s sometimes made exaggerated claims for the financial security of their investments. A 1922 advertisement for a subdivision in Mt Albert, Auckland, said: ‘Those who have the foresight to buy a section in Mount Royal Estate today MUST MAKE MONEY and their only regret will be that they did not buy two.’ 1
Farmland on the city fringe was surveyed into sections and supplied with roads and drainage. To fit as many houses as possible on to each new housing estate it was generally subdivided into oblong plots fronting the street, with few areas left open for parks or other public facilities. The suburbs established in this period were often poorly laid out, with little thought for public transport or other community needs. Garden cities and other advanced town-planning ideas from overseas were seldom tried in New Zealand.
Labour’s first state houses
The 1920s housing boom turned to bust in the early 1930s when New Zealand was hit hard by a worldwide economic depression. Many first-time homeowners were forced to return to renting as their houses were repossessed by the state or private finance companies. At the same time the population grew while the number of new houses dropped sharply, causing a severe housing shortage. The first Labour government, elected in 1935, promised to build thousands of affordable houses. By March 1939, 5,000 had been constructed, mostly at Miramar in Wellington and in the Hutt Valley nearby, and at Ōrākei in Auckland. New building materials, power tools and construction techniques meant firms such as Fletchers could mass-produce houses cheaply and quickly. The simple three-bedroom detached family home became standard for both state and private suburban housing.