Auckland housing’s 100-year-old problems

11 December 2017

Families forced into overcrowded and often unhealthy housing is one of the more disturbing fallouts from Auckland’s current housing crisis. What makes this reality worse is these families, in 2017, are living in conditions comparable to those endured by families in the early 1900s – a time of world wars and the Depression.

It was the end of World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic that led to an increased awareness of overcrowding and poor housing conditions. House building was much reduced during the war when housing materials and construction workers were used for the war effort instead of building sufficient houses to keep up with population growth. The same happened during World War II. The worldwide Depression of the 1930s had also led to a reduction in both the number of houses built in Auckland and the ability of people to afford healthy homes.

Auckland has not recently suffered from a major world war, or a major economic depression. However, as in the first half of the twentieth century, house building has failed to keep up with population growth and migration and forced some Aucklanders to live in overcrowded conditions.

Infectious diseases spread rapidly in overcrowded homes. Earlier in the twentieth century, politicians and medical professionals saw tuberculosis as the main health threat from overcrowded housing. These days, rheumatic fever, asthma, bronchiolitis, pneumonia are the major health problems attributed to overcrowded homes. And tuberculosis, which had become much less of a threat, is currently having a resurgence in Auckland as poverty and overcrowded living conditions increase transmission of this disease.

Substandard living conditions can severely impact the health of children in particular. In August 1939, the NZ Truth stated that New Zealand children had ‘no chance of remaining healthy while living under such damp and crowded conditions’. The New Zealand Herald in August 2017 argued ‘diseases linked to cold, damp, overcrowded homes are killing more New Zealand children than car crashes or drownings’. These statements, exactly 78 years apart, demonstrate how long there has been awareness of the connections between children’s health and housing.

Does this mean that the problem of unhealthy housing in Auckland is unsolvable? No, it does not. We have faced similar issues in the past, and we should look to the past for ways to build our way out of our current housing shortage.

When the wider Auckland public became aware of unhealthy housing during the influenza epidemic, they agitated for council and government intervention into the housing market. The Auckland City Council responded by building council houses for people living in the most unhealthy slum conditions and government loans enabled families to purchase new, healthier homes.

Following the Depression, the First Labour Government (elected in 1935) began a nationwide state housing programme which aimed to provide healthier rental homes for New Zealanders, especially those with young children. This programme was hindered by the Second World War, but there were still thousands of houses built that provided better living conditions for many Auckland families.

Perhaps the most forgotten of these solutions was Auckland’s transit housing scheme. This scheme, which began during the Second World War, involved the conversion of former military barracks into temporary homes for people living in severely overcrowded and unhealthy conditions. Transit camps were located in some of Auckland’s green spaces including Victoria Park, the Domain and Western Springs Park.

This history proves the point that privately built housing has never provided healthy homes for all Aucklanders. What we need now is a return to investment from the government and the Auckland Council to help ensure everyone, especially children, can live in healthy homes.

Back in 1936, the Auckland medical doctor, E.B. Gunson, stated: “Economically it is unsound to manufacture illness by permitting in our midst the continuance of adverse housing and living conditions, and then provide costly hospital beds in an attempt too often not completely successful to remedy the disease which would not have developed under decent living conditions.”

This statement remains relevant in today’s housing crisis. We need to focus our efforts on providing better housing conditions for all instead of treating, belatedly, the health issues arising from substandard housing conditions.

Ella Arbury is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Arts whose research combines medical and architectural history. She is also a graduate teaching assistant in History.

Used with permission from NewsroomAuckland housing’s 100-year-old problems published on Monday 11 December 2017.