On “the half-gallon, quarter-acre, pavlova paradise”

The family home. Imaged edited with Pho.to Pro. Su Leslie, 2015.

Quarter-acre paradise.  Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Pho.to Pro.

The title of this post comes from the 1972 book by long-standing British Labour MP Austin Mitchell. The Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise is a commentary on New Zealand written in the form of advice to someone emigrating here. While most people have forgotten that the “half-gallon” referred to refillable beer bottles (1), and we’ve long argued with Australia about the origins of Pavlova (2), the “quarter acre” remains a kind of shorthand for the traditional Kiwi stand-alone family home (3).

The notion of New Zealand as a kind of South Pacific paradise was what lured my parents here from Britain in the late 1960s. It helped that they were offered paid passage, a guaranteed job for my father and an affordable rental home provided by the NZ Navy, for whom my dad would work.

After a few years here, we moved to another town where the large company that employed my father also provided employee housing. All of this meant that, unlike the majority of Kiwi kids of my generation, I was almost 13 before I lived in the first house my family actually owned.

Despite New Zealand having a long tradition of social housing going back to 1905 (4), the country has also had a high rate of home ownership, peaking in 1986 at 76 percent of households (5). Alongside a progressive programme of building state-owned rental housing, successive New Zealand governments also encouraged families into home ownership. One policy in particular proved hugely beneficial; between 1958 and 1991, families could opt to take their whole entitlement to a state benefit paid for each child as a lump sum, and use this as a deposit on a house. Known as “capitalising the Family Benefit”, this policy facilitated thousands of Kiwi families into their own homes (6) and created a major source of the wealth now held by New Zealand’s ‘baby-boomer’ generation.

photo 3-2

Repository of our family’s memories. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone 4, edited with Snapseed.

The Big T and I bought our first house together in England in 1998; a few months after our son’s birth. Eighteen months, and a few improvements later, we sold it and returned to NZ. The modest three bedroom house we bought then is still our home. We’ve extended and re-modelled it, but — from the outside at least — much remains the same. It is a pretty ordinary Kiwi house on the now almost mythical quarter acre that was once the standard size for residential plots.

It is the house our son has grown up in; the place we’ve held birthday parties and Guy Fawkes barbecues, whanau (7)  dinners and countless sleepovers. It is our home.

We’re fortunate we could buy property when we did. The housing landscape has changed greatly — and not for the better.

Traditional Kiwi villa. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Snapseed and Pho.to Pro.

Traditional New Zealand villa, beloved home of generations of Kiwi families. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Snapseed and Pho.to Pro.

These days there is no family benefit to capitalise and housing has become incredibly expensive relative to incomes (especially in Auckland). Property investors with much deeper pockets than most families drive prices up, and the dream of home ownership is disappearing for many. Burdened with student debt, and often uncertain employment, young prospective home owners find themselves struggling to save the required deposit — even when they could service a mortgage. If home ownership is to become a reality at all, people are resorting to the ‘bank of mum and dad’ or –particularly in Auckland –moving out to one of the green-fields housing developments  on the city’s outermost fringes.

High density housing on the city fringes. Far from the "Kiwi quarter acre" and beyond the means of many. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Snapseed.

High density housing on the city fringes. Far from the “Kiwi quarter acre” and still beyond the means of many. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Snapseed.


High density housing on the city fringes. Far from the “Kiwi quarter acre” and still beyond the means of many. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Snapseed.

These settlements are, at least for now, little more than dormitories for city workers. They generally lack employment opportunities and the social infrastructure provided by schools, sports clubs, community groups and even shopping and medical facilities. They separate young families from their whanau and other support networks, and are the antithesis of the “strong communities” our government claims to want to build. What’s worse, alongside the tearing up of countryside to build new housing estates, existing towns which aren’t within commuting distance of the big cities suffer such decline that the term “zombie towns” (8) has started to be used to describe them.

I’m not an economist; I don’t know how to fix our out-of-control housing market. But I can’t help feeling that if, instead of investing in motorways for commuters to move across our largest cities, we focused on regional development so that people could earn a decent living outside those large cities, we would at least reduce the “need” to tear up rural land on city fringes for high-density, dormitory housing — and give my son’s generation chance to raise their families in the kind of communities my parents found when they brought us half way around the world for a better life.

Just sayin!


Will my future grandchildren know houses like this only as illustrations in an old book? Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Snapseed and Pho.to Pro.

This post was started for Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge last week when the theme was open and I figured I’d post some architecture-related images. But it’s taken me so long to follow all the by-ways and blind alleys around the issues of housing that I’m cheating a bit and posting it for last week’s AND this week’s challenge. Notice I’ve craftily edited some of the images to play with the mood in a shameless attempt to make them relevant!

(1) Flavour of New Zealand

(2) Pavlova created in NZ, not Australia OED rules, BBC

(3) Quarter Acre, Wikipedia

(4) History of State Housing, Housing NZ

(5) Rates of Home Ownership, Encyclopedia of New Zealand

(6) One path to owning (Auckland) home gone forever, NZ Herald.

(7) Whanau – Maori and Family, Encyclopedia of New Zealand

(8) NZ has zombie towns that need to close — economist, NBR

30 thoughts on “On “the half-gallon, quarter-acre, pavlova paradise”

  1. Interesting post Su, we have a new development of Dormice house in the next town going for just under half a million! Crazy ridiculous times, how will our children afford housing.


    • Thanks Julie. It’s the same here. The tiny, garden-less high density houses being built near us cost about 17 times the average annual income here. I really worry about the prospects for my son’s generation.


  2. Su, I am touched by the combination of history and your personal story. Your part of the world does have that “paradise” image, mostly in relationship to the natural wonders. Global economics has this domino effect. Here in the USA we have the same problems. As the saying goes, the rich get richer…Economics has never been my strong point, but common sense tells me that “we” cannot continue to squeeze out all classes below the super rich. It’s a travesty. I really like your post processing, giving many of the images a vintage character, which complements the architecture.


  3. Pingback: Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge: Editing and Processing (Blurred Lines, Part One) | Lens and Pens by Sally

  4. Su, your post highlights a very important issue and brings to mind so many more. What seem to be singular issues are so woven into other problems that solutions are difficult. I’d say these are scary times, but when I look back, pretty much all times have been scary times. Nothing more profound this early morning but those few trite thoughts. Thanks for the post and the glimpse into life in NZ.



    • I think you are right Janet. Every period has problems that seem insurmountable at the time. I am very aware that I grew up in a “golden age” in New Zealand where we had relatively full employment, excellent health, education and social services, very low levels of corruption and quite a small gap between rich and poor. I guess it was a historical bubble and I was privileged to live in it. Cheers, Su


      • I think I grew up during the same sort of period in the US. We didn’t have much money, but didn’t know it and felt, and were, rich in the things that mattered. I think there were still lots of very rich people, but without all the news coverage (we didn’t even get a TV until I was in high school and then mostly to watch sports), we didn’t know about them and gaps didn’t matter and I don’t think we worried about them being rich and us not. We certainly weren’t grindingly poor, but my parents worked very hard and saved all they could.


        • I think we were much the same. My family certainly was able to achieve a lot more social mobility than we probably could have in the UK. New Zealand used to be a relatively classless society, and there really wasn’t all that much difference between rich and poor.


  5. It seems it is the same the world over. Housing at reasonable prices (both for sale and rent) should be a priority but all we seem to get are luxury developments and greedy landlords. I’m glad I’m not young any more!


  6. Interesting post. My parents capitalised on the family benefit and build a house in Lynfield. That area is now heavily developed and very expensive to get into. This last year is the first time I have actually had to rent. I brought my first home when I was 22. When I came back to New Zealand in 2001 I brought another home for $33,000. Sold that for $70,000. Brought my next home for $92,000 and spent $20,000 doing it up. Sold that and made a tidy sum when I married the idiot. Now that is all gone and I am just living week to week. He refuses to even consider a settlement. I am still tossing up though whether to rent or buy should I even get it. On the one hand when anything goes wrong I don’t have to pay for repairs. On the other hand I can do what I like with the decor etc. But in the meantime I am stuck where I am, which isn’t ideal.


    • Wow! Hard to believe you could buy a house for $33,000. Ours cost about nine times that the year before — and we felt we really got a bargain. I guess it show how out-of-kilter Auckland prices are. We rented for most of the time we lived in the UK, and generally had good landlords, but I’m not sure I’d be happy to rent here. We’re hoping to sell our place soon and downsize. Ideally we’d like to build an eco-house. I’d love to reduce our electricity bill!


  7. It seems the problem with foreign ownership and speculative investment is everywhere. The same challenges face most Canadians … especially near any major city. I have the same worries for the younger people with declining job opportunities and escalating housing prices.


    • I know some countries ban foreign ownership of land/houses, and there is a growing appetite for that here. We keep hearing that our rural land is being bought as “bolt-holes” for the uber-wealthy to escape unrest in their own countries. Just what we need!


  8. The problem you describe is unfortunately a world wide problem. We need to think in terms of compact cities where people can easily get to anything they need in a short distance. Many architects talk about the compact city but authorities need to make them happen. On a different note: Your hours looks really nice.


    • I totally agree. Here in Auckland there is an ever-greater push to move outwards! This happened in the 1960s and the problems it caused have been well documented. Our politicians and planners have learned nothing. Sigh. My next move will be to a small town or the fringe of a provincial city.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Su, another thought provoking post. The current situation traps Aucklanders – if they sell up and move away they may not be able to get back into the Auckland housing market. And, for people like us, from the regions, buying in Auckland is now unaffordable. I think you’re right the solution lies in supporting the regions. But how? I don’t know the answer to that either.


    • Thanks Jill. T and I have been talking about this a lot and we don’t know the answer either I can’t help feeling though that instead of spending billions on Auckland motorways so people can live even further from work, regionally-based agencies could be given cash to incentivise sustainable businesses to relocate and create employment in smaller towns and provincial cities. Without real meaningful jobs that employ people locally so they can spend locally, there is little hope for the regions. Just another thing that keeps me awake worrying about!


  10. It’s the same here. I’ve been watching my nephew and his fiancée try and buy a house and it’s almost hopeless. Negative gearing is a scourge on our society. The investors hold all the cards. But why does anyone need to own more than one house (one holiday house notwithstanding)?? Of course, buying a house is easy, according to our Treasurer. All you need is “a good job that pays good money.” Good one, Joe. Wanna tell us where those jobs are, exactly? Maybe you could employ someone to clean the six houses you own?


      • I think he, like most of his cabinet cronies, lives on planet Gina And Rupert. Clueless, the lot of them. So busy listening to the mining billionaires and right wing media moguls in their ears, they wouldn’t know a real person if they stubbed their fat cigars out on one.


  11. Pingback: Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge: looking back on the year | Zimmerbitch

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