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