Monday, 16 May 2016

On the state of housing

Housing is fundamental to life on many different levels.  It's physical shelter and emotional security and it signals place in a status driven world.

It's accepted as a basic human right by all people of common sense and common decency. 

There are people who think it's ok for there to be homelessness; for people to be paying a massive proportion of their wages on rent or mortgage and to have to scrimp on essentials in order to pay the rent; for young children and old people to die because of their home is cold and damp and mouldy; for landlords to be in receipt of vast sums of public funds which could be invested in social housing; for social housing to be sold off and not be replaced, and for the remaining social housing to be allowed to run down and its occupants to be stigmatised. 

To explain why it is inevitable or even desirable that some people have more than they could ever need while others have to scrape by with barely enough, such people devise all manner of explanations and justifications - from the myth of market forces to the barren belief that people are the authors of their own misfortune - the bad choice mantra. 

All their ideological manoeuvring is an attempt to justify the unacceptable.

I spent a fair bit of my childhood in state housing with a period in a private rental. Being young I wasn't overly aware of the social stigma of the former but I was acutely aware of the stress on my family of the latter.

My parents lost their farm cottage when my share milker father had a bad tractor accident. My mother had a 3 year child and was 8 months pregnant - with me.  The farm they worked on was very remote; by the time they got my father to hospital his wounds and compound fracture of his leg had infected. He got gas gangrene. They saved his life with penicillin and tried to save his leg with newly developed plastic surgery techniques, using skin from his rib cage. They controlled his pain with morphine. He spent over a year in hospital and came out with a  permanent disability and an addiction to morphine which he fed with various over the counter pharmaceutical drugs like codeine phosphate.  

While he was in hospital my mother lived with her parents until RAF friends of my father's got us housed in a transit camp at Wigram.  They were eventually housed in a small 2 bed 1940s state house in a North Canterbury township. By modern standards it was very basic;  it had no insulation, no reticulated water supply, it was heated by a small open fire in the living room and was clad in asbestos-cement sheets. It's still there - probably upgraded a bit and with reticulated water, town sewage and ceiling insulation but basically it's the same house. I don't know if it's still owned by the state or has been sold off. 

My parents got a 3% state mortgage and built their own small home in another township where my father had got a job.  The house was a classic, all wood 3 bedroom place on a half acre section. It wasn't insulated, had polished wooden floors in the living room and lino every where else. It was heated by an open fire in the living room, a small incinerator in the kitchen and a diabolically dangerous kerosene heater in the hall. The bedrooms were icy in winter. We had a hot water bottle which heated a small patch in the middle of the bed and was then pushed down to keep feet warm. We had flannelette sheets if there were enough go round all 5 kids and we wore flannelette pyjamas and woollen socks all winter.  Getting up to go to the toilet not only meant braving the monsters that lived under the bed, it meant freezing your feet and butt off on the cold floors and in the bitterly cold toilet. 

But it was ours.  Well it was until the bone in my father's injured leg decided to die and he had to have the limb amputated. He lost his job, they had to sell the house and had no capital gain. We moved to Christchurch into a 2 bedroom plus sunroom private rental because there were no state houses available that were large enough. My older brother had to stay in North Canterbury boarding with another family because there was no room for him in the rental.  

Christchurch was much damper than where we had lived before.  The windows in the house constantly ran with condensation.  My memories of it were an unremitting, penetrating cold dampness, my father trying to adjust to losing his leg, and my mother trying to cope with 5 kids and too little money.  Although electricity was cheap we could not afford to run electric heaters and the open fire could never be persuaded to give out any heat.  The electric water heater was useless and inadequate for a large family. 

She had to ask for help - harder than I knew for someone as proud as her.  I  found her one day standing over the old washing machine which had broken down. She was sobbing.  When I asked her what was wrong, she screamed at me.  For about 5 minutes I copped all her exhaustion, frustration and humiliation.  I was 12 years old.  Then she calmed down and we hauled the load of sheets out of the machine into the stone tubs, rinsed them in cold water, hand wrung as much water out of them as cold hands allowed and hung them on the line to get as dry as they could on a damp Christchurch winter day.  The thing was, we didn't have a linen cupboard full of spare bedding. 

We didn't have to suffer that for very long as we were eventually housed in a brand new 4 bedroom brick state house in Aranui.  My older brother was able to come home and for the first time in his 16 years had a bedroom to himself. It was not much more than a box room but it was his own. My mother and father probably felt the stigma of living in Aranui in a state house more than we did but there was no denying that the house was the best we had ever lived in.  

For my father in particular, owning his own home was a visceral thing. The eldest son of a farm labourer, he had spent all his childhood living in tied accommodation.  They managed to scrape together some money and bought a house with another state mortgage. A lovely 1920s villa which my father was as proud of as any man could be.  

He died in it. He was younger than I am now.  It died too. Perfectly sound and saveable but in the east Christchurch red zone, it was bulldozed and dumped by a government too far up the backside of a venal insurance industry to be bothered to save it, and my mother was in need of the money tied up in it to pay an equally venal aged care industry when we were no longer able to care for her.

The 4 bed state house in Aranui died also. 

Our little story is worse than some but far better than most when viewed globally and historically.  Despite the crappy housing we grew up healthy and we thrived - mostly it must be said due to the social welfare systems that are being undermined and starved of funding in the cause of the great neoliberal project of enriching the rich and impoverishing the rest.

The way I live now is at a vast remove from my childhood. I benefitted from free education, from that small window of opportunity that opened up for working class girls like me.  I lived and worked in the UK in relatively well paid jobs and with my partner managed to end up with a mortgage free house in London. Selling that and moving here before the housing market took off meant we live in a house that is warm, dry, spacious and aesthetically pleasing, and we rent out the cottage we lived in while we were building. 

That cottage is the cheapest rental of its size and quality within 50 kms of Christchurch. That's because we would rather take a loss than be leeching landlords. 

That some people live in absolute luxury alongside others who live in garages or cars or under bridges or in shop doorways is not just unacceptable in a first world country. It divides, it destroys, it stifles and it wastes potential. 

It is the exemplification of all that is wrong with our society.   


  1. Thank you for this beautiful piece. Very moving. ... I see my own sister at the moment in your description of your mother sobbing with fury and frustration and humiliation over the washing machine, as my sister and her partner desperately seek rental accommodation they can afford for themselves and their two kids after an abrupt (and steep) rent hike by the landlord of the property they have been in for several years. I'm so bewildered by where the country I knew growing up has gone.

  2. Thank you Stella. I'm also bewildered by the new New Zealand. Although it wasn't great for the likes of my parents they at least had the hope, indeed the expectation that things could and would get better for them and their children. And they didn't have images of affluence and privilege rammed down their throats everywhere they looked and nor could they fall into the debt trap that so many working people are mired in these days. I hope your sister manages to find a decent rental -the housing crisis makes it hard enough when you're single, but it's a nightmare when you have kids.

  3. Thanks for sharing this blog, after reading this blog my most of the doubt are cleared, keep going on.

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  4. Well said Lyn. So well said.