'They don't know I work. I'll go to jail if I get found out, but I work to feed and house my kids, I have to.'
State house tenant and beneficiary, Palmerston North, 1995
For low-paid workers and beneficiaries, making ends meet has always been a constant struggle. Unexpected bills will often blow budgets and asking for charity can be degrading. A lack of money also places strain on personal and other relationships, sometimes causing their breakdown. Life can be even tougher for those without a home of their own. The private rental market is often expensive – particularly in times of short supply – and sometimes discriminates against the poor and ethnic minorities. People in this situation often have to accept sub-standard accommodation or squeeze into a place too small for their needs.
In providing subsidised rental housing to those who can't afford, or who face discrimination in, the private housing market, the state has raised the living standards of thousands of New Zealanders. Yet critics of state housing have long claimed that subsidised rents are unfair because state tenants are privileged in comparison with their counterparts in the private sector, who pay market rents. The introduction of full market rents in the 1990s was designed to overcome this disparity, but its implementation increased the struggle many state tenants faced to make ends meet.
Securing a state house tenancy has never been easy. Demand has nearly always outstripped supply. This was especially true after the Second World War, when returning soldiers flooded the market. Unable to secure a home of their own, thousands of people were forced to rent rooms in squalid boarding houses or else move in with relatives or friends, placing severe strains on personal relationships. Many desperate people turned to their MPs for help.
One such person was Mr Greenstreet. In November 1944 he wrote to his MP, Walter Nash (the Minister of Finance), revealing that he, his wife, and small child had spent the past year living in a 10-foot (3 metre) square bedroom in Petone. With another child on the way, he begged Nash's assistance to secure a state house. While he was sympathetic, Nash replied that there were hundreds of others in the same position and the Greenstreets would have to wait their turn.
In March 1945, Mrs Greenstreet petitioned Nash, stating:
I have received a doctor's certificate advising me to make every effort to obtain more adequate accommodation as my husband and I share a bedroom with two children, which is definitely detrimental to both their health and mine.
The following February, an official informed Nash that the Greenstreets' living arrangements had been inspected and 'are most unsuitable for young children'. Furthermore, the landlady 'is in poor health and wants her own family living with her'. In June, Harry Combs (another local MP) told Nash that the 'highly strung' landlady is 'giving way under the stress of the living conditions' and had given her tenants notice to get out by September. Two months later the Greenstreets were happily ensconced in their new home: a state house in Naenae.
State housing has at various times discriminated against particular groups within society. Premier Richard Seddon had decreed that workers' dwellings would be built for (Pakeha) married couples with children; Maori, single people, and the elderly need not apply.
The 1930s and 40s schemes also favoured nuclear families above others in society. Since the 1960s state housing has targeted the poor and those who face discrimination in the private rental market, including Maori, Pacific Islanders and solo mothers. However, a 1991 inter-departmental report on Maori women's housing found that this group experienced covert discrimination by housing officials, by being allocated houses in what were commonly known as the 'ghetto areas' of towns and cities. One woman told the report's authors:
I explained to them that [name], my ex, had been associated with the Black Power and they were putting us in a dangerous situation – what's the use? They put us right next door to the Mongrel Mob. I told [the Housing Corporation] and asked for a transfer and they said they couldn't move me out because they would be discriminating against different gangs. We only stayed three nights out of six months. I ended up giving the house up and moving into a woolshed – at least that was safe.