A handsomely illustrated and impressively researched new book about the New Zealand state house reveals they pre-date the first Labour Government and were built not for the poor but for the working family.

State houses seem to be everywhere and it's true - they are spread throughout the country, from Kaitaia to Bluff. The archetypal houses of the First Labour Government are as distinctive as villas and bungalows, and more than 30,000 were built between 1935 and 1949.

More were built after that. Most houses are detached family homes in suburban settings, usually clad in brick or weatherboard, with a small mountain of tiles forming the roof. But it is the standardised windows that really help you be certain you are looking at a state house: the bigger windows divided into three panes of glass per sash, the smaller into two.

This 1939 state house was part of the Jaggers Estate subdivision above Auckland Zoo. The contrast between old and new shows the generation gap in style and values. Photo / Simon Devitt
This 1939 state house was part of the Jaggers Estate subdivision above Auckland Zoo. The contrast between old and new shows the generation gap in style and values. Photo / Simon Devitt

There are many surprises in the state house story. Labour's houses weren't the first, nor did Labour invent the welfare state or even state houses. Indeed, the nation's egalitarian ideals and social concerns go back further than that, at least to the "social laboratory" of the Liberal Government of the late 19th century. For it was the Liberal Government that built the first state houses, in the first years of the 20th century.

State housing continues today as part of a welfare programme. When we think of Government schemes like this, we think of them catering for the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the elderly and the alone. But both Labour's housing and that of the earlier Liberal Government were not created for welfare purposes; they targeted the working man and his family.

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Housing shortages in New Zealand are nothing new - they are a 150-year-old problem - and the state house programme aimed to address not just that issue but to improve the standard of housing for everyone and to set a new benchmark. State houses weren't just about putting roofs over heads, they were about improving the expected standard of living in the home and establishing better communities outside of it.

Juno plays in the yard of a 70-year-old Three Kings state house built during a 1939 development. Photo / Simon Devitt
Juno plays in the yard of a 70-year-old Three Kings state house built during a 1939 development. Photo / Simon Devitt

Extract from Beyond The State: New Zealand State Houses From Modest To Modern ($75, Penguin) with text by Bill McKay and Andrea Stevens and photographs by Simon Devitt, out now.

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