Housing is often in the news as a cause of ill-health. Cold, damp and overcrowded houses lead to illness, and various initiatives from Housing New Zealand, in partnership with the District Health Boards, aim to promote Healthy Housing.
We are now told that heating bedrooms overnight to at least 16 degrees will protect us from raised blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke. This finding may delight power companies but it increases budgetary stress on poor families where expenditure on heating may seem a luxury.
Concern with poor housing has a long history in New Zealand. Before the creation of New Zealand’s Health Department in 1900, the 1876 Public Health Act empowered the courts to declare buildings ‘unfit for human habitation’ and a ‘nuisance’ if they were so overcrowded as to cause danger to the health of residents. Successive Municipal Corporations Acts empowered Councils to clear housing thought unfit for human habitation.
The year of the plague scare, 1900, led to health authorities in Dunedin condemning ‘houses unfit for human habitation’ but, as was inevitably the case with ‘slum clearance’, those evicted were ‘put into great straits’ since they had no where else to go. In the decade from 1895 and 1905 rents were thought to have increased by a fearsome 30%, and in Wellington in particular land values were said to be ‘over-boomed’. In 1900 the rapaciousness of landlords led to the following comment in the Journal of the Department of Labour:
If a baker sells unhealthy bread he is arrested and fined. If a butcher sells unhealthy or decayed meat he is made to feel the force of the law. But the landlord can rent unhealthy houses to a tenant and nothing is made of it. There is no difference in the two cases and they should be treated alike.”
The problem lay in providing adequate alternative low-priced housing for those in need. The Workers Dwelling Act of 1905 was a novel experiment by the Liberal government, establishing, as Eve Elworthy has noted, ‘the principle that the state is responsible for housing the worker under fair conditions’. It was a principle upheld by Labour but attacked by the National government. In 1991 National undertook the staged introduction of full market rents for state house tenants. In the years since, housing has remained a political football.
Ideas of what constitutes a ‘healthy’ home have changed remarkably over time. Old Plunket doctrines about the importance of fresh air – windows open at night in all weather – have faded before a new emphasis on warmth and comfort.
Good ventilation made sense in earlier generations when tuberculosis was rife and people feared its spread within families. In fact, Tb sufferers were often exposed to the cold as part of their treatment, as this 1913 image of women’s shelters at the Cashmere Sanatorium indicates. Set on the North-facing side of the Cashmere hills in Christchurch, their moveable doors and windows let in as much fresh air and sunshine as possible.
At the Waipiata sanatorium in the Maniototo, the windows were always open, no matter what the weather. In winter, patients attempted to ward off the snow that came in and settled on their beds by using umbrellas as shields. Nurses were kept busy through the night supplying water bottles to replace those that froze.
The ‘fresh air’ orthodoxy of the twentieth century has given way to the twenty-first century ‘warm air’ rule for a healthy home. Fresh air was free but warm air involves costs. The changes in the New Zealand electricity industry since the 1980s encouraged a market model, which led to significant reductions in cost for commercial consumers but significant increases for residential consumers. A 2014 report suggested that the price of electricity had ‘outpaced inflation’, increasing by about 4 percent per annum from 1996. Subsidies for insulation certainly assist the campaign for healthy homes but the need for a reliable and inexpensive source of heat remains.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
- Otago Daily Times, 17 June 2017, p.7.
- Eve Elworthy, ‘The Workers’ Dwellings Acts: Their implementation in Dunedin, 1905-1916,’ BA Hons Dissertation in History, 1987
- Susan M. Haugh, ‘The Hill of Health: Aspects of Community at Waipiata Sanatorium 1923-1961,’ BA Hon Dissertation in History, 2005.
- Electricity Authority Te Mana Hiko, Analysis of historical electricity industry costs, Final Report, January 2014.