News | 26 July 2023
Share on social

Looking back on 60 years of Council housing in Pōneke

The origins of Council housing in Wellington go back to World War ll and the years leading up to it, when the city’s population grew 26 percent and more homes were needed. Now, after 60 years, the Council’s City Housing service is being handed over to an independent Community Housing Provider, Te Toi Mahana, which will enable more social housing and continue the legacy. Wellington City Council local historian Gábor Tóth shares the story of City Housing over the decades.

Slums of Te Aro.
Te Aro Housing 1941. Photo by Bruce Orchiston, ATL Ref: PAColl-6013-3-16.

During the inter-war period, many people found themselves crammed into less than adequate housing, often in the inner city where slums had started to develop. 

Rent controls had been introduced as a war-time measure, restricting landlords from increasing their rent beyond inflation. However, these remained in place for many years after the war had ended and the consequences for housing were devastating. 

As private landlords were unable to increase rent, there was little incentive to improve or maintain their properties, many of which fell into appalling condition. 

After the war, there was another increase in population. This was a combination of demobbed soldiers who, having travelled the world, were less keen on returning to the provincial areas that many had come from. They wanted an urban city lifestyle, and they came to Wellington. 

Thousands of Māori joined them in a massive rural-to-urban migration, seeking new employment opportunities as the economy pivoted away from the war and towards the domestic production of consumer goods, with manufacturers protected by tariffs on imported equivalents. 

Coupled with this was a huge growth in the public sector as the state expanded to cope with the start of the baby boom. This saw a new generation of young white-collar workers coming into Wellington to begin their careers as cadets in the public service. The net result was a massive housing crisis in the city, bigger than the one we have today.

The Housing Improvement Act saw plans to improve matters with the Council being made responsible for slum clearances, and work began on how we could be directly involved with providing housing. 

The Wellington City Housing Act was passed in 1939 but it wasn’t until 1945 and the end of the war that it really took off. Under this scheme, the City Council would provide Wellingtonians with up to 90 percent of the cost of building a new house and the land on which it was sited, as long as it was within the boundaries of the city. This really took off after Johnsonville, Newlands and Paparangi were absorbed into Wellington in 1953. 

Newspaper clipping with the headline 'Single old peoples housing plight'.
NZ Truth, 16 May 1961.

Provided at favourable interest rates, with terms as long as 30 years if needed, loans from the Council were also forwarded to owner-occupiers of houses that needed significant improvements to allow for continued safe and healthy occupation. 

As well as the Council Loans scheme, the continued rollout of state housing in the 1950s started to have an impact on alleviating the crisis, but the problem was that this mainly targeted young families particularly as the baby boom got underway. 

Many men who had served in both world wars had come back to New Zealand with significant mental health issues because of trauma they had. Unable to form stable relationships, they remained as bachelors, ineligible for a state house. 

The elderly also often found themselves in terrible conditions. A widow whose only son was killed in the Battle of Britain was deemed to be a single woman, and thus was unable to get a state house despite being on a waiting list for 17 years.

Another elderly person lived in an attic in Te Aro in a single room that she had papered with old newspaper and flour and water paste, in a desperate effort to try and keep out the wind (see newspaper article above).

City housing apartment building.
Hanson Court Flats. Photo by Charles Fearnley, WCL Ref: 50003-1490.

The person who believed that the Wellington City Council should be at the forefront of finding a solution to this problem was Councillor George Porter. Professionally he had a background in architecture and planning, and he eventually became Frank Kitts’ deputy mayor. As soon as he was elected, he was made chair of the Town Planning Committee and then chair of the Housing Committee following its establishment in 1962. 

Porter set about lobbying successive housing ministers and £230,000 was raised (that’s about 12 million dollars today) to construct the Hanson Court Flats; the first major complex to be constructed of what was to become City Housing. 

The following year Porter turned his attention to a mass of run-down properties at the bottom of Brooklyn Hill and neighbouring Nairn Street. Five years in construction, the result was Central Park Flats; the largest housing project of its type in New Zealand when it opened in 1969. Units were promoted as being suitable for ‘Young Marrieds’. 

Demolition of old houses in Nairn Street for Central Park Flats.
Demolition of old houses in Nairn Street for Central Park Flats. Left to right; Frank Kitts, George Porter, Alice Campbell. WCC Archives Ref : 00340-496.

Soon substantial sized council units were popping up all over the city; one of the largest being the Newtown Park complex, which commenced construction in 1967. Its huge site became available following the demolition of the old Newtown Tram Sheds, once the longest building in Wellington at over 120 metres in length and 30 metres wide. 

By the time George Porter retired from the Council in 1974, we were well on our way to creating some 2,300 council housing units, and to being the second largest provider of social housing in the country after Kāinga Ora.

VIDEO: Origins of City Housing (Youtube)

Today there are 1,920 Wellington City Council properties, home to more than 3,000 residents. The Council will keep ownership of these properties, while Te Toi Mahana takes over the legacy of providing tenancy services and a commitment to grow the supply of social housing for Pōneke. Te Toi Mahana takes over as landlord to City Housing tenants from 1 August 2023.