Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bill McAra on Auckland's housing crisis

William Faulkner said the past is not even past yet. He was right. This image comes from the cover of a pamphlet published about seventy-five years ago by the New Zealand Housewives' Union, but the slogan it carries might have been made for 2016, when Auckland has thousands of salubrious and empty homes and thousands of homeless people. 

The Housewives' Union was a small and short-lived organisation set up by the Communist Party of New Zealand. One of its most prominent members was Connie Birchfield, who contested several local body elections as a communist candidate and was for a while a member of the party's central committee. The pamphlet was written, though, by Bill McAra, a long-time central committee member, and has survived amongst the papers he bequeathed to the University of Auckland. 

Katherine Pawley, who works in the superb Special Collections centre of the University of Auckland library, told me that McAra died of a heart attack late one night whilst sitting in his study trying to bring some order to the mass of papers he had collected during his long political career. Katherine and her fellow archivists were given McAra's document-hoard, which includes news clippings and photographs and letters as well as lengthy theoretical treatises, and have survived the task of cataloguing it

In 1956 Nikita Krushchev admitted some of Stalin's crimes, and revolts spread across Eastern Europe. When tanks were sent to Poland and Hungary to restore the Soviet empire, the revolt spread into the communist parties of the West. In New Zealand Connie Birchfield was one of many communists who were expelled after supporting the protesters in Eastern Europe and demanding that the Soviet leadership make a proper break with the politics of Stalin. Bill McAra sided with the Soviet regime and the local party leadership. A photograph from 1959 shows him addressing a congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The honoured guest's face is swollen with pride, or hubris, or both. McAra was eventually expelled from the Communist Party in 1974. 

Even if some of the texts in the McAra archive are best forgotten, the pamphlet on housing seems prescient. McAra was writing during World War Two, when housebuilding was almost abandoned in favour of the construction of fortresses along the nation's coast and bomb shelters and tunnels under cities. The war created a housing crisis so serious that in the late '40s some of the barracks left behind by American soldiers were turned over to young married couples and other Kiwis struggling to find places to live. Hundreds of civilians dwelt for years in the old American camps in Auckland's domain and its Western Springs reserve. 

The left wing of New Zealand's trade union movement demanded that the Labour government of Peter Fraser build thousands of new homes for workers, but it did not support all housebuilding. Luxury homes were seen as burdens on the New Zealand economy, because they required large amounts of scarce materials and labour. Before it was smashed by Sid Holland's National government in 1951, the Waterside Workers Union stood against the building of luxury homes, and called for a ban on the import of materials for such homes. 

It was in this context that Bill McAra presented luxury buildings as a threat to the poor. He was right in the '40s, and he's right today, as the empty homes of overseas-based millionaires show. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seem to have been several attempts to set up a housewives' union. Here's an article from 1913:

8:25 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Re those temporary housing places. My parents were in Camp Bunn here in Panmure. Some of the buildings used by the US Army are still there: they were used for storage in the 50s as was Sylvia Park on the Mount Wellington Highway where we used to pick up cables and some other equipment for the P 'n T (Post and Telegraph) (it was a very large Government store). Sylvia Park had, in some of the stores, about 100 army trucks all seeming to be in good condition. There was a lot of stuff there. All gone for a huge, ugly, shopping centre with overpriced goods and hundreds of plasmic overfed trolls pouring through its Sodom and Gomorrah spaces talking to themselves or endlessly and mindlessly 'texting' on cell phones. One wonders if they are worth anyone's concern...

But the Camp Bunn area was or had one of the largest munitions store of almost any place during the 2nd World War.

These housing shortages seem to cycle eternally. We might simply have too many people. It might be insoluble.

There are stop gaps. My father's architectural thesis advocated destroying houses in
Newton and building high rise buildings to save space and get rid of what he saw as slums. He had experienced such in London, which is why he left. Houses in London at
one stage were too close together, hence a fire risk: so the 1666 Great Fire of London.

I refuse to sell my house as I like it, I am used to it, I was bought up here. Real estate agents I simply ignore: I throw there literature in the rubbish: I tell anyone wanting to sell anything or me to contribute to anything that they have the wrong number.

The Chinese millionnaires and other overseas criminals have ripped in and are using the fact that we have a weak Government to take advantages of auctions to make big profits on land and buildings. I see it everywhere. They replace what were state houses with flats and they do bugger all for tenants. They come from a vicious environment where everyone is ripping everyone else's throat out to survive and then they see NZ and they rip into this place. They will give nothing back.

The Government has to rule out house auctions as illegal, stop all overseas investors, and build more houses for real kiwis and workers.

It is true there are too many on too high wages and living in large houses while others, who are working in productive work, get to live in rented places or sometime state houses. It seems these are being sold off though.

10:32 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Interesting about your parents Richard. A 94 year old woman who came along on the Pt Chev Smithyman tour last summer told me that she and her new husband lived for a time in a temporary home at Western Springs, an that it wasn't too bad a place. But according to historians many of the temporary homes were less than satisfactory. Whereabouts are the surviving military buildings in Panmure? I remember the ol buildings that were destroyed to make way for Sylvia Park.

11:56 am  
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