The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes
I AM ON the edge of sleep when a memory, weak and edgy as an altostratus, returns. It floats me back to a hot day in the summer of my eighth birthday, a staunch apple tree standing in the front garden of our working-class, semi-detached home in a cul-de-sac in the Midlands, England, as a hive of displaced bees rollercoaster through the prickly air. The colony nests their disturbance in a low branch as panic grips the bodies of all the children present. A few parents shoo us indoors where we wait for the bees to take flight once more.
What follows this memory is a sound, startling and rare. It tremors across the place where I live now: Waiotaiki Bay, at the eastern edge of Auckland, New Zealand.
Perhaps, hearing the noise, my neighbours also consider bees, perhaps even those as fractious and unsettled as the bees of my youth. Or perhaps my neighbours know, at some instinctive, aural level, this commotion has nothing to do with animal displacement. For they, like me, are intimates with how warm February nights in our community are amplified by the susurration of cicadas and the occasional onomatopoeic cry of a morepork. So they, like me, open their glazed doors to this strange music, permitting it to wing its way down their hallways and into their bedrooms where it disturbs their children in their dreaming, too. Now my neighbours, like me, understand the nature of this torment, its resonant force. A cacophony of whistles, brief, high-pitched and frequent. Footfall, heavy and numerous. The rasp of mechanised exertion. Megaphone chants, elongated, bass and intermittent, which form a refrain.
Roused, my neighbours, like me, step onto their decks, their berms, our pavements. There we confront the sight of a house atop a Kenworth truck being carried slowly down our street. It’s followed by a cortege of police officers who escort chanting protestors while a buzz of journalists and cameramen follows.
Framed by moonlight and the clamour of so much attention, the house, an everyday state house – colloquially known in New Zealand as a ‘statie’ – seems especially wild. Its yellow exterior is shadowed somewhat by darkness. Shorn of power, empty of furniture, it is tenderly guided beneath old, swaying electricity cables. It is airborne, out of place, like a ghost or misplaced memory.
When the Kenworth is put into higher gear, the house – formerly Number 25, Silverton Avenue – floats away into the night.
IN SEPTEMBER 2011, five months before Number 25 disappeared into that fierce February dusk, 156 eviction notices were posted to front doors across our neighbourhood. Affected residents were given ninety days to vacate their homes. They were offered alternative accommodation in what Denise Fink, Housing New Zealand regional manager, called ‘an area of their choice’. For those with severe medical conditions or disabilities, this meant upheaval to a new abode within two kilometres of their Waiotaiki Bay staties. Most of the remaining tenants were relocated to new apartment-style state-housing in surrounding suburbs such as Panmure, which, five kilometres away, potentially disrupted their familial, social, medical and cultural links. However, nearly one-fifth of those evicted weren’t rehoused. In a March 2014 interview, Fink stated that Housing New Zealand relocated only 126 of the 156 households evicted. But, as the housing corporation kept data only on those housed, she had no idea what happened to those who, served with notices, went elsewhere. Like a family divided by animosity, migration or loss, Housing New Zealand simply lost track of those closest to it.
BEFORE THESE EVICTION notices were served, Waiotaiki Bay was a community rich in diversity. Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, New Zealand–European, Asian–New Zealand, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American and Filipino residents lived side by side. Geographically, we nestle against the Tamaki Estuary. Our land, highly fertile, stands above the water. Such elevation gives residents panoramic views out across the estuary over to a marina and ferry terminal, the east of Auckland, the tip of the Hunua Ranges and a stretch of sky. Such beauty, yet such poverty. By 2011, Waiotaiki Bay and the wider environs of Glen Innes ranked as one of Auckland’s poorest suburbs, the area housing fifteen hundred staties, most built in the 1940s. Architecturally, this abundance of state houses created street after street of two- and three-bedroom railway cottages constructed, floor to weatherboard, from Baltic Pine, each settled upon eight hundred square metres of land. The majority remained under the guardianship of Housing New Zealand. All in all, in spite of Waiotaiki Bay’s ample land, its proximity to the sea and its wide, scenic views, its poverty and high number of state-tenancies meant that by 2011, at a time when the median Auckland house-price was $550,000, it remained an area in which families such as mine could buy a home for an affordable $400,000.
But not for long.
That inflated median house price was a distress signal. Coupled to an 8 per cent rise in rents, which affected 40 per cent of New Zealand households, the high house price helped make Auckland the twenty-fourth most expensive city in which to reside. The year before, the government led by Prime Minister John Key, perceiving a growing crisis, determined to tackle this escalating unaffordability by building more homes. So, without mandate, the government established the Northern Glen Innes Redevelopment Project that tasked a private agency, Creating Communities, with redeveloping 156 sections of state-housing land into 260 new terrace-houses. Only seventy-eight of these would be returned to the government – but not for free. Under the agreement with Creating Communities, Housing New Zealand were obliged to buy them back. The remainder were to be sold by New Zealand’s largest realty company to the highest bidders.
THOSE OPPOSED TO these evictions and the transfer of state assets to a private company were a small army of activists. The rank and file were members of political parties on the left and those who were already – or were about to be – displaced. Their first action was to occupy Number 25. There they painted dissents – We Shall Not Be Moved; Occupied Are a Community Not a Corporation – outside the property, barricaded the driveway with their utes and sat on the deck of the empty cottage, smoking and singing songs until the house was eventually driven away. In doing so, during those six months of occupation, a liminal time between eviction and removal, the protestors and their words became embedded in our community and its psyche. So much so we came to believe, as they did, that protest and occupation would be enough to stop the government’s proposals. We cleaned our homes, cultivated our gardens, fed our children and, when walking to the dairy for milk and newspapers, failed to bat eyelids as we encountered journalists from the New Zealand Herald interviewing the evicted about the hardships of displacement.
HOMELESSNESS WASN’T SOMETHING I consciously embraced. I was nineteen years old, and what teenager chooses to be an outcast? But in South London in the early 1990s, it had come to this: I was single, unemployed and facing eviction because my flatmate, Libby, suffering (unbeknownst to me) from Munchausen Syndrome, had leveraged the pity generated by her non-existent terminal cancer to swindle loans and unsustainable rent arrears from our landlord before flitting back to Leeds.
And in South London in the early 1990s, it had also come to this: I was increasingly rowing with myself about what normality was, not least because I had flatted with Libby and not least because she, the wrong kind of watershed, and others more settled or less disturbed had led me to understand that, in the Midlands of my childhood, it wasn’t normal for my father to throw my three-year-old body across the kitchen, a crumple against an upright fridge-freezer; and it wasn’t normal for my father to hold my seven-year-old ankles aloft before simply letting go of them so that the body they belonged to smashed against bare floor; and it wasn’t normal for my mother to wield her wooden-soled Dr Scholl sandal against my back, arms or any part of my body that would hide the bruising, or daily rage against me for giving her too much laundry, too much cooking, too much cleaning, or call my bookishness weird, or threaten to sign the committal papers for the local mental institution, or tell me over and over again that I was a mistake who should do everyone a favour and leave.
Yes, in the South London I escaped to in the early 1990s, it came to this: parts of my present and past were cementing inside me, building four walls and a roof of pain.
And so, with an eviction notice counting down the end of my tenancy, I turned to the only thing that had given me sanctuary during the long, hard days of living in the same house as my parents, the placement of pen upon paper.
The body tipped in labour from the warm home
of the womb, this is a poem.
Words that spoke of my history of physical, emotional and psychological abuse, my unemployment, my eviction notice and details of the counsellor I began to see: in desperation, I sent them to a charitable housing association. A month before I was to be ejected from my home, they invited me to view a studio apartment in a rundown terrace-house in Camberwell Green, which they managed on behalf of the local council.
Located on the first floor, the property was unfurnished. It had broken glass, high ceilings, a small gas heater and a brown, windowless bathroom. But the rent was only £18 per week. And it had space in which I might live without the compromises or assaults of other people, space in which I might write without hindrance.
Lines deconstructing the disorder
of the past, like disturbing foundations set
in concrete words like ‘arrears’ and ‘eviction’,
these too are a poem.
A poem is a building of words, music and ideas into a form, a structure, a solid shell. Each word is a brick. Each stanza is a room of language and thought. Each simile, each metaphor is a window looking out at the world beyond its spirit, dysfunction, difference and potential. Anyone who crafts a career from words knows this is true, be they poet or public servant. That persuasive orator, that politician of the people, the first Labour prime minister of New Zealand, Michael Joseph Savage, understood the capabilities of the poetic turn of phrase. Upon taking office in 1935, he spoke lyrically to the nation:
It seems to me, ladies and gentlemen that at last in New Zealand, Labour has the opportunity of giving effect to principles that are near and dear to most of us for the greater part of a lifetime… Our object in life is to co-operate with you to find out what you think and to go on to do the work of building a prosperous nation, a free nation or a nation of free people in the southern seas.
The work of building was one long envisioned by Savage and his colleagues. Well before the first ballot was cast in the 1935 election, Labour Party posters, speeches and manifesto pledges promised social betterment through the vision of a house, a statie. Here was a solution to poverty and inequality that would give the working poor safe, clean, affordable accommodation (all those privileges the middle- and upper-classes could afford) and, through a building-boom plus rental income, provide a Treasury surplus sorely needed in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. This potent concept of the state house as social and financial panacea became concrete when Savage, in one of his first acts as Prime Minister, undertook the work of building by green-lighting the construction of five thousand state homes.
By the end of the first Labour government in 1949, twenty-nine thousand staties had been built, whole suburbs laid out, shops and amenities erected and open spaces landscaped. This policy of housing the sickest and poorest citizens through state house construction continued for decades so that by the early 1990s, there were seventy thousand staties in total.
The restless pulse at the heart
of the nomad also beats in verse; and the desire
to question the status quo...
AND ANOTHER. AND another. And another.
When the statie at Number 25 was removed, it travelled 325 kilometres north to Kaitaia. There, purchased by community agency He Korowai Trust, it was to be refurbished and used to provide affordable accommodation for a homeless family. The protestors who had occupied Number 25 relocated to the street behind us, where they squatted in Number 31. Once that house was carted off to Kaitaia, Number 33 was occupied. Then Number 35.
The incongruity of people in one neighbourhood being evicted so that their homes might become sanctuaries for the homeless elsewhere was soon befriended by other anomalies. Only seventeen staties went to Kaitaia. A few more travelled south to the Waikato to give shelter to itinerant families there. The rest, however, were left empty. Their doors and windows boarded up and their copper guttering prey to opportunistic thieves, they awaited demolition. Due to the protests and the slow progress of building administration, some staties have remained in such stasis for three years, their emptiness absurd when Housing New Zealand’s waiting lists in Auckland have ballooned, so that currently two thousand families in the city are in need of state-housing.
These were also the months when the protest movement clashed violently and repeatedly with the police. The days of peacefulness in Waiotaiki Bay vanished in favour of harmful struggle. Street names – Lyndhurst Avenue, Aparina Avenue, Castledine Crescent – became sites of bitter conflict when staties were being lifted off their foundations and taken away, protestors injured and hospitalised as they fought the authorities. Even a local MP, Hone Harawira, was arrested for using his car as a barricade to halt the progress of a Kenworth lorry.
Thereafter, protest hardened as demonstrations appeared, flash-mob style, at nearby roundabouts and thoroughfares. Surreal community meetings occurred during which Murdoch Dryden, project director of Creating Communities, met with residents to discuss the agency’s aspirations for greater diversity in Waiotaiki Bay. For it transpired at such gatherings that Creating Communities saw variety as a mission-statement to be achieved not through the strong multiculturalism already present in our neighbourhood, but through a miscellany of ‘mixed materials’. Presenting construction plans and a series of images, projections of our neighbourhood’s future, Dryden showed us the terrace-houses the agency intended to build. Of uniform design, they were to be tight 180-metre square, two-storey abodes built of brick on the lower floor, horizontal pine weatherboards on the upper and a long-run steel roof. They were to sit on sections less than half the size of their predecessors. For gardens, compact patios were to stand at their rear and, in front, borders, all bark nuggets and New Zealand flax. The future Creating Communities was offering our beautiful melting-pot was a terse, pot-planted grey, tan and jet aesthetic.
While we digested all of this, further radical, yet imperceptible, change occurred. Like the global trade in paperless capital, land prices in our neighbourhood rose invisibly, dramatically during the remainder of the year. By 2012, they had doubled. As such local land values were now far higher than the national average, which by then had risen to $630,000; and with it the city became the fifteenth most expensive place to live in the world. When not bearing a bulwark of Kenworths carrying empty homes, our streets – previously ranking amongst the poorest in the country – turned into circling shivers of shark-nosed Mercedes, Audis and Volvos. As with property prices in affluent upper-class Auckland suburbs such as Remuera and Saint Heliers, sections of land in Waiotaiki Bay became elite commodities, the realty equivalents of Louis Vuitton bags and Louboutin red-bottomed stilettos.
BY 2017, THE current New Zealand government will have reduced the number of state houses by ten thousand since taking office eight years ago. Aside from gifting them to developers for refurbishment and private-sector sale, they have initiated a tendering process involving community groups and overseas corporations. This will decrease the stock of government-owned houses by 15 per cent to 1980s levels, in spite of New Zealand population having risen by over 40 per cent in the last thirty-five years.
Diminishing the quantity and significance of the state house is yet another incongruous action by John Key, a prime minister raised in a Christchurch statie during the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed, his early childhood bears many of the troubles and disruptions which Savage’s vision for the state house sought to have alleviated. A widowed mother left to raise young children on a meagre benefit: here is the condensed narrative of Key’s youth. That the product of these dire circumstances produced New Zealand’s thirty-eighth prime minister is in no small part due to the influence of state-subsidised housing. If, for me, access to a state-accommodation in my time of need in London provided undisturbed time and space in which to craft new writing, for John Key and his family the security afforded by the long-term provision of low rent and a fixed abode enabled his mother to work nights and part-time to pay off the huge debts her husband left her with and to lift her family out of poverty. Meanwhile, the continual residence in a long-lease statie, rather than the potential unsettlement of a series of six-month private tenancies, provided Keys and his sisters with uninterrupted schooling so they could – the epitome of the Liberal ideal – gain academic qualifications worthy of securing sound employment.
Placard bearers performing protests, The Big Issue
vendors, poetic change begged for by empty hats,
these are poems seeking a different kind of refuge.
IF THE STATE house helped John Key to rise out of boyhood hardship and become a New York stockbroker, MP, leader of his country and a National Business Review rich-lister, it can enable all children born into tough circumstances to become whatever they want to be: this is integral to my vision for an alternative future.
Recently, seeking to prove it is doing even more to combat Auckland’s swelling real estate prices, worsening housing shortage and escalating unaffordability, Key’s government isolated a series of Special Housing Areas in New Zealand’s largest city, spaces of vacant land given to private builders to fast-track into building sites.
In my imagined future, however, the government will not only locate Special Housing Areas nationwide, it will also retain ownership of them all. Then, just as Michael Joseph Savage’s administration did in 1935, a massive construction programme of state houses will be initiated in these locales, tripling the number of staties. This will take the total state-housing stock to 210,000 homes. A mix of one-bedroom apartments for single people and pensioners, and two- to five-bedroom dwellings for families, they will house six hundred thousand occupants, a tripling of the present number. Further, all existing staties will be refurbished and modernised. Whether resourcing new-build or retrofit, the government will use eco-friendly designs and building materials. From third-party forest standard lumber to recycled steel, from rainwater tanks to solar panels, green products will be used to construct modernised versions of the traditional state house so that the new and existent will sit side-by-side in communities, the architectural integrity and heritage of each neighbourhood preserved. All family-sized homes will sit upon eight hundred square-metre sections. Across the country, such state-owned plots of land will accommodate trampoline jumping, water fights and children’s imaginative play.
Meanwhile, the application criteria for such dwellings will be widened. Rather than, as presently, waiting-lists that are only open to the severely physically impaired, the acutely ill and those in extreme poverty, the application process for a state house will consider all earning below the living wage, which the New Zealand Treasury indicates is 30 per cent of families with dependants. Due to subsidised rents, such families housed by the state will have enough money left over after paying for housing to afford food, transport, new clothes, books and education costs for their children, holidays and debt repayments so that, like John Key’s mother, they might lift themselves out of poverty.
In Waiotaiki Bay, for instance, 156 staties will be renovated. Then, using the already earmarked Special Housing Area in our neighbourhood, 312 new staties will be built, infrastructure such as pavements and sewerage pipes will be laid, and community facilities like neighbourhood centres offering senior friendship groups and migrant settlement programs will be erected – a network of new dwellings and streets extending from the already existent heart of our community.
Arrive at a poem, as if at a window, and see
reflected back the addiction, fervour, disturbance, loss,
neglect, violence or whateveritis that compels the soul
to choose a cardboard box, clothes bin or abandoned space.
ONE SATURDAY MORNING in August 2013, Waiotaiki Bay protestors returned to a bare plot of land. They carried weapons of a different kind of dissent: spades, trowels and seeds. They held a karakia, a Maori incantation used to invoke spiritual guidance and protection. They renamed the land the Peace Garden then turned the soil and sowed.
Each day a small party of horticultural activists tended the earth. A season passed full of their toiling. When spring arrived, sweet corn, peas and cornflowers thrived, even as husks of abandoned houses sat soulless as gravestones and the sale of land prospered.
Amongst the ghosts of Avinguda de la Llum or cloaked streets
of bankrupt nations, poems roam. They resist removal
when the Olympics and world leaders come to town.
They are the Occupy movement.
There will be peace gardens in my imagined future. In Waiotaiki Bay, where the number of state houses will triple, the amount of state tenants rising accordingly, there will be a peace garden in every street. In them, our highly fertile land will become a patchwork of quarter-acre sections left vacant – all thoughts of feverish construction, frantic house prices and frenzied profits set calmly aside. Instead, neighbours will be gifted peace gardens to do with as they collectively please. For some, this communal space will become a sanctuary for a few benches, swings, slides, climbing walls and flying foxes. For others, those who will have keen horticulturalists in their midst, it will grow kale, silverbeet, apples, tomatoes, kumara, potatoes, carrots and the like which, once mature and picked or dug up, will be divided among residents, a bounty of free, nutritious food for all. Still more peace gardens will be havens for barbecues, hangi, children’s birthday parties, cultural celebrations, firework displays and all those neighbourhood events that will bind and enrich – rather than break and devastate – the community. To assist the locals with their visions, grants will be set aside from the profits collected through extra rental incomes. And yes, even though there will be no housing wars to fight, these open spaces given over to quiet cultivation, bench-sitting, Catherine wheeling, Matariki-gazing, fox-flying, casual swinging and gentle contemplation will still be called peace gardens.
Wherever they exist, the poem’s reader is exile
and familiar, the lives left behind closed doors
are thrown open, and the limitations of
locks, alarms and sole possession are exposed.
Like music on a theme of withdrawal, like a symphony composed for loss, the lone peace garden in my neighbourhood was inspiration in the face of adversity. Through its first summer, vegetables were cultivated, flowers pruned. Everywhere the soil was replenished with blood and bonemeal.
By the autumn of 2014, however, the rains came and the protestors weakened in their struggle. The protestors’ Peace Garden was soon deserted, leaving the space to become, like those nearby sections severed of their staties, a plot empty but for a few straggly survivors, a regression, a distortion.
Sometimes a poem stretches us like land like sea
The first terrace houses completed by Creating Communities in April 2014 were trumpeted as an innovative remedy for Auckland’s wayward housing market. The website announced:
The biggest advantage of terrace housing is its ability to provide a house without an excess of land. Reducing the amount of land reduces the cost of the new home, making it more affordable.
By then the median sale-price for Auckland houses had skyrocketed to $715,000. The city ranked as the ninth least-affordable city in the world. In a low-income community upended by the intrusions of an outside agency, this promise of cheap new homes was initially, albeit grudgingly, welcomed.
And sometimes a poem is just an idea, welcome
as – caesura – a journey to a better place, welcome
as white powder, delirium, sleeping bag or dream.
When those homes were sold for $800,000, the words Developers Out! written in splatters of red, blue and black emulsion – a faux Pollock masterpiece – were tagged upon their exterior. A visible, verbal riposte to the promise of more affordable residences? Murdoch Dryden called the defacement ‘nothing more than school holiday high jinx’, while local MP, Simon O’Connor, said, ‘this vandalism is reprehensible’. However, community worker Tara Moala declared, ‘It shows strong evidence that the community isn’t happy about what is happening here.’
Vandalism or protest, Developers Out! is proof, along with We Shall Not Be Moved, Occupied and We Are A Community Not A Corporation, that when physical and legal resistance is lost, words – their poetry, their power – define and sustain dissent.
RATHER THAN TAGGING protests upon the canvas of new dwellings, such nonconformist creativity will, in my imagined future where social housing proliferates, be channelled into socially beneficial and artistically enriching endeavours; and with it, all forms of artistry will be nourished. Street artists, painters, ceramists, graphic designers and creatives of all kinds, often freelance and subsisting on low incomes, will be able to apply for accommodation opened up by the statie building boom. Additionally, neighbourhoods housing these new staties will be supported by the construction of socially valuable arts facilities. Newly built community halls, for instance, will foster choirs and adult education courses (offering everything from jewellery design to music lessons, drama classes to dance techniques). Newly built galleries will nurture and promote paintings, installations and pottery by local artists, including those freshly housed by the state. The fostering of the arts within future state-housing communities will even extend to transforming bare concrete walls and bland civic spaces into visible canvases for street art. Meanwhile parks and malls will house immersive, experiential film screenings. Akin to London’s Secret Cinema, which shows movies in communal landscapes like disused railway tunnels, films will be played in the Waiotaiki Bay of my imagined future on the beach close to lapping waters where a screen will be erected and rows of chairs will accommodate audiences.
Given the current state house shortage in Auckland, more staties, not less, are clearly needed. But will measures such as building more state houses and extending their application criteria tackle Auckland’s current unaffordability? Perhaps, by tripling the number of fair-rent staties and widening the intake, this will reduce average rents because competition in the private rental market will diminish and, consequently, landlords will be forced to make their properties more financially attractive. And perhaps, given nearly 40 per cent of New Zealand families currently rent their homes, such a reduction in average rental prices will impact affordability levels more generally. As renting a new eco-friendly state home will be an attractive, more inclusive housing option, potentially the number of those seeking to buy a home at a time of rocketing prices will shrink. If so, this will also drive down competition and values in the private housing market.
A WINTER’S MORNING in 2015, nearly three years after Number 25, aloft, anaemic and set against the black pelt of night, floated across my vision, I trundle through Waiotaiki Bay on my way to work. A one-time state tenant turned academic, I have a class of postgraduates awaiting me and my master class, ‘Place and Space in Your Writings’. On the car radio, the announcer analyses newly released figures showing Auckland is the fourth least-affordable city in the world in which to live. Suddenly the Peace Garden comes into view. Beside it an eighty-year-old widow stands outside her home waving placards proclaiming all manner of discord: This Home is Occupied, Evict John Key not me.
Her railway cottage, I notice, looks upon its elderly occupant close to the point of forcible division, pain internalised, grief restrained. At her back, the estuary ebbs and flows, a chronometer, so that, for a moment, I see again the landscape beat with possibility. Just as suddenly, though, this vision disappears and in its place, reality reconstructing before me, I note once more how the implacable pensioner and her state house have been reduced, like our community generally, to something frail and bitter: a drone of dissenting words, a patch of fallow earth, the tempo of the sea calling time, and a home, all but empty, waiting to be replaced.
 Lauren Priestley, ‘Fight abandoned’, East & Bays Courier, March 28th 2014, page 1
 According to Statistics New Zealand, based on the 2006 Census, European, Maori, Pacific Island, Asian New Zealand, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American ethnicity, while further ethnicities account for nearly 10% of the population:
 Auckland median house price in 2011 is detailed here:
 Housing New Zealand’s analysis of the reason for the Northern Glen Innes redevelopment scheme is given here:
 Michael Joseph Savage’s Victory Speech, 1935 Election:
 The figure, 5000 new homes initially embarked upon is found at:
 Auckland median house price in 2012 is detailed here:
 The city’s ranking as one of the most expensive places in the world in which to live is here:
 Lauren Priestley, ‘Vandals send message’, East & Bays Courier, April 30th 2014, page 1