This article was first published in Land Rights News – Central Australia April 2016 edition* produced by the Central Land Council.
You can read more here.
As a second central Australian community has launched legal action against the Northern Territory government and an Alice Springs town camp is following suit, the Giles government is under increasing pressure to change how it manages remote community and town camp houses. Almost a third of Papunya households lodged claims for compensation through the Northern Territory Civil Administrative Tribunal in March, over long delays in emergency repairs.
A week later, half of the Larapinta Valley Town Camp tenants notified the housing department of 160 overdue repairs, following a survey by the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS). Legal action for over 300 repairs in Papunya was withdrawn late last year after the government heard about the plans and quickly sent contractors to start fixing the problems.
But CAALAS lawyer Katie Gordon says 14 tenants are seeking compensation for the length of time they had to wait. “I’ve done a Freedom of Information request for the housing files,” she told ABC Radio National. “[The files show that] people had informed housing maintenance officers of the problems…the maintenance officers had told housing but still nothing had happened.”
Lawyers from CAALAS and the Central Land Council surveyed 37 of the 48 houses in Papunya last year and identified more than 300 repairs.
“There were a lot of clogged pipes outside and one house had water all over the front yard, sort of like a swamp area,” Katie told ABC. Some had wires exposed, air conditioners not working, stoves not working, showers and bathrooms, kitchen sinks, taps broken. “They [the contractors] were out there within seven days…we were very pleased but it’s very sad that the department simply jumps when there’s a threat of legal action.”
The government also reacted promptly after Santa Teresa tenants took legal action in February. After surveying the community, Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) notified the department of repairs needed in 70 houses.
When ALRAR received no reply, it lodged claims at the tribunal. ALRAR director and former CLC lawyer Daniel Kelly helped survey the houses. “It appears to us that the repairs and maintenance system around housing in the Territory just doesn’t work,” he told ABC Alice Springs. “There’s some sort of inertia or blockage in the system that when tenants report things action isn’t taken.”
Very similar problems raised about town camps in the Territory who operate under the same structure have triggered an NT parliamentary inquiry. The inquiry into repairs and maintenance of town camp houses heard that the system is clogged by bureaucracy and confusing for tenants. ABC News reported that requests for repairs in town camps in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek go through three layers of communication. The resident calls a tenancy management provider, such as private company Zodiac, which then notifies the Department of Housing, which in turn supplies a contractor to do the work.
The department’s deputy CEO Jim Bamber admitted there was some confusion but said the many steps provided employment for local people. “We were continually told when we visit communities ‘we’ve got people who want to work’,” he told the inquiry.
NTCAT ordered the NT government to complete over 600 repairs in Santa Teresa, including leaking roofs, electrical faults and faulty plumbing. Daniel Kelly says the government says it has completed about 500 repairs. His next step in the tribunal will be claims for compensation. “Compensation is an entitlement under the [Residential Tenancies] Act,” he told ABC Alice Springs. “We’ll certainly be pursuing that on behalf of our clients if they’ve been forced to live in these conditions and have been paying for something they haven’t gotten.”
Santa Teresa resident Annie Young says the state of the houses in her community has never been as bad as it is now. She says the houses are old, overcrowded and riddled with serious problems. Many of the houses contain asbestos and when it rains people move out of the houses because they’re frightened of being exposed. “I see people in these 1970s houses, people living with those asbestos stickers on their door and I’ve asked government people before, ‘is it safe?’ “Because they’ve got ceilings falling down, these white things falling down, I have seen people getting sick, swollen faces … What’s that? What’s the next step for that?”
In an interview with ABC’s Radio National, NT housing minister Bess Price admitted that Aboriginal housing was unacceptable. “I’ve visited communities, where the houses have been built in the eighties, and it’s not fit for humans,” she said.
Chair of Aboriginal Housing NT, Tony Jack, said he was glad that Ms Price had acknowledged the problem, but now was the time for urgent reform. “We know the current housing model is broken and we need to look for a better way of doing things,” he said. “We need local control over our housing so we keep the jobs and the skills in the community. The top down approach of the Department of Housing hasn’t worked.”
Ms Price’s admission comes amid revelations that her department no longer charges rent for houses in another remote community because they are in a state of disrepair that is bad even by the NT’s poor standards. The NT News reported that the government has given up on rent collection for some houses in Yaralin, southwest of Katherine, where residents say they must wait weeks and months for the most basic repairs.
The government has not revealed the number of houses elsewhere in the NT where it has also abandoned rent collection. The NT government is reviewing its public housing strategy but the CLC says a draft policy released late last year shows no signs of fresh thinking. “Instead of putting forward ideas for the reform of remote housing services and service delivery, the strategy reflects a business as usual approach that will continue to fail remote communities,” said CLC director David Ross.
But since the Santa Teresa legal action there have been some signs that the government may be listening. Adam Giles
told ABC News that the government will release a new model for community housing before the August election. “It will be going back to control to Aboriginal people through a managed government structure.”
As remote housing tenants continue to wait, Daniel Kelly is committed to pursuing further legal action with other remote communities. “Certainly we’re talking to other communities all around the NT and we’ll be doing our best to repeat this sort of claim in another community,” he told ABC Alice Springs. “It can’t be ignored anymore.”
The CLC’s submission to the NT government’s draft housing policy can be downloaded here.
Photographs: Emma Sleath
Declaration: Bob Gosford is employed by the Central Land Council
* Originally published under the header “Pressure rises as remote tenants take government to court.”