Looking back on the past 30 years of Indigenous housing policy it is easy to feel a sense of despair - despite billions of dollars being spent there are still not enough houses for residents of remote communities. What houses there are continue to be poorly maintained, overcrowded and run down to the point of being uninhabitable.
There have been numerous government programs over the years to improve the living conditions of remote Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Although there have been some isolated successes - the statement made by HC Coombs back in 1978, that “there is no element in social policy for Aborigines the results of which have been so disappointing and so confusing as that related to housing”, remains just as applicable today as it did then.
What can government do to fix the problem? Are more government programs really the solution to the housing crisis?
The Rudd Government has promised to spend $1.6 billion on a five-year remote Indigenous housing strategy. In the Northern Territory 16 communities have been targeted as recipients for new public housing. In order for construction work to start in these communities traditional owners have been told they have to agree to lease the land to the Commonwealth.
While this strategy will see much needed new housing in these communities it veers away from the original intention behind leasing agreements - which was to enable private homeownership.
The Howard government introduced legislative changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory for 99-year township leases over Indigenous owned communal title land. Banks had been reluctant if not down right unwilling to lend money for any developments on communal title land as there is no security of title: who owns the land and who is responsible for mortgage payments is not clear. Under the 99-year lease proposal individuals could take out a long term lease for a block of land and use that as security for a home or a business.
But Howard’s 99-year township leasing model proved unpopular as the government controlled the head lease. Not surprisingly, communities were reluctant to sign away their land for the government to control and only the Tiwi Island Land Council agreed to a 99-year township lease.
Since coming into government, Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin has argued that homeownership should be a choice available for all Australians. Yet, the government continues to focus its resources on providing more public housing and appears to be doing very little to promote homeownership. There is a generous Homeownership on Indigenous Land program (HOIL) which offers zero per cent interest rate for some borrowers. But this can’t work without individual title over the land. To date, only one HOIL loan has been granted.
The only evidence of homeownership schemes actually operating in the Northern Territory is in Wadeye where a rent-to-buy scheme has been set up. After two years of good tenant history tenants will be able to purchase a house. But while this will enable some families to own their own home it does not give them much choice over what house they buy. Historically schemes which saw public houses transferred to Indigenous ownership have failed because they did not lead to a change in behaviour and an increased sense of responsibility. When people are given some choice and a degree of control over the construction of their house, they feel a greater sense of ownership than if the houses are simply given to them.
Instead of focusing on public housing as the only solution for the housing crisis, Macklin should try and explore the option of 99-year leases for communities. If Land Councils can agree to lease land for more public housing, surely they can negotiate with the government for 99-year leases for those communities that want them. Galarrwuy Yunuipingu had the right idea when he negotiated with the former Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough for the Gumatj people to hold a community lease. Although this has not eventuated it is a model that Jenny Macklin should investigate further.
As attributed to Einstein the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The need for government to be seen to be doing something, anything, to address the housing problem in remote communities has led to some fancy new names for housing programs - acronyms like HOIL, SIHIP and ARIA - but at the end of the day it is just more of the same. Housing may now be managed by State Owned and Managed Indigenous Housing instead of Indigenous Community Housing organisations, but it is still public housing.
Self-determination policies of the 1970s were meant to encourage a greater sense of responsibility and empower communities, but these were self-determination in name only. The reality was that the government still provided all the money and most Aboriginal organisations ended up being run by non-Indigenous people.
It is time to abandon the failed policies of the past and try something new.
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