“Imagine a place where your house falls apart and you get blamed. Imagine a place where the poor installation of basic services such as water and power leads to premature failure and impacts directly on your family’s health.”
Affordable housing in our suburbs and cities seems like a far-off, even unattainable dream for many. But imagine a place where affordable housing is further away than a far-off dream, and where even the idea of owning your own house and its patch of dirt is the subject of endless political football. Imagine a place where affordable housing means cheap, substandard housing. Imagine a place where you can’t look up the Yellow Pages for a maintenance contractor, and there is no Bunnings down the road for DIY repairs. Imagine a place where because of this, your house falls apart and you get blamed. Imagine a place where the poor installation of basic services such as water and power also leads to premature failure and impacts directly on your family’s health. Imagine a place where accommodating your extended family results in seventeen people living in your three-bedroom house. Well, this place exists, and it’s called housing in rural and remote Indigenous Australia.
There is now clear, quantified evidence that the combined processes of all Australian government agencies and professional groups have failed to deliver reasonable housing design, construction or maintenance, and this has had direct and immediate consequences for the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people. The majority of Indigenous public housing is overcrowded and old. Clear, consistent evidence shows that the main causes of housing failure are not the fault of residents through misuse or vandalism, but rather the result of poor initial construction, or lack of the regular routine maintenance required in any Australian home.
Why is this the case? A clear cycle has been demonstrated, over the last forty years, from all sides of politics, of policies that introduce “new ideas” to reduce the short-term capital cost of houses, which have then consequently reduced housing standards, increased running and maintenance costs for residents, and led to premature housing failure, which in turn leads to a demand for higher housing standards and increased costs. This has resulted in a lack of continuity in the delivery of housing, essential services, community support structures and economic opportunities necessary in Indigenous communities to achieve improved housing design, construction and maintenance – essential prerequisites for improved standards of health and wellbeing. There has also been a lack of support for Indigenous organizations that have demonstrated the ability to deliver and maintain housing services through constantly changing government policy regimes.
Although there is significantly increased media coverage on the issue of Indigenous housing, and some “movement at the station” in terms of government commitments, there is an urgent need for federal and state governments to increase assistance to all communities by funding the resources required to build up and maintain secure and safe environments in homes and towns. This may include improved community policing protocols, alcohol management plans, transparent local and regional governance of land and assets, equity in accessing community services facilities and timely and professional support.
Home ownership or security of tenure through long-term leasing options of communal land should be made available to residents – currently a high-profile issue. For example, those residents who are able to enter into home ownership with all its responsibilities should have this choice, without it being imposed. Those residents who simply desire the security of a domestic occupancy through a long-term leasing option should have the certainty of a tenancy agreement that complies with the appropriate residential tenancy legislation.
In particular, there is now an urgent need for high-quality initial construction and the regular routine maintenance that is required in any Australian home.
The delivery of new housing must be supported by house maintenance and management systems provided by local Indigenous people. If needed, house maintenance and management training and skills development should be provided and viewed as an investment in long-term, ongoing local employment. Architects can, and do, make a significant contribution, ensuring that houses are planned and constructed properly and reducing running and maintenance costs, even in remote locations.
So this far-off place, far outside the conventional discussion about affordable housing, is in reality close to home, in our backyard and not going anywhere anytime soon. In partnership with government and communities, architects and other professional groups need to work cooperatively to make not just “affordable houses” but housing that works; housing that improves the health, wellbeing and daily lives of all Australian citizens.
The Royal Australian Institute of Architects is currently seeking financial and partnership support for a major conference to be held on Indigenous housing in Alice Springs in October to coincide with our National Awards. If you are interested in providing support please contact Shahana McKenzie on Shahana.McKenzie@raia.com.au. I would also like to acknowledge the work of the RAIA Indigenous Housing Taskforce for their assistance in preparing this text. This is my last Foreword for Architecture Australia as President, and as usual I appreciate any feedback to email@example.com.