Australia has a thirty-year history of community housing ownership and management by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people. While high levels of overcrowding and poor health remain, the progress from the tin sheds, car bodies, humpies and creek beds of the 1960s towards the environmentally healthy, culturally responsive housing and tenancy management practices of today can’t be underestimated. A product of the era of self-determination, this period was preceded by a much longer period of direct management by government and church.
The actions of the previous Commonwealth Government wound back the clock to these early days of assimilation, subjugation and complete control by the State. In the Northern Territory, what began as a debate about the benefits of private home ownership on Aboriginal land has steamrolled into a complete dismantling of all forms of collective housing ownership and management, and a systematic abandonment of all notions of community involvement by Aboriginal people over their own lives.
The previous government’s solution to high levels of overcrowding in remote NT communities and town camp communities was not to build more housing and infrastructure to the level enjoyed by the rest of the country, but to seize title to all housing and control of all housing management services from community organizations.
Town Camp Housing Associations hold secure title to sixteen parcels of land with over 200 houses, and via their resource agency Tangentyere Council operate a nationally recognized housing management program. Despite this, these associations were given an ultimatum: surrender all title and control of their housing to the NT Government for ninety-nine years, to be managed as mainstream public housing, or risk a direct takeover by the Commonwealth.
Alice Springs’ town camp communities were to be “normalized”, with a $60 million commitment to build eighty new houses and replace the power, water, sewerage, street lighting and road network across the sixteen town camp communities. There was to be no ongoing involvement of any sort by the housing associations or Tangentyere Council. Furthermore, a decision was required within one month or the funds would be directed elsewhere. Despite the financial coercion and intense political pressure, town campers rejected the offer. A parliamentary bill was then pushed through to give the Commonwealth absolute power to seize all town camp land and housing, without compensation.
It is not good public policy to exclude people from any form of involvement in the management of their housing. Vast improvements do need to be made to the way housing is delivered and managed in Aboriginal communities, but the answer is not to turn back to the discrimination of the “salt and pepper” public housing policies of the 1950s. We hope for recognition by governments of the national and international trend away from socially dysfunctional, bureaucratic public housing managed by the State and towards a diverse, community-owned and -managed affordable housing sector responsive to local needs. This would result in true partnerships between Aboriginal organizations, government and the private sector.
Today there are eighteen separate town camp communities throughout Alice Springs, with 204 houses. There is a permanent population of 2,000, with an estimated additional 1,000 people visiting from remote Central Australian communities at any time. Each tenant is a member of a housing association, which holds a lease in perpetuity over the land. Tangentyere Council is a peak service delivery organization established in the early 1980s by town campers and made up of members of all eighteen housing associations.
Each town camp comprises a largely distinct Aboriginal community organized along language and kinship lines. The majority of town camps have Arrente residents, many of whom are traditional owners or descendants of traditional owners of Alice Springs and its immediate surrounds. Some town camps have residents belonging to other language groups, who have moved to Alice Springs over a period of time. Managing these different family groups and kinship relationships is an important and complex part of managing the housing program.
Before the town camps gained tenure in the 1970s and 80s, people lived in makeshift shelters throughout Alice Springs, without access to proper housing or essential services. While there has been an undeniable improvement in town camp conditions since these times, the living standards of town camp residents remain unacceptably low. Overcrowded housing, substance abuse and poor levels of education and health are common.
The Commonwealth’s $60 million proposal was a large financial commitment. The housing associations were willing to consider all options, but wanted to be sure of maintaining meaningful input into the management of their housing and their communities. They wanted to ensure that the principles of environmental health and culturally appropriate tenancy management they currently enjoyed were maintained. The former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, refused to negotiate, saying he “would no longer allow public funds to be spent on privately owned land” – an extraordinary statement for a government that poured money into private nursing homes, hospitals and schools.
The housing associations’ decision to reject the minister’s offer was based on two main concerns. Firstly, they didn’t want to lose their land, which had been hard fought for by the grandfathers and grandmothers of many present-day residents, and on which several generations of families had been born. Secondly, they wanted to maintain a strong ongoing role in the management of their housing.
Acceptance of the previous government’s conditions meant that they would be put in a position of total dependence on the decisions made by the government and future governments. This would create dependency, not responsibility. It would signal an end to self-determination and a return to the assimilation policies of the 1940s and 50s. Assimilation reduces you to always asking, “Who am I, where do I come from?” It is losing track of who you are.
The housing management model insisted on by the Commonwealth was that of Territory Housing – the NT Government’s public housing authority. Management by Territory Housing was a key condition in Brough’s offer, slotting in with the Commonwealth Government’s policy of “mainstreaming” all Indigenous services.
What both governments failed to comprehend were the sentiments many town campers have towards Territory Housing as a public housing provider. Many town camp residents have at some stage in their lives either been evicted by Territory Housing or abandoned their Territory Housing tenancy in the face of imminent eviction. Reasons for eviction have ranged from cooking a kangaroo in your backyard to non-payment of bills incorrectly charged for items of wear and tear, or just living next door to a neighbour intolerant of visiting bush relatives. The estimated average length of a tenancy in the public housing system for a family from a remote or town camp community is about three months.
This model only functions in Alice Springs because there is a community housing buffer – the town camps that absorb most people when they are evicted from Territory Housing. Alice Springs would be in shock if the town camp communities ceased to absorb and tuck out of site the town’s homelessness crisis.
Town camp communities in Alice Springs were not planned as “proper” living spaces by either the government or the early missions. They have evolved as people camped around Alice Springs, sometimes on land that had cultural significance, sometimes to access services, sometimes because they had nowhere else to go. Without the town camps, homelessness in Alice Springs would be a real national emergency. Yet the town camps are becoming increasingly overcrowded as more and more people move from remote communities into town. The long waiting lists for public housing, coupled with high rates of eviction, mean that most people end up moving between town camps. The situation is urgent.
Given his insistence on the Commonwealth-funded proposal, it was astounding that former minister Brough referred in a July 2007 media release to the “abysmal record the states and territories have in managing public and community housing”. This was all about ideology, collective ownership, control and race. This debate, or lack of it, was not evidence-based and has nothing to do with reducing overcrowding, nothing to do with improving the management of community housing and nothing to do with improving the health of Aboriginal people. We need to get past ideological barriers and work together to find solutions.
Tangentyere is developing a model for housing on town camp communities that attempts to meet best practice in community housing. This model will give Aboriginal people a strong ongoing say in the management of their housing; it will include government, the social housing sector and the private sector; it will allow for affordable rental and private home ownership; and it will build capacity for Aboriginal people in the sustainability of their housing. The model is based on a framework of three main components:
 A repairs and maintenance program with its prime focus to improve the health of residents through environmental health principles.
 A tenancy-management program that recognizes and supports cultural imperatives and lifestyles.
 A governance system that allows town camp residents to maintain control over their housing policy.
These principles are based on sustainability and recognition of the need to manage and meet the needs of people as well as managing and maintaining assets.
Tangentyere’s housing model proposes the setting up of a not-for-profit company to manage its housing program, which would include on its board representatives from the town camp housing associations and the Commonwealth and Northern Territory Governments, and industry experts in areas such as social housing, environmental health, the legal system and property development. This structure would ensure that the company remains focused on the needs of tenants, provides transparency for government over use of public funds, and guarantees stability, professionalism and continuity in the quality of its service delivery.
It would still require substantial government funding, particularly until the backlog of housing needs are largely met. Over time, however, its aim would be to become less, rather than more, dependent on government. With the capacity to charge rents at a level to leverage Commonwealth Rent Assistance, the company would aim to borrow against its enhanced rental income to directly contribute to its housing construction and upgrade costs.
The model will aim to foster a greater sense of ownership and control by tenants over their houses and living environments. An example would be through the proposed rental scheme, whereby half of rental collection from residents is quarantined for repairs and future upgrades to that resident’s house. The remainder is spent on communal housing association expenses, such as insurance premiums, community facilities and parks.
The one thing of economic value that town campers have, and that the Commonwealth was determined to take from them, is their land. Once worthless pieces of land on the fringes of Alice Springs, town camp communities today are valuable pieces of real estate, as the town has swollen around them. Town camp housing associations would aim to maximize the development potential of this land, which could be subdivided and leased, or developed in partnership with either private sector developers or money lending institutions.
The “social enterprise movement” provides another possible model for a successful partnership between Aboriginal housing providers, government and business. The model, which in the UK has produced up to 55,000 enterprises, brings together the growing trend towards philanthropy with the expertise of business and the community sector to invest in social projects. Last year Social Ventures Australia, Brisbane City Council and PricewaterhouseCoopers joined forces to provide funding, business skills and mentoring to seven social enterprises that have as their main objective providing jobs rather than making a profit. Successful Aboriginal housing providers bring to the table over thirty years’ experience in running housing and environmental health programs, with high levels of Indigenous employment.
Not-for-profit affordable housing companies similar in structure to that which Tangentyere is proposing are supported by the Commonwealth Government and most state governments for the general population, but not for Aboriginal people. The only model offered to Tangentyere Council was total dependency on inappropriately designed public housing. This is expensive to maintain and provides no sense of ownership, but it is also the only model that vests all control in government.
What is so special about Aboriginal community control of housing, as opposed to State control? The issue is not about Aboriginal control, but community control, and applies equally to all Australian communities. Community groups are more attuned to the core issues facing their community, and if appropriately resourced and professionally organized, they have the flexibility to deal with these issues because they belong to that community and understand it well. They are directly answerable to their grassroots. In contrast, large, centralized public housing bureaucracies by their very nature struggle with flexibility and complex cultural diversity. For most Aboriginal communities the core housing-related issue remains that of health, not whether or not they should be purchasing their house – and whether you can have a hot shower, or get your toilet fixed, not 99-year leases or abolishing permit systems.
Some of the broader principles underlying our housing model proposal are fundamental to the success of any actions to improve the situation of Aboriginal people and to increase our independence, wellbeing and autonomy. What we want is the same as what everyone wants – a decent life for our families, some say in the matters that affect our lives and a sense of hope for the future. We want to be at the table, talking with government, not being dictated to. We want to walk alongside others, not behind. What town campers want is the path to a better life. This means a functioning, healthy house, equal access to education, pathways to employment, accessible health care, functioning infrastructure and a secure and safe environment to bring up kids.
We have to remember that if you want things to work, you have to involve the people who are affected. Otherwise it is destined to fail, and when it does we all suffer.
With a new government at the federal level, the language and rhetoric has changed, but to date the offer of new housing in exchange for land title remains. While the insistence on 99-year leases over community housing has been reduced to 40 years, if any of the town camp housing associations wish to receive new housing or house upgrades they must still be prepared to give up title, and along with it all control over how their housing is managed.
Tangentyere has recently presented its previous proposal to the new federal government for the establishment of the not-for-profit Central Australian Affordable Housing Company, as a viable alternative to the 100 percent government ownership model. This model aims to capitalize on the strength of the environmental health-based philosophies, policies and procedures developed by Tangentyere Council and other Indigenous housing providers over the past thirty years of self-determination, while embracing a new professional governance arrangement, new social business model and new mixed-funding arrangements pioneered by the not-for-profit mainstream community housing sector.
We remain hopeful that the government remains true to its word, breaks free of the politicized bureaucracy hung over from the previous government, and uses an evidence-based approach in evaluating which model will lead to healthier social and economic outcomes for the people on the ground.
William Tilmouth is the Executive Director of Tangentyere Council. This is an edited, updated version of a paper presented at Which Way? Directions in Indigenous Housing.
Note: As we went to press an “agreed work plan” for upcoming negotiations between Tangentyere Council, the Northern Territory Government and the Australian Government has been signed.