A new policy framework for Indigenous housing

Housing in remote Indigenous communities is in a state of crisis. Overcrowding has reached third world levels, the cost of building new houses is skyrocketing, asset lifespans are short, and organisational capacity within Indigenous Community Housing Organisations is weak, leading to poor maintenance, poor tenancy management and severely misdirected incentive structures for community residents. This state of affairs directly contributes to poor educational and health outcomes and the ongoing loss of social cohesion in many remote communities across the nation.

The importance of finding the right solutions is magnified by the fact that implementing them will take at least a decade, and it may take even longer for the changes to result in improved social well being. And of course, any policy mistakes will condemn remote community residents to many years of continued disadvantage and poverty, hinder the implementation of effective programs across other areas of interest to governments, and ultimately impact on Australia’s national reputation.

The March 2007 release by the Australian Government of the report Living in the Sunburnt Land – Indigenous Housing: Findings of the Review of the Community Housing and Infrastructure Programme (CHIP) is more significant that the minimal press coverage it received suggests.

The report’s overall conclusions are that:

The current framework for the delivery of housing and related infrastructure and services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has not worked and cannot work.

The review also notes that:

CHIP in its current form contributes to the policy confusion, complex administration and poor outcomes and accountability of government funded housing, infrastructure and municipal services.

In high level policy terms, the review assesses comparative need levels across the nation and documents a longstanding underinvestment in remote housing by the Australian Government. It recommends a major shift in the allocation of existing resources with mainstream public housing to pick up the shortfall in urban and regional Australia. This latter assumption is problematic given the financial stress most major state public housing agencies are under.

The review also makes obvious points about the importance of co-ordination in the delivery of services, an issue that has persisted because of the complexity of the arrangements which have existed at national, state and local levels in relation to the provision of housing and essential services.

There is clearly scope, as the review suggests, to refocus resources on upgrading existing housing assets as a one-off measure to maximise bang for the buck; though the effectiveness of underlying governance arrangements will be crucial in sustaining any improvements.

It is increasingly clear that the reliance on Indigenous Community Housing Organisations to both deliver substantial proportions of the program, and importantly to own and manage the resultant assets has been a major cause of poor service delivery in remote communities. Most of them simply do not have the critical organisational mass and systemic capacity to deliver the complex array of services involved. The review recommends transfer of existing community housing to public housing agencies where possible, and that all new housing funded by the Australian Government be vested in those agencies. This makes a lot of sense.

Despite its strengths however, the review has not provided the policy blueprint required in Indigenous housing. There are at least four major flaws in the analysis and recommendations.

First, while the review acknowledges projected population growth in the Indigenous population, it grossly under-emphasises the implications and consequences of these trends. In particular, it fails to mention the extreme youthfulness of the Indigenous demographic profile, and the substantial implications of this for family formation particularly in remote communities in coming years. The bland conclusion that Indigenous population growth will place further pressure on community and public housing and private rental in some remote areas as well as other parts of Australia in the years to come (p.55) glosses over the reality that without major intervention these trends will inevitably lead to the continuation of the appalling overcrowding in remote communities for another two generations.

Second, the recommendation for a new Remote Indigenous Accommodation Service (RIAS) to replace CHIP and take over its funding allocations is misguided. It perpetuates the duplication which has bedevilled the sector, and would inevitably lead to a proliferation of sub-programs and would complicate attempts to streamline co-ordination.

If it is important that housing services be delivered through ‘co-ordinated service delivery linked to regional level planning based on access to education, health and law and order services’ as the review recommends, then why not pass the funds to the states and territories who are responsible for these services?

The Australian government already passes around $100m each year to the states and territories through the Aboriginal Rental Housing Program (ARHP) component of the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement. The states and Territories have mainstream responsibility for social housing delivery. The review recommends that they take over Indigenous housing in regional and urban areas; why not in remote areas? With the stroke of the pen, the $280m in CHIP could be similarly dealt with, slashing red tape, removing duplication, and improving transparency and accountability for outcomes.

Third, and perhaps most contentiously, the review’s recommendations to ‘continue the move away from building new housing in “on-country” outstations and homelands where there is no certainty of access to education, health, law and order and other basic support services’ and to consider the benefits of “mobility incentives” to assist families to move to new or existing housing in locations with better access to services requires much more consideration.

It needs to be remembered that it was the national government which encouraged the outstation movement in the late seventies and through the eighties and nineties. Indeed, following self government in the NT, the Australian Government refused to hand over responsibility for outstation support, a situation which persists to this day.

There will certainly be some locations where the full panoply of government services will never be able to be delivered effectively. Nevertheless the strength of cultural attachment to land, the shortage of housing and extent of overcrowding in communities, and the demographic realities of high population growth and youthful family formation in remote Australia are such that Indigenous people will continue to aspire to live on their country for the foreseeable future. Moreover, these aspirations lie at the heart of the Indigenous art industry, and provide valuable pressure valves for the inevitable conflicts which permeate large communities especially where there are substantial groups of non-traditional owners residing on the land. The policy challenge is to find innovative and economically cost effective ways to meet these aspirations rather than pursuing simplistic nostrums about moving people to jobs or services.

Finally, the review selectively advocates the use of mainstream resources (for urban and regional housing, for consumer protection regulation of tenancy arrangements), but says nothing about Rent Assistance – the major mainstream social housing program in Australia. There is strong evidence that remote Indigenous citizens are under-accessing rent assistance for a range of structural reasons. Nevertheless, it is allocated over $2bn each year nationally, and because it is demand driven, is growing in real terms. Meanwhile, Indigenous Australians are locked in to a complex array of housing programs which are effectively maintained at nominal levels and are declining in real terms. The policy challenge is to somehow make the $3bn plus spent each year on social housing in Australia accessible to the most needy segment of the population.

There are clear indications emerging that the Government intends to allocate a substantial sum to Indigenous development issues, including housing, in tomorrow’s budget.

There is no doubt that Indigenous disadvantage remains a weeping sore on the body politic. The issues are urgent, and demand attention. Overcrowded housing is a key contributor to poor health, education, and law and justice outcomes in remote communities. Addressing these issues will require more than merely rebadging the existing programs for Indigenous housing. It will require political vision and leadership, a commitment to co-operation and the removal of debilitating duplication between the national and state governments, and ultimately will require the opening up of mainstream programs such as Rent Assistance.

Just as houses need effective architecture and design, so too do Indigenous housing policies. And as with houses, architectural and design failures at the policy level are costly, have huge social implications and are extremely difficult to rectify.

The key architectural and design parameters required for an effective Indigenous housing policy, particularly in remote areas, include:

  • a shift from poorly managed ‘community housing’ arrangements to public housing, which has the advantage of access to government borrowings which leverage financial allocations;
  • the reform of tenure arrangements to allow public housing agencies to invest either alone or with the private sector in constructing new housing assets in remote communities;
  • the support and expansion of existing pathways which allow public housing tenants to purchase part or full equity in their homes;
  • encouragement for local Indigenous housing organisations to take on outsourced public housing tenancy management roles.

Such a policy architecture stands in stark contrast to current federal government policies which seem intent on retaining duplication in service delivery between the national and state/territory governments, and which in their support for ‘one-step’ or ‘instant’ home ownership policies in remote communities, appear to be blithely ignoring the income constraints which pervade remote community populations.

It is worth remembering that cities like Darwin and even Canberra were built on a foundation of significant public housing provision with accessible and flexible eligibility criteria. It is a policy pathway which makes economic and social sense in under-developed market environments such as exist in remote communities today, and which has a track record of success in post-war Australia. It provides a pathway to ultimate home ownership for Indigenous citizens in remote communities while maintaining a social safety net for those who either do not have the financial capacity to make the transition, or need time to get there. Through innovative buy-back guarantees this arrangement can underpin the development of real markets in land in remote communities, which are needed to complement the federal government’s recent reform of tenure arrangements in remote Indigenous townships.