What we want
Our purpose is to advocate for Aboriginal housing in Aboriginal hands. We want a sufficient supply of appropriate and affordable housing for Aboriginal people – delivered and managed by Aboriginal community organisations.
To achieve this vision will take time and persistent efforts. There will be many challenges to overcome, and the sector’s progress may not be straightforward or clear. We plan to celebrate big and small wins along the way! We are also determined that all our work will be underpinned by culture, language and country, and guided by the board and elders from across the Northern Territory.
Let’s talk about what we mean when we imagine Aboriginal housing in Aboriginal hands.
Housing for Aboriginal people
Aboriginal housing means the whole system of houses for Aboriginal people – the houses themselves but also the organisations that provide, manage and maintain them and the services that support Aboriginal people to live in them. In some ways the particular arrangements depend on whereabouts the houses are. For example, generally:
- in urban areas of the Territory – Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek – Aboriginal housing tends to mean houses managed by an Aboriginal community housing provider (CHP);
- in a town camp or community living area, Aboriginal housing means all the houses;
- in the remote communities Aboriginal housing means all public (government-supplied and managed) housing other than those where government employees live;
- on homelands Aboriginal housing means the houses and informal structures where people want to live and the land where many more people would live if there was enough housing and adequate infrastructure and services (water, power, waste management, telecommunications) and the opportunity for economic and community development.
There are specific Closing the Gap measures in relation to Aboriginal housing. One figure being tracked is how many people live in housing that is appropriately sized (see ‘Enough housing’, below). Others relate to the standard of Aboriginal housing (see ‘Appropriate housing’, below.)
AHNT’s partner NT Shelter reports on how many people are homeless in the Northern Territory. Relative to the national average there are 12 times more homeless people, and 87% of them are Aboriginal. Many of those people live in severely overcrowded homes. Over half of all remote community homes are overcrowded, and 97.6% of people living in severely overcrowded dwellings are Aboriginal.
Efforts to ‘close the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians include measuring the proportion of Aboriginal people living in appropriately-sized (not overcrowded) housing. As at 2021, the NT had by far the worst figures: only 43.4% of Aboriginal houses were big enough for the number of residents.
AHNT has a seat on the Joint Steering Committee (JSC) that oversees the National Partnership for Remote Housing Northern Territory. That agreement ran from 2018 to 2023 and was then extended to 30 June 2024. Its aim was to reduce overcrowding in 73 remote communities and the 17 Alice Springs town camps through $550 million of Commonwealth funding matched by $550 million of NTG funding and delivered through the NTG program Our Community, Our Future, Our Homes. Its goals weren’t fully met but its efforts did reduce the severity of the problem.
We are still a long way from having a sufficient supply of Aboriginal housing. At a bare minimum, the rates of homelessness and overcrowding must be lower each time we count – every five years, in the national census.
In 2021, the number of homeless Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory was 6.1% less than in 2016. But among people over 55 years old, homelessness grew by an unacceptable 13.4%. We need to continue that overall downward trend in the Territory – and extend it to include older people as well.
There’s a lot of meaning packed into the concept of ‘appropriate’ housing. For starters it means housing that has functioning services for water, power and waste and is in a good state of repair. But for housing to be appropriate it must also be fit for its environmental context and for the culture of the people who live there. And both of those factors vary according to what country the house is located on.
Well-maintained and serviced housing
Many Aboriginal homes in remote communities and on homelands are in a poor state. Some are considered ‘beyond economic repair’. Others are considered worth fixing up but are in great need of repairs and maintenance.
For public housing the NT Government is the service provider. For remote communities and town camps it might be the local council (or more likely, the regional ‘super shire’ council) or it might be a NRSCH-registered Aboriginal community housing provider. For homelands it might be an Aboriginal corporation or it might be a proprietary company.
The latest Closing the Gap figures on housing standards are from the 2018–19 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, which determined how many Aboriginal houses:
- are ‘of an acceptable standard’ – NT has the lowest proportion, at 66.8%
- have ‘no major structural problems’ – NT is second-worst at 59% (only South Australia is worse)
- have working facilities for the following – NT has the lowest figures for every factor:
- washing people – 90.8%
- washing clothes or bedding – 84.3%
- storing and preparing food – 78.8%
- sewerage – 92.69%
Aboriginal housing and infrastructure in remote communities and homelands are subject to a lot of inspection – by governments, service providers, researchers and consultants. It’s clear that they are in poor shape. We need to do better in terms of coordinating the inspections, sharing the data on the condition of housing and infrastructure. Most importantly, we need to move more swiftly to respond to issues as they are identified – especially if they are jeopardising the safety, health or wellbeing of residents.
Housing fit for the environment
The Northern Territory has extreme climates. In the tropical Top End, monsoonal rains and high humidity mean that leaks and mould are common problems. On islands and along the coast, homes also need to be built to withstand cyclonic winds. Temperatures also vary widely. In the central desert, nights can be frosty, and days are often extremely hot.
Very little Aboriginal housing is built with consideration of siting, orientation, thermal mass, insulation, shade, ventilation or landscaping – all factors that can support or detract from the comfort and wellbeing of residents. If you live in a tin shed with no lining or insulation and no electricity, it is extremely difficult to stay cool when it’s hot – or warm when it’s cold. Even if the house is solid and you have air-conditioning, poor design means that residents quickly run up a huge power bill or – since most Aboriginal people pre-pay – the power quickly runs out and the fridge turns off and everything starts to go off…
Housing fit for culture
There are around 40 different language groups in the Northern Territory, so there is a lot of cultural variation as well. If you want to build a home that is a good cultural fit for the residents, you need to involve prospective residents in the design. Having said that, there are some design patterns that might make a home culturally safe for many Aboriginal families. For example, it might be important that the house:
- has a flexible configuration, and spare facilities (such as an extra toilet), so it can accommodate visitors for extended periods of time
- affords a view, from a seated perspective inside the house, of who is approaching
- has a divided layout, with dual ablutions, to enable certain residents to avoid each other
- includes a sheltered outdoor sleeping area
The price of housing has risen dramatically over the last few decades. As more and more people struggle to pay the rent in the private market, it becomes more and more difficult to access public housing, social housing and community housing.
In early 2023, remote residents of Northern Territory public housing had their rent payments shift from income-based to a fixed per-room rate, despite substantial evidence that the new rent framework would deepen poverty among remote Aboriginal renters.
Many Aboriginal people want to return to live on their ancestral lands but there has been no government funding for new housing on homelands for over a decade.
Aboriginal housing has never been less affordable than it is now.
Aboriginal community-controlled housing
Housing that is Aboriginal community-controlled means housing where at every stage – from design and construction through to maintenance and tenancy support – Aboriginal people are the lead decision-makers. This concept of community control is central to AHNT’s vision of Aboriginal housing in Aboriginal hands. In principle, it’s an easy concept but in practice, it’s very difficult to bring about.
Closing the Gap is a national agreement developed in partnership between all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. Its priority reform 2 is to build the community-controlled sector – so there’s some weight and authority to this goal.
Similarly, and more specifically, the Northern Territory Community Housing Growth Strategy for 2022–32 commits the NT Government to supporting a gradual return of Aboriginal housing to community control.
AHNT’s role here is to:
- support community housing providers to strengthen their capability in relation to managing tenancies, repairs and maintenance and all the other activities that go in to providing good housing.
- work closely with government, land councils and service providers to advocate for policy reform to support new housing on homelands
- continually remind governments of their commitment to community control
One clear measure of the strengthening of community control is the number of Aboriginal community-controlled housing providers that are incorporated and registered with the National Regulatory System for Community Housing (NRSCH).
AHNT also supports the homelands movement that began after 1968, as Aboriginal people returned to their ancestral lands to develop new villages and livelihoods. Currently, Aboriginal traditional owners in the NT are only able to build houses on their ancestral lands if they first obtain a Section 19 lease. AHNT advocates for legislative reform to make it easier to build on homelands.
Check our policy positions
AHNT is developing a policy position on a range of topics. Tap a button to learn more:
Photo: Jimmy Frank speaking about the design of housing at Barapunta homeland, Rembarrnga country, Central Arnhem, June 2023; by Cath Styles