Safe Housing Win
Residents in the Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa will finally be compensated for the NT Government’s failure to maintain housing to a safe and healthy level after the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) found the NT Government is legally obliged to provide habitable housing in remote communities.
Santa Teresa, located 85km south east of Alice Springs has a population of 555 residents. Most of Santa Teresa's concrete houses were built decades ago by the Federal Government and are now showing their age.
Many houses posed serious health and safety risks to residents, with some without running water, sewerage and ventilation despite the desert temperatures in the area reaching 40 degrees in summer. One resident had a blocked toilet and leaking shower for 269 days, during which time sewage water leaked through the home.
A class action lawsuit was filed in January 2016. Both Grata Fund, the public interest litigation fund and Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) acted on behalf of 70 households for over three years free of charge.
ALRAR’s lead lawyer, Dan Kelly said, “Aboriginal communities, including the people of Santa Teresa, have fought long and hard to protect their rights while the Government has continued to fail to meet its basic responsibilities as a landlord in the community.”
The NT Department of Housing initially counter-sued the plaintiffs for unpaid rental debts but amended its suit after many of its claims were found to be incorrect and some residents had never been billed for the rents claimed. The plaintiffs argued that the NT Government is legally bound to ensure that dwellings rented under its remote public housing scheme are adequately maintained.
The test case may have far-reaching implications for hundreds of similar agreements across the NT.
A statement from the NT Minister for Housing and Community Development, Gerry McCarthy said he was “looking forward to continuing to work” with residents.
“Since [we came to government] in September 2016, out of 99 houses in Santa Teresa, 93 have been fully upgraded and three replacement homes have been built,” the Hon Gerald McCarthy said.
“Two new builds are currently underway, with two more planned for this year. The Commonwealth needs to honour its outstanding commitment to remote housing which has been held up for eight months.”
The NT and Commonwealth governments are locked in a remote housing stoush over an additional $550 million in federal funds for remote housing. So far only $300,000 has been given to the Central Land Council to support its role in the rollout of housing.
Tenants pay rent. Landlords have obligations under the Residential Tenancies Act. The Act allows rent to be stopped until breaches relating to maintenance are fixed. Breach notices have been used in WA to force landlords to act.
Shelter WA members have raised systemic issues with housing maintenance on remote communities in WA.
“We have raised these concerns with the Department of Communities, and a workshop is being scheduled with the Department to develop solutions to deliver better outcomes for tenants,” said Michelle Mackenzie, CEO of Shelter WA.
Research shows the critical importance of good housing to health, education, and employment outcomes, and the need for Aboriginal people to lead culturally informed housing policy.
“The poorest people are paying the highest price for the current investment decisions into social housing,” said Michelle. “By harnessing the knowledge and understanding of people and agencies impacted by remote maintenance issues, we can develop a better system so people are able to thrive.”
As the Santa Teresa ruling in the NT shows, landlords have obligations to their tenants.
“More investment, and the right type of investment into housing, support services and tenancy advice is needed so that tenants have houses that are safe, habitable and well maintained," she said.
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