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High Court fight for safe housing in remote Indigenous communities has far-reaching implications for renters nationwide

Grata Fund: Media Release

On Thursday 16 March from 9.45am, the High Court of Australia will consider whether compensation is available for distress or disappointment suffered by First Nations people living in dilapidated housing in remote communities. It is the first residential tenancy case being heard by Australia’s highest court in a generation.

Whilst this case is brought by remote Indigenous public housing tenants, the High Court’s decision will likely impact all renters across Australia. Approximately one in three Australian households are renters and more than half of Northern Territorians are renters.

The case is a culmination of a fight for housing justice that started more than seven years ago when tenants Enid Young and Mr Conway (who passed away during the case) from the remote Northern Territory community, Santa Teresa began proceedings with 68 other tenants from that community. That battle has already established that the legal standard for ‘habitable’ premises requires that the premises be not only safe, but also reasonably comfortable. This High Court hearing is the next step and examines if compensation should be paid for the distress and disappointment suffered by tenants when housing does not meet legal standards.

Badly maintained houses have left many people in Santa Teresa without electricity, hot water, cooking facilities or functioning toilets for weeks, months and even years at a time. The lead tenant in this case, Ms Young, endured more than five years without being provided a door for an external doorway of her home. Without a front door, Ms Young felt unsafe in her own home and was fearful that her home could be invaded by snakes or her possession stolen when she left the house. Another tenant, a young mother, regularly had to wake up multiple times a night to mop up leaking sewage to protect her young children’s health. The High Court will now consider how compensation should be paid for distress caused by these types of breaches.

Dan Kelly, Solicitor at Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR), says: “This case is the culmination of a long struggle for housing justice, led by the remote community of Santa Teresa. Housing is a human right, and the deplorable state of housing in remote communities, its impacts on health, education and employment opportunities, should not be tolerated in a country as wealthy as Australia. As it stands, legal action such as this is the only way remote communities can enforce their basic rights to habitable housing.

Isabelle Reinecke, Executive Director, Grata Fund says: “Tenants from Santa Teresa have been fighting for decent homes for their families, against the sometimes very hostile NT Government, for years. Today, they’ve reached the highest court in the country where they will argue that renters should be compensated for the distress caused by their landlord’s failure to complete repairs to ensure their homes were safe and habitable. Through this landmark case, First Nations community members from the small remote town of Santa Teresa are leading the way and fighting for better housing conditions for all Australians.

Ms Young, the late Mr Conway and the community of Santa Teresa are being represented by ALRAR at no cost to the community. Grata Fund has provided funding and support to the community throughout the legal journey.

Joel Dignam, Healthy Homes for Renters, says: “With more and more people paying through the nose for their rental home, it’s essential that the place is at least habitable. What’s important to recognise is that this should include that people can comfortably and liveably use the home. We hear from many renters who can’t use their bedrooms in summer because they get too hot, and end up sleeping in the lounge, sometimes for weeks on end. Landlords should be held accountable for making sure that rental homes are habitable, and this means more than just a few walls and a roof, it means that people should be able to live a full and decent life in their homes.

At the same time, Santa Teresa and other remote Indigenous communities are experiencing significant distress as a result of the NT Government’s recent introduction of the new rent rate hike that will see rent increases for 68% of remote renters. These rent hikes, regardless how dilapidated the house, will push tenants even further into poverty, at a time where cost of living stress is impacting Australians nationwide. The rent increases are up to 300% previous rent rates.

Skye Thompson, CEO, Aboriginal Housing NT says: “Aboriginal families living remotely across the Territory have been left to live in dilapidated homes that make elderly people sick, are unfit for young children and unsafe for far too long. We need homes that are culturally appropriate, energy efficient, keep our families safe with services delivered through an Aboriginal community-controlled system. We’re ready to work on the solutions, and we look forward to continuing to work in true partnership with the Northern Territory and Australian Governments to deal with the systemic issues that remote housing has been plagued with for far too long,

It is expected that a decision by the High Court in the Santa Teresa housing compensation case will be reached later this year.

ABOUT GRATA FUND
Grata Fund advocates for a strong and functioning democracy by using circuit breaking litigation to hold the powerful to account. Grata is Australia’s first specialist non-profit strategic litigation incubator and funder. Grata develops, funds, and builds sophisticated campaign architecture around high impact, strategic litigation brought by people and communities in Australia. We focus on communities, cases and campaigns that have the potential to break systemic gridlocks across human rights, climate action and democratic freedoms.

CASE BACKGROUND/TIMELINE
In February 2018, the Santa Teresa community won at the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal and established the Santa Teresa community’s right to ‘habitable housing’ – defined as ‘at least safe’.

The case went to the NT Supreme Court, which found in favour of the community. It confirmed their right to habitable housing, but said that habitable meant not only safe, but reasonably comfortable, judged against contemporary standards. This is a much stronger definition.

In February 2022, the NT Court of Appeal confirmed that the NT Government must provide decent housing, and rejected the NT Government’s third attempt to water down its obligations.

The community’s fight has had a huge impact that will not only benefit the 76 remote communities in the NT, but all tenants in the NT. Thanks to their efforts, all landlords – public or private – are now required to keep their properties in a decent condition.

 

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4 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    About time that successive NT governments were held to account for the restriction of majority government spending being confined to Darwin and Alice Springs.

    Watch any of the Noyce or Thornton films on Aboriginal life in NT and ask youraelf, ”Would I be prepared to live in such housing AND pay rent?”

  2. Canguro

    John Pilger’s documentary, Utopia, made in 2013.

  3. Britton

    Safe housing falls in the basic physiological level of Hierarchy of Needs as described by Maslow. While both sides of politics have spent decades turning shelters for families into tax shelters for property investors, slum lords, including the NT govt, have proliferated.
    It’s about time some power of fair tenancy was returned to renters in much the same way it is in a number of Euro countries. But then again, fairness, the enemy of the politician, what chance anything changes for the better? Vote for anyone other than LNP or Labor?

  4. Terence Mills

    Some years ago the NT government as owner and landlord of housing in regional and remote areas had assembled repairs and maintenance crews who moved around respective communities and carried out necessary repairs and maintenance on behalf of their tenants to ensure that they ‘provided a standard of housing in remote communities that is fit for purpose and allows Aboriginal people to live a healthy and fulfilling life.’
    In addition, they were training apprentices in the various trades to ensure that skills were enhanced in remote communities : this was an indigenous employment program.

    Admittedly there were and remain cases of vandalism (e.g. kids pegging rocks and smashing solar panels) and neglect.

    Whether landlords should be responsible to install airconditioning and satellite TV and internet is a moot point but fixing the door is fundamental to any landlord/tenant relationship .

    It looks as though this program of maintaining housing stock has been neglected and now (with flooding) and the lack of funding for this essential employment program has been exacerbated.

    I’m not even sure that the Voice will overcome failures by state and territory governments !!

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