This fact sheet looks at housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) Australians, and particularly how housing affects the health and human rights of Indigenous Australians.
- Housing and health
- Housing is a human right
- History of housing in Australia for Indigenous peoples
- Missions and reserves
- 1960s onwards
- The situation today
- Helpful online resources
As outlined in the Health Fact Sheet, Indigenous Australians have the poorest health of all Australians. This is something that is caused by a range factors. One such factor, and one of the most important, is the lack of access to reasonable, safe and healthy housing.
Whilst this is an issue that undoubtedly exists both in remote and city areas alike, the problem is more serious in remote Indigenous communities. Overcrowding, poor maintenance and lack of funding are common.
If housing is safe (for example, it protects the inhabitants from contaminated water, dangerous materials, gas leakage and electrocution) and sanitation is good (for example toilets function properly, or there is no overcrowding) then residents are more likely to be healthy.
The right to adequate housing is protected by international law. Australia has signed and ratified various treaties including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘ICESCR’), which states, at article 11 (1), that parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”.
According to the UN Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights “at a minimum, housing must be affordable, accessible to disadvantaged groups, habitable, culturally appropriate and provide occupants with security of tenure and afford access to appropriate services”.
The UN Special Rapporteur has observed that notions of ‘houses’ and ‘homes’ is differently understood by different cultural groups. How houses are built, how many people can live in them and what they look like has an impact on the community of people that live in them. Research shows that the right housing helps make communities happier, more connected and safer. In Australia there are very few examples of housing built with the needs of Aboriginal people in mind.
Indigenous Australians and the Europeans who colonised Australia in 1788 had very different understandings of spirituality, land ownership, economy and the environment. The land ownership of Indigenous Australians was largely unrecognized, as the land was treated as terra nullius (‘empty land’ or ‘land owned by no-one’). See the pages on Land Rights http://reconciliaction.org.au/nsw/education-kit/land-rights/
and History http://reconciliaction.org.au/nsw/education-kit/history/ for more info.
One of the reasons that Indigenous people were not seen to ‘own’ the land was the lack of permanent houses or dwellings on the land. While Indigenous tended to live nomadic lifestyles (which means that they moved around within the boundaries of their traditional lands, rather than staying in one main camp), some Indigenous groups built and maintained permanent dwellings.
These were sometimes connected with the farming activities undertaken by Indigenous people and some were used for religious purposes, as well as shelter. Indigenous people also constructed ‘humpies’, which were temporary shelters built from bark. Although mostly destroyed by settlers, some of these structures continue to exist today.
During the 18th – 19th centuries Indigenous people were moved onto reserves, missions and stations. The mission control of where and how Indigenous people lived, as well as control of their money and the disconnection of Indigenous people from their traditional lands had helped entrench a cycle of poverty, which continues for many today.
Generally the housing provided on the missions was very poor. At the time Indigenous people were considered to be like animals, and the quality of housing they were provided reflected this. Whole families could be housed in tin sheds, on dirt floors, in circumstances of extreme heat. Some missions housed Indigenous children in large dormitories. Over time as missions and reserves developed, they came to include more houses like those built in main towns.
Under the mission system, Indigenous people were denied access to land rights over their traditional lands, but were also restricted from being able to buy houses and own property in main towns. It was not until 1975 and the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act that it became illegal to discriminate against an Indigenous person wanting to rent or buy a house. Up until that point it was common for land owners to refuse to lease and sell Indigenous people to a house, which stopped many from settling in the centre of towns.
Up to the 1960s Indigenous housing, like other aspects of Indigenous life, were largely controlled by the states. In 1960s, when Australia changed from an official policy of assimilation to recognition of the right to self-determination for Indigenous people, a range of Indigenous run and managed housing organizations developed and were provided with some money from government to provide housing. At the same time, Indigenous people began to get some recognition of their traditional land rights, and started to take back control of land in some areas.
Indigenous people are much less likely to own their own home than other people, and are more likely to be relying on government or social housing to live. In 2006:
- there were nearly 7 million households in Australia, and around 166,000 of these were Indigenous households,
around 34% of Indigenous households were owned or being paid off by the occupier, compared to 69% for the rest of the population,
- around 29% were rented from either a State or Territory housing authority or a housing cooperative/community group, compared to just 4.4% for the rest of the population, and
- despite being only around roughly 2% of the population, Indigenous people live in 11% of all state and territory public housing.
Indigenous people are also much more likely to be homeless.
A survey conducted in the Northern Territory in remote communities’ shows that only a small percentage of Indigenous housing has adequate facilities to prepare and cook meals, and a minority of houses would pass a standard assessment for electrical safety. In half the houses, it is not possible to wash a child in a tub or bath, and a functioning shower is available in only a third (for more details see the resource titled ‘The state of health hardware in Aboriginal communities in rural and remote Australia’ – link at the bottom of this page).
There have also been a large number of recent government reports which state that this all adds up to a ‘housing crisis’ for Indigenous people. The history of low funding, or funding being spent the wrong way, means a large funding boost is needed to fix the problems that exist with overcrowding, poor sanitation and the lack of houses, particularly in regional and remote areas.
Resolving the problem is also related to economic development. As long as Indigenous people continue to be one of the poorest groups in Australia, they will lack the money to buy a house, and will continue to rely on community and government support.
Housing as a Human Right Fact Sheet, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Useful and simple to read information about why housing is important and the current level of homelessness in Australia, http://www.humanrights.gov.au/human_rights/housing/index.html#housing
The Aboriginal Housing Company, Redfern, website includes a history of the establishment of the Block, which is one of the first hand backs of land to Aboriginal people in an urban area, in the 1970s. http://www.ahc.org.au/history/history.html
Reconciliation Australia Housing Fact Sheet, at www.reconciliation.org.au (follow the links to Resources). This is one of several facet sheets developed in 2007 which include summaries of useful facts and statistics.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Indigenous housing indicators 2005-06 Report available online at http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/hou/ihi05-06/ihi05-06-c00.pdf. The AIHW publishes a range of useful reports, and some summaries online, which can help you get the most up to date statistics.
Article by James Dawson,
A Hidden National Crisis: Indigenous Housing in Australia’s Top End, August – September 2005, Indigenous Law Bulletin, Vol.6, Issue 21. Available online at http://www.ilc.unsw.edu.au. This article analyses the housing crisis facing Indigenous communities in top end Australia. It analyses differing conceptions of ‘house’ and ‘home’, the shortage of houses in the area, and the importance of Indigenous decision making in regards to their housing. A bit more academic but not too hard to read.
The state of health hardware in Aboriginal communities in rural and remote Australia, Paul J. Torzillo, Paul Pholeros, Stephan Rainow, Geoffrey Barker, Tim Sowerbutts, Tim Short, Andrew Irvine, AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH, 2008 vol. 32 no. 1, available online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-6405.2008.00158.x/full. This article contains some interesting study results of specific communities in the Northern Territory. It does not go into solutions, but rather notes some specific problems that are not being addressed.