By ERWIN CHLANDA
If there is usually a creek between the way the government and private enterprise do business, there is clearly an ocean when it comes to housing.
That is made clear in the report about town camps released by Community Development Minister Gerry McCarthy last week after sitting on it for nearly a year, despite damning comments demanding action, and a recommendation to permit subdivision of camp leases which could have fundamental benefits for the town’s Aboriginal economy.
In the private market Alice Springs has about 3000 rented dwellings, according to an industry source. Property managers employed by the six local real estate agencies ensure that rent is paid and maintenance is carried out and they manage a high turnover of tenancies as the town still has a large transient population.
The managers inspect the dwellings, usually every three months. Damage caused by other than fair use is charged to the tenant who has to pay a bond of usually four times the weekly rent.
For that service the landlords pay fees between 7% and 10% of the rent. Assuming the average rent is $500 a week, this part of the real estate industry, calculated at an 8% fee (average market rate), is worth $6.2m a year.
On the other side of the fence, in public housing land, the picture is vastly different.
There are 708 dwellings in town camps in the Territory and 40% of these dwellings, 285, are in the 18 town camps of Alice Springs. That’s 10% of housing on the open rental market, yet the cost of their administration is clearly massively greater – and convoluted.
Mr McCarthy’s government has a total budget of $6b. Tangentyere (2017 operating income $22.2m) and Ingkerreke Outstations Resource Services (2017 revenue, mostly grants, $7.7m) also have a hand in the running of the town leases in Alice Springs.
Yet it has taken a report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, titled Living on the Edge, running to 16,000 pages and costing the NT Government $2.4m, to unravel the management of public assets in the “camps”. Mr McCarthy is now calling for “community members to provide feedback”.
The report estimates the cost to upgrade the current housing assets in the Alice Springs camps to meet the standards of the Residential Tenancy Act at $24.3m.
What to do, asks the report? Don’t lease homes that are not habitable and safe; make sure premises are clean and suitable for habitation as well as secure, it suggests. “The houses in Alice Springs have numerous breaches in each of these areas,” it says.
“The cleanliness of the majority of houses in Alice Springs is a serious concern and houses show a breach in compliance with the Residential Tenancy Act from both the tenants’ and landlords’ perspective.
“Housing associations currently seem to fail to keep up with service demands for both the ageing houses and the relatively new housing stock.
“Insufficient maintenance combined with neglect and ongoing abuse of the properties result in the inability to keep tenants in an acceptable standard of living.
“Apart from some extreme cases, the provided amenities per house are generally appropriate to the number of residents living in them.
“Overcrowding in Town Camps has often been blamed for the rapid deterioration of housing conditions. However, it appears that it is the temporary visitors that are causing additional stress on housing.
“Transient populations driven by seasonal and climatic occurrences, and events or activities tend to shy away from paid accommodation [choosing] to stay with friends and families instead.
“This increases the pressure on the existing housing stock.”
In relation to the persistent problem of keeping camp houses and yards clean – in the private market, this is the responsibility of tenants – the report does not seem to propose any practical solutions.
The motto of Living on the Edge is: “Investing in people to enable long-term economic participation will resolve the current challenges over time.” The taxpayer no doubt hopes that it will.
The section of the report dealing with Alice Springs has given governance the worst of five grades: “Very poor.”
The camps are leased or owned by 15 individual legal entities – all of course with their boards or committees.
The report says: “Many residents do not see that they live in public housing, but rather Aboriginal housing, for which they bear no maintenance responsibility, and in many instances, pay no rent.
“The organisation that represents them, Tangentyere Council, has been a fierce advocate for Town Camp community residents, for 40 years.
“Tangentyere were not happy with the decision to undertake the review and actively opposed elements of it.
“After consultation by the Northern Territory Government the organisation agreed to participate but using a different methodology.”
Instead of providing “an independent, place based, vision for each of the Town Camp communities from information gathered by local Aboriginal people … Tangentyere’s resistance made this more difficult than anticipated, and the modified process has provided a collective vision for Town Camp communities in Alice Springs.”
About putting the decision making process into Aboriginal hands the report said: “The level of understanding of residents was disparate – ranging from some having a sound understanding of the leasing arrangements and their rights and responsibilities, to others with a complete lack of understanding (for example, thinking they owned they house they lived in or considered that service providers were landlords with a right to deal with their tenancy of the house).
“In many cases there was inactivity by the [lease] holder and/or there was limited capacity … to drive change. This was found to be the main impediment to community development rather than any lack of understanding of rights and responsibilities as a [lease] holder.
“There is no compliance monitoring undertaken in respect of town camp [leases], so compliance with conditions are unknown.”
• Subdividing the camps should be permitted.
• Any sublease, transfer, mortgage or surrender requires the Minister’s consent. This process should be fast-tracked to ensure minimal delays to land dealings.
• An application for the rezoning of the land may be required where any potential development on the land is not consistent with the zone purposes.
• The Planning Act, Regulations and the NT Planning Scheme will still apply in respect of potential subdivision of unzoned land.
The report, in part, is scathing: “Governance structures within the Alice Springs region are characterised by confusion and uncertainty.
“There is a complicated leasing structure that makes the allocation of roles and responsibilities and day to day management of the Town Camps difficult.
“For the Town Camps within the region there is no one agency or organisation that provides direction, support and funding to Town Camps. This means little support to assisting residents and Town Camps to pursue development opportunities in a coordinated fashion.”
In its early pages, in answer to the question of why the town camp review is important, the report speaks of Aboriginal people in the NT broadly, although it should be noted that in Alice Springs at least, more Aboriginal people, about twice as many, live in the suburbs rather than in town camps. There are marked social and economic differences between these Aboriginal populations.
Speaking generally, the report says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians comprise 30% of the Northern Territory population, the highest proportion of any state or territory.
Projections estimate that there will be 86,773 Indigenous people in the Northern Territory by 2026, an increase of 26% from the 2011 census figures.
The percentage of the people who identified as Aboriginal in the 2011 census in Darwin was 9%, Alice Springs 19% and Katherine 28%. In the NT, nearly 44% of school student enrolments were Indigenous in Term 3.
Aboriginal people are currently one of the foundation stones of the economy, says the report, “but it is an economy in which they have little power, except as consumers.
“Opportunity is denied them through their lack of access to resources and lack of power over many aspects of their own lives.
“History has shown, across cultures, and across communities, that welfare dependence does not, as a general rule, create vibrant, happy, well balanced people. Non-participation in most aspects of life leads to a sense of helplessness and often depression.
“Substances become the crutch, the daily opiate to get people through the day, and certainly in this review we found too many Aboriginal people who fitted into this category.
“Upliftingly, not all the people we spoke to felt this way and there was a strong desire from individuals and organisations to change the interaction between the Government and the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory.”
The report’s section about Alice Springs sees service delivery to the Town Camps as the most substantial economic opportunity for their residents.
“We recommend that funding and private development contracts should include enforceable training and Indigenous employment clauses with set parameters to impart lasting skills onto local residents.
“With large number of potential workers pooled employment services have the potential to be developed in the Alice Springs region.
“These labour pools can be directed to undertake maintenance services or to take advantage of economic development opportunities.
“Indeed there are residents already engaged in individual employment in the Alice Springs region.
Long term training and employment programs would allow residents … cross cultural learning that needs to occur for both employers and employees.
“Due to the location of the Town Camps in the Alice Springs region the development of on and off site Indigenous businesses utilising land and labour available in the Town Camps is possible.
“This would require tapping into an investment pool, such as Indigenous Business Australia, to obtain the necessary physical capital to get the business started, or investment and partnership with the private sector.
“Where investment is made by the private sector in partnership with Indigenous organisation and individuals, the use of local labour must be mandated.
“Agreements must be formulated with set parameters to impart lasting skills onto local residents,” says the report.
PHOTOS: Hidden Valley was notorious for its squalor for many years. After a substantial make-over it now has newly sealed streets, and after the transfer of the garbage service from the chronically under-performing Tangentyere Council to the Town Council, the yards are much tidier.
True, not many residents have taken up gardening, but in some yards garbage was raked up, ready for removal. Some of the homes seemed to be unoccupied. Those which are lived in had kids playing in the gardens. There is still the occasional dead car, but nothing like in years gone bye.
Hidden Valley is located one of the town’s most scenic parts. Just a narrow range separates if from the upmarket Golf Course Estate. Also picturesque are the Larapinta Valley camp, at the foot of the range, and in the northern part of the town are Mt Nancy and Basso’s.
If “location, location” is truly a deciding factor in real estate deals, permission for the camps to be subdivided, as is now suggested, could herald a bonanza. Who would be the beneficiaries?
Mt Nancy is mostly occupied by the Shaw clan which has controlled Tangenetyere for decades. The Alice Springs News Online asked it why people who have work, some highly paid, or are capable of working, are living in public housing chronically short in supply in Alice Springs.
That includes Geoff Shaw, for many years at the helm of Tangentyere, a mostly Federally funded NGO with a $20m plus budget. He is now succeeded by his son, Walter.
We received no reply.
On April 7 Geoff Shaw’s wife, Eileen Hooson, at the public forum convened by Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, made the point that alcohol is prohibited in town camps. She said her husband, no doubt one of the town’s most lavishly superannuated retirees, is also a Vietnam Veteran: “He can’t drink in his own home. He can’t enjoy for the rest of his life a quiet drink with his army mates.”