A class action by 70 households in Santa Teresa (Google Earth image at right) has resulted in the Aboriginal community of some 650 residents being compensated for the NT Government’s failure to maintain housing to a safe and healthy level.
The NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) has found the government is legally obliged to provide habitable housing in remote communities, a decision hailed “as a victory for all Aboriginal communities that have been systematically ignored by a government that continues to fail to meet its basic responsibilities as a landlord,” according to a media release this morning.
It says the lawsuit was brought after the government failed to action over 600 urgent repairs, with some families waiting over five years: “Many houses posed serious health and safety risks to residents, with some building structurally unsound, without running water, sewerage and ventilation despite the desert temperatures in the area regularly hoving above 40 degrees in summer and below zero in winter.”
Grata Fund has financially supported the class action and Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) have acted for over three years free of charge.
ALRAR’s lead lawyer, Dan Kelly is quoted in the release: “The NTCAT decision has cemented the rights of the Eastern Arrernte people of Santa Teresa under residential tenancy law – just like anyone else who rents from a landlord – despite the Government’s attempts to shirk its obligations.
“The NT government has pursued our clients for years over these dodgy debts, which across the community came to over a million dollars.
“They let the rental system fall into disarray for years, and only raised it to try and silence our clients when they dared to take legal action for better housing.
“After years of litigation it is clear they had no right to this money, it is clear the housing system is in chaos, and it suggests that rentals debts across the Territory are unenforceable. The entire housing system has been called into question.”
Grata’s head of strategic litigation Lou Dargan is quoted: “Litigation is so expensive and time consuming that it’s rare for important public interest cases such as this one to be pursued. It’s a great outcome for Santa Teresa residents.
“This class action … provides an important precedent for all remote communities seeking to protect their right to housing that meets basic legal standards of health and safety.
“Grata Fund will continue to work with ALRAR and investigate the potential for similar litigation in other communities.”
Josie Douglas, Policy Manager at Central Land Council, is quoted in the release: “The NT Government must return responsibility for housing decisions back to Aboriginal control, through local or regional community housing organisations in a phased approach.”
The release says Jasmine Cavanagh, a resident of Santa Teresa, told the NTCAT: “The main problem was the leaking shower. The toilet was blocked and leaked sewerage into the water leaking from the shower.
“Water was everywhere in the back area of our house. This started soon after I moved in.
“I complained about it many times to Housing. Sometimes I got a bandaid solution. Then the same problem would start again.
“When it was leaking, we would have to mop up dirty water about every four hours. I would mop it up at 8pm, then get up at midnight and mop it up again, and then get up in the early morning and mop it up again.
“I used to have to go and have a shower at my mum’s house. We would also wash the kids there.”
UPDATE Feb 28:
Minister for Housing and Community Development, Gerry McCarthy (pictured) issued the following statement:
The class action lawsuit was filed in January 2016, during the Giles Government.
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.
Two new builds are currently underway, with two more planned for this year.
Further, 31 dwellings have been scoped for works under our Room to Breathe program which provides additional living spaces and improved conditions as part of our strategy to reduce overcrowding.
The Territory Labor Government acknowledges the historic underfunding of remote housing and went into the election with a 10-year, $1.1bn plan to reduce overcrowding and improve housing in remote communities.
We are proud of our remote housing program which is delivering jobs and changing the housing landscape in remote communities across the Territory because we know that better homes mean better health, education, employment and social outcomes for Australia’s most vulnerable people.
The Commonwealth needs to honour its outstanding commitment to remote housing which has been held up for eight months.
I look forward to continuing to work with the residents of Santa Teresa and other remote communities across the NT to deliver better housing in partnership with remote indigenous Territorians.
UPDATE 4.10pm February 28
The landmark test case that yesterday voided four remote tenancy agreements in the remote community of Santa Teresa may have far-reaching implications for hundreds of similar agreements across the NT, Mr Kelly is quoted in a media release today.
The NTCAT found the agreements between the NT Government and Santa Teresa residents entered into in 2010 and 2011 were inconsistent with the NT Residential Tenancies Act and therefore invalid.
Later agreements entered into in 2017 were also invalid as the department failed to properly terminate previous agreements in accordance with the Act, likely leaving the NT Department of Housing with no valid tenancy agreements in remote communities.
The release says Grata Fund welcomes “this important legal precedent which could help secure justice for dozens of Aboriginal communities with identical tenancy contracts”.