Jasmine Cavanagh, an Eastern Arrente woman and young mother living Santa Teresa, NT, and 69 other households in her community have been fighting for 600 urgent repairs to their rental properties since 2015. With the support of Grata and expert lawyers from Australian lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights they took on the NT government and won! They’ve now established a legal precedent that could protect communities all across the NT.
Many houses posed serious health and safety risks to residents, with some structurally unsound, without running water, sewerage and ventilation, despite the temperatures regularly hovering above 40 degrees in summer and below zero degrees in winter.
After pushing for urgent repairs for years the residents of Santa Teresa, supported by Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) were forced to take it to court. Their landlord, the NT Government, ignored their pleas for repairs and safe housing for years and then counter-sued the community for millions in dodgy rental debts.
Running out of the funds needed to fight the NT Government, the community and their lawyers were close to being forced to give up. But because of the financial support of Grata Fund, the community was able to continue their fight.
In February 2018, Jasmine and the Santa Teresa community finally won their fight and established the Santa Teresa community’s right to ‘habitable housing’.
The Tribunal decision found that the Eastern Arrernte people of Santa Teresa had been forced to live in uninhabitable housing, dismissed the Government’s claim for dodgy rental debts, and ordered the Government to pay compensation and fix the housing. The decision set the legal standard for housing to be ‘habitable’ and not pose any immediate safety risks, a step towards dismantling the systemic racial discrimination inherent in remote housing policy.
This is a huge win for the Santa Teresa community and their pro bono legal team Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights that have been stuck in legal proceedings since 2016.
This result has broader implications outside of the Santa Teresa community, which could mean that the NT Government is forced to fix housing in all remote Aboriginal communities potentially benefiting up to 65,000 people amplifying the impact of this case.
And Grata is continuing to back members of Santa Teresa in for an appeal. Grandmother Enid Young, who is in her late 70s and speaks little English, wants to push the decision even further in the NT Supreme Court. Enid will be asking the court to find that the rental agreement she was signed up to by the Government is unethical and unjust and to push the standard of housing to “habitable” meaning reasonable comfort and humaneness. When talking about her rental agreement, Enid says:
“A while ago, a whitefella I had never seen before came to my door. He spoke to me only in English. He didn’t have a local person with him. I spoke to him as best I could. He then got me to sign paper. He didn’t explain what I was signing. He just said “sign here”. He seemed in a hurry.”
In February 2022, the Northern Territory’s 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 Court ruled that the government has a legal duty to provide people with housing that is not only safe, but reasonably comfortable, judged against contemporary standards.