Aboriginal people living in remote communities living in appalling conditions in the NT are closely observing the developments of the Santa Teresa landmark test case that will be heard in the NT Supreme Court today. The case could set higher standards of housing, with the potential to break the stalemate and force improvement for remote communities across the NT.
Two members of the Santa Teresa community, Enid Young and Robert Conway will argue that the legal requirement to provide housing that is habitable, extends to a requirement that housing is good enough to live in, reasonably comfortable and humane. Previously the NTCAT ruled that the standard is only that housing be safe, establishing an important, but basic level of protection. A ruling in favour of Ms Young and Mr Conway at the Supreme Court would significantly increase the standard of housing required in remote communities . Ms. Young and Mr. Conway will also argue that their rental agreements are ‘unconscionable’ (unfair) and invalid on that basis because no-one explained what they were signing up to. If successful, the case could open the NT Government up to further financial liability in relation to rents unfairly collected from residents in other remote communities.
In a historic decision released in February, NTCAT found that the NT Government is legally obliged to provide housing to tenants that meets the minimum statutory safeguards in the Residential Tenancies Act, for the first time. It ordered that compensation be paid to Santa Teresa renters for the poor state of housing. That decision potentially impacts over 70 other remote communities across the NT.
The Santa Teresa lawsuit was brought against the NT Government by 70 households after the Government failed to action over 600 urgent repairs, with some families waiting for over five years. Many houses posed serious health and safety risks to residents. Some homes were structurally unsound or without running water, sewerage and ventilation. This was despite the desert temperatures in the area regularly hovering above 40 degrees in summer and below zero in winter.
Annie Young, a community leader from Santa Teresa said, “We need better housing in Santa Teresa community, proper housing that’s reliable and good for years to come. Not just people relying on fixing up old houses, even if they fix up these old houses now they’ll come down later. Fixing them is just a band-aid job.
“We need houses that don’t make people sick. There are still married people with kids living with their mothers and fathers in two-bedroom houses, and that’s not right, that’s very wrong. The overcrowding can make people stressed and stress makes people sick.
“The overcrowding is the worst thing not just in our community but in all communities. Indigenous people in my community and others need better housing.
Dan Kelly, a solicitor with Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) who represented the residents at no cost says, “This litigation is looking like the circuit breaker that could force wholesale change of remote housing in the NT that has been in dire straights for decades.
“Enid and Robert’s challenge at the Supreme Court is part of a long story of Aboriginal communities fighting to protect their rights while the Government has continued to fail to meet its basic responsibilities as a landlord in the community.
Walter Shaw, spokesperson for Aboriginal Housing NT (AHNT), said “First Nations people living in remote communities across the Territory who have also been ignored by the NT Government and forced to live in appalling conditions are keenly watching the development of this case.
“The NT Government must return responsibility for housing decisions back to Aboriginal control, and take a housing for health approach if it is serious about closing the gap on Aboriginal disadvantage.
“Climate change will have severe impacts on communities living remotely, it is critical that housing is appropriately designed and renovated to provide protection, particularly the young and elderly, who are already facing unsafe levels of extreme heat and extreme weather events.
Belinda Lowe, Head of Strategic Communication at Grata Fund, the organisation that provided the financial backing for disbursements in the case, said “Residents of Santa Teresa have shown extraordinary courage standing up for their basic rights to the NT Government, who has at times deployed aggressive legal tactics.
“We expect the NT Government to apply the legal standard set by the courts to all remote communities, and we are open to supporting the legal challenges of other communities seeking its application.”
The NT Government has not appealed the original NTCAT decision.
Spokes available for comment
Annie Young, Santa Teresa community leader available on 0474 166 879
Dan Kelly, Solicitor, Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR)
Belinda Lowe, Head of Strategic Communication, Grata Fund
Walter Shaw spokesperson for Aboriginal Housing NT (AHNT) is quoted above, but not available for interviews.
Media contact, Belinda Lowe: 0428 805 696
NT Supreme Court, 14 Parsons St, Alice Springs
Wednesday 11 December, starting at 10am. The hearing is expected to run most of the day.
The 70 Santa Teresa residents bringing the case are being represented by Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights at no cost to them and the litigation disbursements are financed by Grata Fund. The NT Department of Housing initially counter-claimed against the plaintiffs for approximately $2million in alleged unpaid rental debts but was forced to withdraw this claim during hearings at NTCAT when it could not produce any evidence of these debts.
In February 2019 NTCAT decided that the Residential Tenancies Act applied to the residents of Santa Teresa, a point which the NT Government had disputed, and that residents are entitled to housing that is at least safe. It ordered the NT Government to provide compensation to families for periods where the housing did not meet that standard.
NTCAT also found that the new tenancy agreements introduced in Santa Teresa by the NT Department of Housing from about 2017 were invalid because they contained terms that were inconsistent with provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act. This meant that the rent increases introduced under the new agreements were invalid.
These findings are significant because it is likely that the same or similar processes were followed by the Department in executing rental agreements in other remote communities. This would entitle people in other communities to the protections provided by the Residential Tenancies Act, including the ability to claim for compensation. Similarly, where tenants in other communities have been signed up to new rental agreements with rent increases, those increases may also be invalid. This has implications for the potential financial liability of the NT Government for any overpaid amounts.
It is possible that every rent increase claimed by the NT Department of Housing for remote tenants is unlawful. The NT should immediately cease collection of these amounts, and conduct an audit to ensure it is not collecting monies it is not entitled to.