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Enabling homeownership on Indigenous lands is vital

Sara Hudson | 18 February 2011

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's call for Indigenous people to 'act' to 'Close the Gap' in her report to parliament last week has been applauded for her emphasis on personal responsibility. But her suggestion for Indigenous people to save up to buy a home is a bit 'rich' for those thousands of Aboriginal people living on Indigenous lands – who no matter how much money they save will never be able to own a home until land tenure issues are sorted out.

To date, the Labor government has focused on getting land councils and communities to agree to leases for 'social' housing so that its Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) can be implemented. There has been very little focus on leases for private housing.

In May last year, the federal government released a discussion paper titled Indigenous Home Ownership, which highlights how little the government really understands about the issues hindering Indigenous homeownership and the solutions needed to overcome them. This fact was confirmed when Jenny Macklin, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, said she is 'open to any new ideas to expand home ownership for indigenous people.'

Our paper Private Housing on Indigenous Lands, released in November last year, outlined the necessary steps needed for private homeownership to become a reality on Indigenous lands. Implementing these steps is not inherently difficult but will require policy reform.

One way of immediately kick starting private homeownership on Indigenous lands is to give tenants of existing social housing the option of taking ownership of their house at no cost. Many of the houses are so dilapidated that they are not worth much anyway and residents already 'own' the land on which their houses are built, they just have no title to it. By transferring the house and the land it is on to private ownership, residents could upgrade their houses by taking out mortgages for renovations. There are many programs offering financial assistance for homeownership: the 'Homeownership on Indigenous Land Program' (HOIL) even offers zero interest loans for some borrowers.

The problem has never been about the money but about land tenure. If the government is serious about 'closing the gap' (a dubious measure anyway) on Indigenous homeownership, then it needs to work with land councils to enable individual communities to hold head leases for 99 years over their land. Communities could establish a body corporate with responsibility for communal areas in the community as well as issuing individual leases for housing and business. Covenants on the use of land could be included to retain Indigenous control, while management of the body corporate could be outsourced (as most strata or company title arrangements do).

Those who own their own homes tend to have relatively high levels of personal responsibility. If Gillard is serious about her call to action, then enabling homeownership on Indigenous lands is vital.

Sara Hudson is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.