Something unusual is happening in Baniyala in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Footings are being poured this week for two new houses. Unlike other houses on Australia’s Indigenous lands, these two-bedroom houses are being built privately for Baniyala families.
Although Australian governments are building public houses in Indigenous townships, no new public houses are being built in homelands / outstations. On average, it costs more than $600,000 to build a three-bedroom public house.
Rents in these Indigenous NT townships are based on the occupants’ ability to pay. For example, if there are 13 people (say 8 adults and 5 children) living in a three-bedroom house, the government assesses each adult’s capacity to pay based on welfare, pensions and other benefits the occupants receive. Some may pay $20 per fortnight while others $60. This way, an average rent of $400–$450 per fortnight is collected from the (overcrowded) house.
No new houses have been built in Baniyala for almost 20 years, and the existing ‘dwellings’ don’t have kitchens or bathrooms. Darwin houses have to meet cyclone standards, but no standards at all apply for houses built on Indigenous lands in the Northern Territory.
Indigenous land is private property, and the Baniyala community is courageously grappling with the knowledge that it is their responsibility to organise and pay for new houses. But governments have not supported private housing on Indigenous lands. Unable to get title (99-year leases) on their traditional land, Baniyala families are denied benefits such as the $7,000 First Home Owners Grant and the $10,000 NT Build Bonus grant other Australians receive.
In March 2012, the Baniyala community lodged a petition in the Senate asking the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, to help them get leases for their houses and that ‘benefits enjoyed by non-Indigenous Australians should not be denied to us because we live on Indigenous land.’ They have not yet received a reply.
In contrast to expensive public housing, the privately built two-bedroom houses in Baniyala will cost only about $100,000 each. Indigenous families living in remote areas – even those on welfare – have enough income to pay rent or mortgage repayments on these houses. The houses will have a fixed rent or mortgage to recover costs, regardless of who lives there.
After generations of decrepit public housing, Baniyala families will finally have the option of building and living in new houses built to capital city standards.
Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and Mark Hughes is an independent researcher. With Sara Hudson, they wrote the report Private Housing on Indigenous Lands in 2010.
Since 2005, CIS has been supporting the Baniyala community – initially to build a real school for their children and now with housing and jobs.