A cultural approach to First Nations tenancy and housing

Here in Noongar boodja (country), most social housing is provided by the Department of Communities (DoC). The social housing waitlist is huge (it’d take about 1,300 years to house everyone) and Aborginal people face twice as long a wait on the priority list.

They’re also more likely to be evicted than non-Aboriginal tenants, and it’s believed over half of evictions are Aboriginal people.

People on the housing waitlist can find themselves being forced to choose between culture and housing; some cultural factors are:

  • Connection to a specific area of land (which can be positive, i.e. traditional ownership, family connection, or negative i.e. certain families claiming ownership to certain suburbs)
  • Houses where there’s been a death, or a family has lived there who’re feuding with their family
  • A belief that bad spirits remain in certain homes, meaning that certain families cannot live there
  • Not being able to respond to DoC on a housing offer within the mandated 3-day response period.

This last point is particularly important: it’s not always easy to contact people within that mandated timeframe, especially when they’re transient. Maybe they’re not contactable via phone; maybe they’ve gone back to country; or they’re doing “sorry business” (mourning rites). Even if they know of the offer, they may need time to consider cultural factors. In contrast, we activate our connections on the “Noongar Grapevine” of family ties to find people who may be aware of that person’s whereabouts and let them know of the offer.

Because of factors like these, an Aboriginal person can find themselves in internal conflict, and may refuse an offer of housing. DoC won’t consider this a reasonable reason to refuse, and so they may find themselves dropped down to the bottom of (or even off of) the waitlist.

Here at Noongar Mia Mia, we recognise the immense value of culture to the wellbeing of our mob, and we consider these reasons for refusal to be valid. As an ACCO, we understand and respect cultural practices, and where these cultural reasons for refusing housing occur, we will continue our work in finding culturally-appropriate housing for that waitlisted person.

So, what does culturally-appropriate housing look like? Housing in Australia is based on dominant cultural ideas about what a household looks like, and that’s often just a nuclear family with 1.8 kids. Houses with more than 4 rooms are hard to come by. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for Aboriginal families to house 4-5 generations under one roof; not just because kinship makes us stronger, but also because we’re obligated to let kin stay, especially when they’re in crisis. And so many of us are. But much as 3 kids to a room was wholesome on the Brady Bunch, real-life overcrowding comes with a plethora of negative outcomes.

We need homes that are large enough; we need homes that are near our family members; we need to live places where our kids can learn culture from their grandparents; we need to live in the places that we call home; we need to be able to offer a roof over the head when a loved one desperately needs it. We need our homes to be affordable, stable and safe.

Private market housing

Well, Perth is in the midst of a housing emergency, with housing support services receiving thousands of calls per month; you can read more about this in the Open Letter to the Premier released by the CEOs of the Housing Emergency Response Group. Desperate families are losing their homes, not only because of unaffordable rent increases, but also because of landlords offloading their investments in a red-hot property market.

The long-and-short: we’re already left out in the cold by the job market, so on average our rent price ceiling is lower; even where we can afford rent price hikes, many landlords are biased against Aboriginal people, and when they receive dozens of applications on their rental property, they’ll likely to choose anybody but us. So even families with both parents in fulltime work end up going from home open to home open, wasting time and getting nowhere.

A recent UWA report Aboriginal Experiences of Housing First found it took twice as long for an Aboriginal person to be housed after being priority-listed. Between labour market discrimination, rental market discrimination, and cultural factors that can make some housing inappropriate, just getting a roof over your head is a serious problem; the same problem our parents faced. We can’t afford to wait another half-century for something to change. Housing insecurity and homelessness are complex problems, but what we know for sure is that it all starts with a house. Because without a home, everything else falls apart.

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