It’s well-established that mainstream housing and homelessness solutions are failing our mob, and that self-determination and self-management are key to closing the housing gap.
In this article, we’ll be sharing our experiences of cultural considerations in property management. We give you some examples why a cultural approach to First Nations tenancy matters, and what that looks like specifically in the cultural context of the Noongar people (the largest Aboriginal cultural bloc in Australia).
As many renters will tell you, mainstream property management can be more than a little prescriptive and rigid. Property management tends to be far more focused on the property than the people living with it and can leave people feeling vulnerable and powerless in their own homes.
Inspections can be a source of great stress, especially for people who don’t “fit in” and tick the boxes, especially in the private market – where the place you call home is also someone else’s investment asset. This is exacerbated where cultural considerations come into play, because those boxes were designed for the dominant culture and an assumption that housing should be utilised by smallish, nuclear families.
We’ve talked before about the centrality of kinship obligations in Noongar culture, particularly in regard to letting kin stay, and how the default housing designs in Australia aren’t culturally-appropriate for multigenerational extended families. Traditionally, our people lived not as nuclear families, but as kinship groups, and today we often honour culture and kin by living in houses considered “overcrowded”, or even “severely overcrowded”.
The first thing to keep in mind is – especially with many of us living in social housing – we didn’t choose what our houses would look like. They’re not designed for us. Living together in groups is a source of strength and joy for many of our families; it’s a chance for our grands to teach lore and stories to our kids. It can be hard living in houses that aren’t quite right for this purpose, and that’s back to the whole question of housing provision.
So when we’re provided houses that work well for mainstream families, we tend to end up having more people living in that same space. This is called “overcrowding” by the Australian Government, but the concept of overcrowding is essentially a mainstream construct; if you see things through our eyes, keeping our kin safely homed is a no-brainer. We’re also generally not going to say “sorry, we’re full up here” especially when the alternative is leaving people we care about sleeping on the streets or camping in bushland.
When our homes are overcrowded, there’s elements of push and pull; as long as everyone’s getting on, it’s great having the people you care about close by. It’d be even greater if the house was big enough that everyone could live comfortably, but still, we’ve got agency, we’re making a choice for our home, and it aligns with our values. We’re happy. There are physical and mental health issues that can come with overcrowding, especially when it isn’t working out well for a family. But many of these problems could just be solved with a bigger house.
On the other hand, the flipside of overcrowding is that so, so many of our people are homeless or at-risk. So we’re letting kin in need stay, but they’re in need in the first place because of housing market failure. We’re all-too-often acting as a “hedge” to the housing market, keeping our kin off the street where Australia won’t.
At this point comes the salt in the wound, because having been provided with a culturally-inappropriate house, we now risk eviction because of culturally-inappropriate property management.
A rock, a hard place and a cultural compromise
If mainstream Australia was looking at our overcrowded homes and thinking that the solution was building more suitable houses, we’d be pretty happy about that. Unfortunately, what tends to happen in practice is that we’re punished for our own disadvantage, told off for “overcrowding”, and often risk losing our kids for it because of the negative impacts that can come with an overcrowded home (translation: a home too small for our needs). Property managers will complain that the house isn’t supposed to fit that many people. The house can end up with more wear and tear, neighbours tend to complain and so on.
There’s also an undercurrent of bias here. Ever watched the Brady Bunch and seen that wholesome all-American family with three kids per bedroom? No one’s calling that overcrowding; but we can’t help but wonder if they’d been Aboriginal in Australia whether someone would’ve been calling up the DCP.
In Chinese culture, three or four generations under one roof is venerated as an ideal extended family structure (and of course, houses are designed accordingly), and that’s beautiful. There are SO many positive impacts of a multigenerational extended-family home.
But with an estimated 3/4 of Australians holding negative biases against Aboriginal Australians, it’s fair to say more than a few Aussies might look at a multigenerational Chinese family differently from a multigenerational Aboriginal family. Some of these biases are deeply rooted and very unconscious, but they’re there and they’re harmful.
Letting Kin Stay, and Respecting Culture and Individuals
By looking through a cultural lens, we see things very differently from mainstream property managers. We recognise and honour the fact that Aboriginal culture is collectivist and comes with specific rules, roles and responsibilities which include cultural obligations around letting kin stay; and we know that these obligations were key to surviving and thriving on Noongar country, across WA and Australia for many tens of thousands of years.
According to Noongar culture, mothers and grandparents are often obligated to house adult children, and to house and care for grandchildren. Many of us have dozens of first cousins, and with entrenched intergenerational disadvantage at play, at any given time some of them or their kids will be in need. (Again, stories of mainstream Anglo-Australian mothers and grandmothers opening their homes to relatives in need are celebrated; our mums and nannas should be, too.)
So it’s not unusual for four or even five generations to live under one roof, for loungerooms to be set up with beds rather than lounges, and for patios to have makeshift beds (especially in the warmer months). Kin may come from living on country to Perth for medical care or for sorry business; where this happens, we’re obligated to house them, and they’d do the same for us. And where kin are experiencing homelessness or domestic violence, we’ll be there for them too. Being able to go to your community for support is a beautiful thing. Even when we don’t have much, we care and share.
From a property management perspective, the golden rule is not to put people in positions where they have to choose between culture and a home. So giving people the self-determination and agency to let kin stay is key. We also recognise that many potential eviction risk factors can be overcome by working with people, not against them; personal situations can vary greatly, and often spring from intergenerational trauma and socioeconomic exclusion. We practice empathy and understanding, and manage the property based on the situation of the people within it and their wellbeing. We support and advocate for our mob.
What other organisations may treat as a strike or a breach (thus contributing to increased stress for the people living in the home), we work with our tenants to understand what has caused the situation they find themselves in, and work with them and their families and kin to prevent eviction and return them to a sustainable tenancy and a happier life. We work from a baseline of respect both for culture and for individuals, and our extremely low eviction rate (only one tenant in the last three years) speaks for the success of that approach.
Some Key Takeaways
Practicing culturally-appropriate property management involves a lot of looking inwards and exploring unconscious bias. Instead of judging people negatively based on what you see on the surface, take the time to listen to them and work with them. Recognise that our trauma doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s a result of many generations of displacement, dispossession and attempts to make our culture and identity disappear.
In the face of all of that, we’ve stayed strong, we’re still here and we’re navigating two worlds – part of which involves housing that’s fundamentally at odds with who we are and what we value.