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Aborigines caught in vicious circle of housing neglect - 15 May 2006

ABORIGINAL housing in many remote communities is so run-down through lack of cash that building new dwellings is pointless, a housing research body study has found, reports Debra Jopson in the SMH.

Indigenous community housing organisations in remote areas estimate that one in five of their dwellings need replacing and that the same number needs drastic upgrading, but they cannot get the $700 million they need over the next five years to fix the problem, says a report by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

Housing indigenous people is a key plank of the Federal Government's "practical reconciliation"
policy but Jon Hall and Mike Berry of RMIT University have identified a "ruinous cycle" of neglect in this area.

A lack of national oversight, poor back-up for embattled indigenous housing managers and government maintenance grants insufficient to stop further deterioration are all causes of the failure to provide Aborigines with proper shelter, they say.

"Nearly 95 per cent of all organisations managing nearly 70 per cent of the dwellings do not obtain enough revenue from rents to support appropriate maintenance and effective, professional, paid housing management from within," Dr Hall and Professor Berry say. "It is a ruinous cycle.

Insufficient revenue ensures inadequate maintenance and housing management, which ensures poorer quality stock, lower proportions of potential rents … which ensures further deterioration of the stock, and lower housing management expenditures, which ensures even lower revenues, and so on."

Their report, Indigenous Housing: Assessing the Long Term Costs and the Optimal Balance Between Recurrent and Capital Expenditure, was funded by a committee of public servants that advises the nation's housing ministers, and which is due to meet on June 16.

The committee has already estimated that there will be a shortage of 18,000 dwellings for Aborigines by 2009.

"Getting indigenous housing management to a viable level will require a national effort and focus and a national funding process and if it's left as it is, it won't happen," Dr Hall said.

The latest survey has found that indigenous community housing associations providing more than 21,000 dwellings suffer a $53 million funding shortfall yearly. But they need $141 million a year over the next five years just to fix and replace degraded housing.

A second group of not-for-profit indigenous housing bodies run by the states and territories, and responsible for another 12,800 dwellings, has a $44 million annual shortfall, the researchers say. These organisations have a $58 million backlog of money needed for upgrading and replacing dwellings, their report says.

Making the indigenous community organisations that do not fall under any state government umbrella "financially viable and stable", should be a top policy priority, Dr Hall and Professor Berry say.

A previous study, the Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey, which planners have used to identify backlogs in fixing substandard housing, could be "a substantial underestimate of the true extent of the problem", Dr Hall and Professor Berry said.