VOX POPS: What barriers need to be overcome to further improve service delivery to Indigenous housing tenants across the housing sector?

Anita O’Toole, Manager @ Department of Family and Community Services | LAHC

“I believe there needs to be a deeper understanding of the issues faced by Indigenous tenants and a commensurate commitment to ensure their tenancies succeed.”

“When I became a client service officer in 2004, I managed the tenancy of an Indigenous client. She had battled drug addition for most of her life, and had turned her life around after the murder of her 18 year-old daughter. Her tenancy history was poor.”

“When we met, she was pregnant and deeply traumatised. Her previous tenancy history meant that contact with housing staff was generally adversarial, and she was surprised that I was positive and warm towards her. She was in a dilemma because her boyfriend was living in the home as well but she had recently become a Christian and was trying to live apart while they decided whether or not to marry. I ignored the fact that he was there, instead focusing on her wellbeing and that of her imminent child.”

“I signed her up to a Centrelink direct debit and sorted out an arrangement so she could repay her debts. When she had conflict with a difficult neighbour who threatened to harm her, I immediately organised to transfer her to an alternate property. To most people, the threat would have been meaningless but, to someone who had just lost her daughter and was about to have a new baby, it was very real. She was transferred to a far better property – a cottage on a large block of land. When her baby was born, I called in with a gift.

“I was determined to help her succeed in her tenancy and I felt the management decisions I made advanced that goal. I think all client service officers should have a similar mandate and commitment to Indigenous tenants. She was wonderful.”

Brodie Druett, Board Member @ Wentworth Community Housing
With the recent advent of many new mainstream housing providers into the sector, the need for cultural awareness and competency training for not only frontline staff but all staff is more critical than ever. Refresher training and development in this area, I believe, is essential for long-term staff as well.”

It’s my experience that some long-standing and new staff feel they may not need to undertake this training. It’s also my view that the majority of people who think they don’t need to undertake this training are those who need it the most. Therefore, I believe cultural competency training should be compulsory for all housing staff and not just front-line tenancy staff. There are many aspects associated with service delivery to Aboriginal clients other than direct tenancy management so that’s why I strongly believe all housing staff should undertake this training and development.”

“Let’s not hide from the fact that biases, perceptions and racism are still, unfortunately, prevalent in society generally, and – having undertaken a number of cultural competency awareness sessions myself – I believe this can go a long way to developing improved service delivery for Aboriginal people.”

“To quote a colleague who recently attended the AHI’s Aboriginal Housing Master Class, ‘Walk with your clients and understand the criticality of culture, country and kin to our people’. Without undergoing some form of cultural competency training, I don’t think we will fully understand what that really means.”

Sally Langton, CEO @ Central Australian Affordable housing Company

“Respect. All social housing tenants – regardless of culture, race, religion or circumstance – have to be treated with respect.”

“Since I have begun work in the Indigenous housing space in the Northern Territory, I have come to see a range of housing services that interface with Indigenous tenants. My resounding observation is that embedding ‘respect’ in all aspects of service delivery is the only way to overcome barriers in Indigenous housing service delivery.”

“Respect means having due regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others. Too much emphasis has been placed on ‘normalising’ housing services for Indigenous people. I think imposing the word ‘normalise’ has been interpreted wrongly, and it has meant that some services have become rigid and unresponsive with regard to the feelings, wishes or rights of others – especially Indigenous tenants.”

“Why not look at the word ‘normalise’ differently so Indigenous people are afforded the same level of service, responsiveness, property condition and respect that every other social housing tenant receives? This is how we can overcome barriers.”

Jude Allen, Senior Manager, Remote Housing Strategy and Services @ Housing SA

“Affordable, well-maintained and suitably located housing is fundamental to support national and state/territory policy priorities of school attendance and high school completions, employment and training, child and family safety, the management of chronic health disease and the reduction in preventable infectious diseases. The structural barriers to improving service delivery cannot be underestimated; however, there are always strategies that can support the delivery of better services, so I’ve prepared a few comments on this, which I’ll run through now.”

“In terms of structural barriers, restricted supply of affordable, suitable and well-located housing in urban settings, rural and remote townships, and rural and remote communities is of paramount concern. Overcrowding in both urban and remote settings due to large family size, kin relationships and extended family living arrangements is an issue of particular prevalence in Indigenous housing. Economic participation and stable affordable housing in locations where there are other opportunities are also a factor that needs to be overcome.”

“While tenants may ring and walk in for appointments, Aboriginal tenants are, generally, less likely to do this and, for a complex set of reasons, may avoid all contact to the detriment of their housing situation and needs. One solution is to deliver outreach services in locations where first Australian households attend services or gather for other reasons – such as Aboriginal legal services, Aboriginal health services, Aboriginal community services, community centres and local networks.”

“Another quite different barrier is that of transfers from remote communities to metropolitan areas. Policy and procedures, and just the sheer level of demand for housing in metropolitan areas, provides us with policy and logistical challenges. Families from remote communities often require housing closer to specialist and other services, including employment and training. The desire to relocate from remote communities may be temporary, and our policies and guidelines may be a significant barrier to enabling this to occur.”

“To remedy this situation, a closer look at our policies is required. In South Australia, urgent housing need is assessed as being without housing. Remote residents who have houses are, therefore, not eligible for priority transfer. This, together with the structural barrier of insufficient stock, limits relocation from remote communities.”

“The evidence from South Australia suggests that Aboriginal tenant households overwhelmingly turn over in under two years. We need to understand if vacating tenancies is voluntary – for instance, to prevent eviction – and to gain an understanding of the exit points for Aboriginal households. It may be that households are returning to community or perhaps households are presenting to homelessness services. Private rental is an option for many households who have secure employment; however, discrimination in access to the market is still prevalent and, for those receiving income support, it is simply neither financially viable nor accessible.”

“Despite the structural impediments, improving access to the private rental market may involve the ability to provide rental references, and to work with private rental providers to secure opportunities for Aboriginal households to rent privately with additional support provided by public housing or homelessness providers.”

“Finally, we need a workforce with capacity for empathy, an understanding of the complexity of family needs and circumstances, and a confidence to work with first Australians so their tenancies are sustained, maintenance services are delivered promptly and health-related housing issues – such as overcrowding – are identified and then solved.”