ANU: Indigenous communities facing housing crisis

Very poor quality housing poses a serious health risk to Australia’s remote Indigenous communities, particularly in the extreme hot weather of the Northern Territory, experts from The Australian National University (ANU) and Indigenous elders warn.

They argue Indigenous Australians are facing a crisis caused by poor housing, extreme heat and energy insecurity.

ANU expert Dr Simon Quilty said people are being forced to choose between power and food, and urgent action is needed to avert catastrophe.

“The Northern Territory town of Katherine, for example, had 56 days over 40 degrees in 2019. The previous average was six days,” he said.

“Most houses in remote communities are old, poorly constructed and poorly maintained. Tenants pay rent for houses with no doors, no windows, and no insulation in the ceiling. In the extreme heat of the Northern Territory, residents of these dilapidated houses need to run air conditioners all day long to keep the inside safe.

“All of the houses in these communities rely on pre-paid power cards and as a result there are extreme rates of electricity disconnection, making those with chronic disease particularly vulnerable.”

Dr Quilty said chronic disease and heat stress combine to exacerbate morbidity and mortality rates among Indigenous Australians.

“Many of these households don’t have a refrigerator, making storing medication at the recommended temperature impossible, let alone being able to keep food fresh,” he said.

“The houses aren’t built to meet national standards — it’s not even known how many of them have insulation in the ceiling.

“While many Australian homeowners have benefited from government subsidies to put solar panels on their roofs, in places like Tennant Creek where the sun never stops shining, Indigenous households get no such support. These communities are locked out of tangible solutions to energy poverty such as rooftop solar.

“All of these issues are made worse by overcrowding.”

Warramungu elder and dialysis patient Norman Frank Jupurrurla from Tennant Creek agrees things needs to change.

“I reckon these doctors think every Wumpurrani lives the same as a whitefella and they’ve got everything the same,” he said.

“But some people on the outskirts of Tennant Creek still live in old tin houses and there’s no running water, there’s no power.

“The community needs to be in charge of what they want done in their housing and how they want their lifestyle. They should be allowed to make the solutions.”

Dr Quilty and his fellow experts say as a start, every house should be thermally safe, should have a refrigerator that never switches off, and have an uninterrupted electricity supply particularly in the hottest parts of the year.

They’re also calling on medical professionals to advocate for better building codes and housing standards.