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Indigenous Housing

Healthabitat director Paul Pholeros'work is warmly received. © Paul Pholeros. Courtesy of Sue Williams.
Healthabitat director Paul Pholeros'work is warmly received. © Paul Pholeros. Courtesy of Sue Williams.

Victoria Laurie

Medium length read3600 words
 

On a single sheet of paper, architect Paul Pholeros draws a diagram for the group of Indigenous people huddled around him. He’s come to Santa Teresa, a dust-blown desert community south-east of Alice Springs, where 600 residents have struggled for years to bathe, sleep and eat in houses that are falling apart.

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On the left of the page, Pholeros draws a broken-down house and underneath, a checklist of things that need fixing – broken window, leaking roof, unsafe electrical switches. On the right, he draws a fixed-up house; underneath, there’s a tick next to each problem fixed and a cost recorded against each item. That’s how it should be, he tells the board members of Santa Teresa’s health centre. Simple accountability: a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture.

It didn’t happen when, early last year, bands of plumbers, carpenters and trades assistants arrived to upgrade nearly every house in the community – around 65 – at a total cost of $5.2 million. It was the most money ever spent in the community, sourced from the biggest pot of funds ever promised by the federal government to fix the disgraceful state of houses across remote Australia. An astonishing $5.5 billion will be spent over ten years under the 2009 National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (NPA), signed by all states and territories.

The funds – more than double the $2.4 billion spent on the Home Insulation Program – are aimed at “increasing the supply of new houses and improving the condition of existing houses in remote Indigenous communities”. Each state has rebadged its share of funds: Santa Teresa residents were told their good fortune was due to the Strategic Indigenous Housing Investment Program (SIHIP), run by the Northern Territory government.

Acronyms didn’t interest Fiona Turner, chairperson of Santa Teresa’s health centre, but outcomes did. By Christmas, the work was finished but houses had already begun to fail: leaks appeared inside a solid block wall; a laundry floor had no drain; tiles had been ripped out of a bathroom and not replaced, leaving bare concrete. And the list of unaccomplished work was long: electrical faults, unlagged hot-water piping, roof corrosion and dangling smoke detectors.

Turner sent a letter to the Territory’s housing department and then to federal Minister for Housing and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin. “We have been unable to access any meaningful details on the pre-SIHIP survey or the actual work budgeted and completed on each house,” she wrote. “There are still many concerns regarding quality of hardware installed, level of works completion, inadequate floor surfaces, lack of secure food storage etc. The list is extensive.”

With no satisfactory answers, the community called in Pholeros to inspect some houses. A big, burly man with a gentle manner, Pholeros is a familiar face in dozens of Indigenous communities around Australia; he’s also known to every departmental head and every state and federal minister with responsibility for Indigenous housing. Earlier this year, Pholeros flew to Perth to accept an Australian Institute of Architects award on behalf of Healthabitat, the non-profit outfit he runs with two colleagues. It was the latest of many awards they’ve won for pioneering work in fixing remote houses to raise community health.

Pholeros was appalled by what confronted him at Santa Teresa, yet he’d seen it many times before in other communities: so much money spent, so many houses performing poorly. “We find in our survey work that 55% of houses have power points that are dangerous,” he says quietly. “More than half of houses don’t have an active or effective safety switch; if we go to washing kids, we find 50% of hot water systems work, and 35% of showers. Fifty-nine per cent of toilets actually work.”

Pholeros tosses off the figures with weary ease; Healthabitat teams have physically surveyed over 7300 homes in 184 communities – almost one-third of the nation’s Indigenous houses. And not just surveyed them. Healthabitat adopts the “no survey without service” mantra of eye doctor Professor Fred Hollows. “We won’t go into a community, tell them what’s wrong with their houses and walk away,” says Pholeros. “From day one, we start fixing them. And we do it for an average of $7500, one-tenth of the $75,000 per house that the national program is spending.”

Qualified tradesmen do the electrical and plumbing repairs. And working alongside them are local Indigenous residents, hired to interpret and negotiate access to houses, draw up repair checklists and replace items such as taps and light globes. Out of 1000 Healthabitat employees contracted over the last ten years, 750 have been Indigenous.

Healthabitat’s experience – what works in creating healthy houses – has been compiled into a National Indigenous Housing Guide, which Macklin has stipulated should be adhered to in the national housing rollout. Yet, when Pholeros tested two of Santa Teresa’s done-up houses, they failed seven out of ten criteria. He’d found similar results a year earlier when – again for no fee and at the request of an unhappy community – he’d tested two Groote Eylandt houses that had allegedly been upgraded. He took those findings to Canberra when he met with Macklin to discuss Indigenous housing problems. “She asked whether we’d looked at all of the houses, maybe the others were much better. I said, ‘Minister, we shouldn’t have to prove the problem; you should have to prove that the houses have been done properly.’ But the ‘before’ and ‘after’ data doesn’t exist.”

Not long after Pholeros’ visit to Santa Teresa, a media release emerged jointly from Macklin, federal Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowden and Territory Housing Minister Chris Burns. It boasted that targets had been exceeded in the Territory, with more houses built and renovated (two dozen in each case) than the 2010 targets had specified. “The governments are rolling out new houses, rebuilds and refurbishments ... as quickly as possible so that families can live in safe and healthy homes,” the ministerial triumvirate declared. “Getting housing right is critical to closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.”

Some weeks later, Pholeros wrote to Macklin to tender his resignation from the National Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing. “I am asked regularly by Indigenous people, housing professionals and the press what the Commission is doing,” he wrote. “It has become increasingly embarrassing to have to say ‘nothing’.”

In the midst of the nation’s costliest investment in Indigenous housing, Pholeros felt the voices of experts were not being heeded. Oddly, overseas interest in Healthabitat’s work was peaking. When we met for an interview in Perth, he admitted to being bone-tired. He’d not long been back from Nepal, where the lives of many poor families in the village of Bhattedande have been transformed by Healthabitat intervention. Simple, robust toilets were installed where there had been none, and biogas from toilets and animal waste was being piped away to fuel each family’s stoves. Again, paid local workers had done much of the work.

Weeks earlier, Pholeros had stood in the toughest part of Brooklyn, New York. He’d been summoned by Common Ground, a homelessness support group, to trial Healthabitat’s ‘survey–fix’ methods among tenants of public housing. “Talk to the housing bureaucrat behind the desk and you’d swear you were back in Australia,” says Pholeros. “They said, ‘Everything’s fine in the houses, it’s the people who are the problem.’ Then we inspected some of the apartments, and surprise, surprise, all the faults we found were pipes leaking and wires corroding, not people ripping them out of the wall.”

*

Healthabitat’s two-decade engagement with remote Australia originated in 1985 in the Pitjantjatjara lands of South Australia, when Pholeros met Paul Torzillo and Stephan Rainow. Torzillo was the doctor for Nganampa Health Council, and Rainow was the council’s environmental health officer – a bush-wise anthropologist “who knew everyone and spoke Pitjantjatjara”. Pholeros recalls the meeting: “I was a green, middle-class city boy who’d ended up in Central Australia doing some additions to a health clinic. I knew nothing. The head of the health service, Yami Lester, put the three of us in one room – we’d never met – and Yami said to us, ‘You’ve got six months to tell me how to stop people getting sick. There’s no budget, no travel money, no nothing. In the room next door, there’s 18 Aboriginal mob from the Pit lands who’ll be your bosses, your co-workers. Work that out – see you later.’”

After several weeks, Torzillo came up with nine items on one sheet of paper. Says Pholeros, “he brought it to my office and I can remember being extremely pissed off and saying, ‘Mate, this is a joke – you come up with “washing people”? You’ve got to be kidding.’ He said, ‘OK, come into my office.’ From the desktop to the floor was a stack of paper, divided by nine tags. He said, ‘if you want to know why we’ve got to start with washing kids, read from the top.’ There were 400 pages on why, from international, national and his own research: washing would reduce things such as scabies, glue ear, respiratory illnesses.”

“Washing people” became the first of nine “healthy living practices” the trio agreed upon, activities that a house needed to support. Next was “washing clothes and bedding”: the laundry needed to work. Then “removing waste water safely”: drainage needed to work. Then “improving nutrition”: the kitchen needed to provide a safe storage and cooking environment.

Pholeros still needed convincing. “I said to Yami Lester, ‘This isn’t a job for me, an architect, it’s for the parents or the grandmother to take the kids into the shower and wash them.’ He looked at me very patiently and said, ‘You’re probably right, brother, but maybe you should just go and check that the shower’s OK.” Pholeros soon realised that poor design, no repairs and over-crowding caused houses to fail; contrary to widespread belief, only about 9% of problems were due to people inflicting damage.

Pholeros, Torzillo and Rainow formed an unlikely collective, only formalised into the non-profit company years later. Each man still makes a living from a hectic day job – Pholeros as a Sydney-based architect, Torzillo as a thoracic physician in Sydney and Rainow as a community health expert in remote South Australia.

In 1998 – four years after the trio published a book, Housing?? for Health: Towards a better living environment for Aboriginal Australia, explaining their theories and findings – Pholeros and Torzillo went to see then federal Community Services Minister Jocelyn Newman. “What would you do if you were me?” Newman asked the men provocatively. “Let us fix 1000 houses around Australia,” came their reply.

“She felt they were honest and practical and that, if she could get them in front of state ministers, they’d see that too,” recalls bureaucrat Jeff Whalan, who was overseeing federal–state Indigenous housing agreements in Newman’s department at the time. “We’d formed a view that anything they suggested would make a difference, so we’d find a way to fund them.”

“We attended a state housing ministers’ meeting and put the data we had on the table [about Indigenous housing],” recalls Pholeros, “and they said, ‘Of course it’s shithouse, we want ten times the money we get now.’ And Newman said, ‘Well, what have you done with the last lot?’ They couldn’t answer the question, so she said ‘Well, why would we give you more money?’”

Newman gave Healthabitat the nod – and the funding – to survey and fix houses in each state, but Whalan knew there’d be a hostile reception. “The problem is that if they’re going to go out and do a survey of Indigenous housing, they’ll get awful results … And that will seriously embarrass the ministers, the department. So there’s a natural inclination to kill these initiatives.”

“We had the money in the bank and not one state would touch the money for a year and a half,” recalls Pholeros. Eventually, when Healthabitat tackled 200 houses in each of five states, the conditions they found were as predicted – shocking.

The link between housing and health became staggeringly clear to Healthabitat during a Housing for Health program it operated in 71 communities across New South Wales. Last year, the NSW Health Department published an independent assessment of the ten-year program. It found there had been a 40% drop in ‘hospital separations’ (a measurement of the number of people admitted to hospital) for infectious disease among people whose houses had undergone repairs – faulty plumbing, drainage and electrical systems repaired, or bathrooms and kitchens rebuilt. “We’ve demonstrated that maintenance programs – funded, scheduled and targeted – are the only way to ensure we don’t end up where we started,” says Torzillo.

“And that’s what government hates,” adds Pholeros, “it’s too simple, and therefore it’s too hard to worm around it.” When published online, the impressive findings prompted the New York housing agency to invite Healthabitat to Brooklyn; “in New South Wales, there was no release by the health minister, nothing. It disappeared off the radar.”

*

In ‘Beyond Humbug’, two of Australia’s senior Indigenous affairs bureaucrats Michael Dillon and Neil Westbury condemned the shambles in Indigenous housing. “Overcrowding has reached Third World levels, the cost of building new houses is skyrocketing, (and) asset life spans are short.” In 2006, they noted, one-third of remote dwellings needed replacing or major repairs across 838 small remote communities and 274 larger ones. “Just as houses need effective architecture and design, so too do Indigenous housing policies.” ‘Living in the Sunburnt Country’, a major Indigenous housing review commissioned by the Commonwealth in 2007, was far more blunt. “The current framework for the delivery of housing ... has not worked and cannot work.”

Cumulative failures have littered the path leading up to the current National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing; surely $5.5 billion – for 4200 new houses and 4800 upgrades – can fix the problem at last?

Andy Irvine says proven methods, not money, achieve success. As one of Healthabitat’s project managers in NSW, he’s proud that the 40% drop in environment-related illness was achieved at a cost of $11,000 per house. A social bonus was that three-quarters of the workers were local Indigenous people. “It’s a tight model – there’s no big head office, it’s a local team and trades on the ground doing work,” says Irvine.

The picture is vastly different on Groote Eylandt, where Irvine is now manager of an Indigenous building company. Under the NPA–SIHIP housing agreement, the island has been allocated $60 million for new houses and upgrades. Big sums have been squandered; in August 2009 a federal government report found $45 million had been spent by SIHIP without a single house having been completed. And in March last year, the federal and Territory housing ministers sacked Earth Connect Alliance, the building group entrusted with Groote Eylandt’s building program, after massive cost overruns and shoddy workmanship. The same company had ‘upgraded’ the two failed houses that Pholeros brought to Macklin’s attention.

Irvine’s local Indigenous company will not build any of the new houses, relying instead on upgrade jobs from the consortium that took over the SIHIP work, Territory Alliance. “Put it this way,” says Irvine carefully, when asked for his opinion of NPA–SIHIP spending, “if that sort of money was spent over ten years, developing all the local construction and support businesses in these communities, there would be hundreds of people in real jobs and training, and a chance to almost completely replace the older housing stock.”

Nobody pretends that building in the outback is easy. Architect Greg Norman has built health clinics at Pipalyatjara, Fregon and Amata, the most isolated places in Australia. “It was hard and it was a long way and, yes, the trucks did fall apart on the road just getting there.”

But Norman has witnessed bigger problems. “On Cape York, I watched a $20 million sewage system being dropped in. The connections from houses to sewer lines were not to code, pipes were installed crookedly and they were backfilling the trenches with beer cans and rubbish.” The project’s manager was nowhere in sight; when Norman sent his photographs of the shoddy work to the company, he was roundly abused. “There’s a ten-year warranty,” the head plumber blithely told him; when the pipes clogged up, he said, he could always be told to come back and fix it. Says Norman: “It’s a perfect system for not being accountable.”

With the NPA, “I’ve got an overwhelming anxiety that what happened before (in housing) will happen again, only on a bigger scale,” says Norman. “The minister has got to insist on supervision and that the plans that were approved are actually built.”

*

If the big federal money is concentrated anywhere, it’s in Alice Springs. The sound of sawing and hammering is an almost constant serenade across the 18 town camps, where 3000 or more people have lived in 200 squalid houses.

Another 85 new houses are being built, along with new roads, sewers and power grids. At Morris Soak town camp, Deirdre Lechleitner’s two small children will grow up in a far better environment than she did – with lawns, new cyclone fencing and the pretty pink walls of her neighbour Marlene Hayes’s house.

The Tangentyere Council, which runs the camps, must now manage its upgraded housing stock. “We’ve signed up to a 40 year lease (over the town camps),” says Walter Shaw, council CEO, “with the carrot of $100 million dollars being spent to upgrade our houses to a decent living standard. My issue now is they’ve spent the money and cut corners, and that’s a grave concern.”

That housing conditions have improved is indisputable – but for how long? Lechleitner’s house got a cursory make-over – a paint job, new kitchen bench and the removal of a pot-belly stove that was her only heating. Three months later, one tap is seeping and the new light in the laundry won’t switch off. Across the road is a row of brand new houses, where occupier Chris Miller shows how the poured concrete walls are blistering off their blue paint already.

At Kunoth town camp, upgrades are promised if the money lasts. Eva Kunoth and Maxine Carlton walk past a derelict house and a car full of visitors, including a month-old sleeping baby. Their sparse kitchens have few cupboards, no drawers and a smoke smudge over the stove where an extraction fan should be. Carlton sits on a camp housing committee. “We need two toilets and showers because of all the visitors, a designated fireplace area outside and shelves, not hanging space that we mob don’t use,” she says, pointing inside an empty cupboard.

Territory Alliance is consulting closely with camp residents and the Tangentyere Council, says Geoff Barker, Alliance’s design architect who previously worked for a decade on Healthabitat projects.

“Engagement is fundamental, and so is not rushing things,” he says, adding that Territory Alliance is committed to Healthabitat-type principles, “albeit despite intense time and cost pressures.” Barker remains optimistic about the $5.5 billion housing spend: “It’s the first time I’ve felt enthusiastic that we can make a difference.”

*

This month, Healthabitat’s programs will close down around Australia – funds have dried up. Since 1999, teams have surveyed and fixed over 7,000 houses, from Broome to Bega, and employed 900 Indigenous people. And all for under $50 million.

“They haven’t offered us any contract extensions,” says a disappointed Pholeros, who wonders if their voice is being silenced. “It’s given me a crystal clear insight into the heart of the beast,” he muses. “When governments have large amounts of money [to spend] – such as on insulation schemes – and they get in a corner, they will do pretty much anything to get themselves out of that corner.”

As if to draw a line under its involvement, the federal government spent $285,000 on an audit of Healthabitat’s program; it implied that its work was no longer needed, since “key elements of the National Partnership Agreement have adopted the use of [Healthabitat’s nine] Healthy Living Practices”.

“It’s saying, ‘We don’t need this program anymore because all the things we’ve learned from it we’ve rolled into the big money projects, so everything’s going to be great in the castle,’” says Pholeros, shrugging. “I wish it were true but it’s bullshit.” And Australia’s biggest Indigenous housing scheme can still not come up with an assessment of how each house performs, or even its cost.

He still wonders why Australia cannot meet a housing challenge far smaller than that of South Africa, where the government has built over 2.8 million houses to put roofs over people’s heads since 1994.

“We should be able to fix 20,000-plus houses – we’ve proved it’s possible, we’ve got the technology, the ability of local people to do the work. It’s all achievable, and there’s no reason we couldn’t do it within a few years. If there was the will.”

Victoria Laurie

Victoria Laurie is a Perth-based journalist and feature writer. She has written for the Australian and the Bulletin, and is the author of Design by Nature.
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