Housing sector

NT’s urban public housing sector in ‘crisis’ as priority applicants face two-year wait

The letter telling Tracey Myles government housing was on the horizon appeared in April, during a months-long period of homelessness.

The mental health worker had recently lost her job, been evicted from a private rental and says she often sought refuge in a leaky caravan during the heavy rains of the Top End rainy season.

She said it could happen to anyone.

“There are a lot of people who are under a lot of stress, whether it’s our job, our home, our living situation, our relationships,” she said.

“[People] look at someone and say ‘You can’t be homeless, you can’t be unemployed’.”

“But anyone can.

Because of her background, Ms Myles applied for social housing with evidence that safe housing was essential to her health and safety.

A few weeks later, she was added to the priority waiting list – an urban housing registry reserved for the territory’s most vulnerable.

Tracey said she was horrified to learn of a nearly two-year wait for priority housing.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

But government figures have laid bare the long wait faced by those in need.

According to the Territory’s Department of Families, Housing and Communities, the 1,544 priority applicants for urban public housing in NT are facing an average wait time of 23 months.

Wait times vary depending on personal circumstances, but Ms Myles said she was dismayed to learn her wait for public accommodation could stretch into 2023.

“What must happen?” Mrs. Myles asked.

“Does someone have to die to have something? That’s what it is – someone has to die to have a home.”

A “failed model” of housing

Ministry figures show the problem is getting worse, with wait times increasing by a month in the past year while the priority waiting list continues to grow.

Some of the 5,000 people on the global housing waiting list – which together represent around one in 50 people in the Northern Territories – face a wait time of up to eight years.

Urban Housing Minister Kate Worden acknowledged the scale of the problem and said her department was dragging itself under a failing public housing model.

Figures provided by other state and territory housing departments show that NT priority housing applicants now face the longest average wait time, measured in months, by far.

The Northern Territories government’s solution is to pivot to a new housing model that will integrate different types of housing and give a greater role to community housing providers – non-governmental organizations that run social housing.

“We are currently operating on a very old model, Ms Worden said.

“We need to stop having a concentration of social housing in one area.

“You can’t have that – it’s a failed model and that’s what we’re dealing with.”

But housing groups are asking why so many existing homes are being met with a wrecking ball.

The government responded to complaints of anti-social behavior by releasing and redeveloping blocks at Nightcliff and Moulden.

It is now confirmed that public accommodation in the Narrows may soon follow.

The exterior of a large council housing building in suburban Darwin.
This social housing block in the Narrows is about to be redeveloped.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

The 92 people who currently live in the building are being relocated to new tenancies, before the future of the site – including senior housing, a private sale and a mixed-use redevelopment – is discussed at the course of the new financial year.

“This is a complex process, which is affected by a number of factors, including the availability of suitable alternative social housing to transfer tenants to,” a spokeswoman for Ms Worden said.

The minister denied that moving tenants would put more pressure on the priority waiting list – but NT Shelter’s Peter McMillan disputed that.

“If you have 90 to 100 people who need to find alternative accommodation, that just means the next ones in line have to wait a lot longer,” he said.

He said the situation had turned into a “crisis” due to poor rental management over the years and years.

A man sitting in a conference room looks at some documents with a slightly worried expression.
Peter McMillan has criticized the government’s decision to redevelop social housing blocks.

“Short Term Pain”

Social service groups say the problem fuels other social problems in the Northern Territory, which struggles with both the highest rates of homelessness and domestic violence victimization in Australia.

Sally Cotton, a housing support worker with Darwin’s domestic violence service Dawn House, said more than half of the service’s transitional accommodation was now occupied by women awaiting public accommodation.

NT politician Kate Worden sits in NT parliament looking at documents.
Kate Worden says her government is addressing the issue urgently.(ABC News: Terry McDonald)

“They cannot move elsewhere because there is little housing available or it is too expensive. This delays their recovery and recovery,” she wrote via email.

“It also increases the likelihood that a woman will return to an abusive partner because she feels she has nowhere to go.

“When Dawn House accommodation is full, we may have to turn away women and children who want to escape domestic violence.”

Ms Worden, whose portfolio as the territory’s families minister covers domestic violence reduction, said her government was addressing the lack of housing with urgency.

She said there was a need to demolish the aging blocks so that new model community housing could eventually replace them.

Dozens of new social housing units were due to be completed in the coming months, but a recent government housing strategy revealed that the jurisdiction would need 8,000 to 12,000 more homes by 2025.

People like Mrs. Myles say they’ll take a run-down flat if it puts a roof over their heads.

While she recently found full-time employment and left the waiting list, she said she was now in a trap: unable to find affordable housing in the bloated private rental market or a convenient accommodation in the public.

“We’re sitting in our own little Bermuda Triangle: it’s there but it’s inaccessible,” she said.

“Everyone says ‘Go ahead and do it’. But it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy.”