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Australia NT's urban public housing sector in 'crisis' as priority applicants face a two-year wait

03:06  17 june  2021
03:06  17 june  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person standing in front of a large dog: Tracey Myles was accepted on to the priority urban public housing waitlist earlier this year. (ABC News: Jesse Thompson) © Provided by ABC NEWS Tracey Myles was accepted on to the priority urban public housing waitlist earlier this year. (ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

The letter telling Tracey Myles that government housing was on the horizon turned up in April, during a period of homelessness lasting months.

The mental health worker had recently lost her job, was evicted from a private rental and says she frequently sought shelter in a caravan that leaked during the Top End wet season's heavy rain.

She said it could happen to anyone.

"There's a lot of people under a lot of stress, whether it be our work, our home, our living situation, our relationships," she said.

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"[People] look at someone and say 'You can't be homeless, you can't be unemployed'."

"But anyone can.

"Everything I own fits in a car — including the dog."

Because of her background, Ms Myles made an application for public housing with evidence that secure accommodation was essential to her health and safety.

Weeks later, she was added to the priority waitlist — an urban housing registry reserved for territory's most vulnerable.

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

According to the Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities, the NT's 1,544 priority urban public housing applicants face an average wait time of 23 months.

Wait times vary according to personal circumstances, but Ms Myles said she was appalled to learn her wait for public housing could stretch into 2023.

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"What has to happen?" Ms Myles asked.

"Does someone have to die to get something? That's what it feels like — someone has to die to get a house."

A 'failed model' of housing

Department figures show the problem is getting worse, with the wait time increasing by one month over the past year while the priority waitlist steadily grows.

Some of the 5,000 people on the overall housing waitlist — who together represent roughly one in 50 people in the NT — face a wait time of up to eight years.

Urban Housing Minister Kate Worden has acknowledged the scale of the problem and said her department is lumbering beneath a failed public housing model.

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

The NT government's solution is to pivot to a new housing model that will integrate different types of accommodation and hand a bigger role to community housing providers — non-government organisations that manage public housing.

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

"We need to move away from having a concentration of public housing dwellings on 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 much existing accommodation is being met with a wrecking ball.

The government has responded to complaints of anti-social behaviour by vacating and redeveloping blocks in Nightcliff and Moulden.

It's now confirmed public housing in the Narrows could soon follow.

The 92 people who currently call the building home are in the process of being shuffled off into new tenancies, before the site's future – including seniors housing, a private sale and mixed-use redevelopment — are discussed in the new financial year.

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

The minister denied that moving the tenants would put more pressure on the priority waitlist — but Peter McMillan from NT Shelter disputed that.

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"If you've got 90 to 100 people that need to find alternative accommodation, it just means that those next in the queue have to wait a lot longer," he said.

He said the situation had become a "crisis" because of poor tenancy management over years and years.

"The last thing we need at the moment is to be knocking down more buildings," he said.

'Short-term pain'

Social service groups say the problem is fuelling other social issues in the NT, which battles both the highest rates of homelessness and domestic violence victimisation 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 housing properties were now filled with women awaiting public housing.

"They can't move into housing elsewhere as there is little available or it's too expensive. This delays their recovery and healing," she wrote over email.

"It also increases the likelihood that a woman may return to a violent partner as she feels she has nowhere else to go.

"When Dawn House's accommodation is full, we may need to turn away women and children who want to escape family violence."

Ms Worden, whose portfolio as Territory Families Minister covers domestic violence reduction, said her government was treating the housing shortfall with urgency.

She said it was necessary to demolish the ageing blocks so community housing under the new model could eventually replace them.

"There is always going to be short-term pain for longer-term gain. That's unfortunately where we are right now," she said.

Scores of new public housing dwellings were due to be completed in the coming months, but a recent government housing strategy found the jurisdiction would need an additional 8,000 to 12,000 dwellings by 2025.

People like Ms Myles say they will take a dilapidated flat if it puts a roof over their heads.

While she recently found full-time work and moved off the waitlist, she said she was now in a catch 22: unable to find affordable shelter in the inflated private rental market or timely housing in the public one.

"We're sitting in our own little Bermuda Triangle: it's out there but it's unreachable," she said.

"Everyone says 'Just go and do it'. But it's not that easy. It's not that easy."

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