• Thursday Island, Torres Strait (Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)Source: Flickr/CC-BY-2.0
Indigenous communities in the Torres Strait fear that overcrowding caused by high rates of government employee housing will have long-term repercussions on health and wellbeing.
Mikele Syron

5 Oct 2020 - 4:31 PM  UPDATED 5 Oct 2020 - 4:35 PM

The high rates of government employee housing on some islands in the Torres Strait is "fundamentally" responsible for the housing shortage in the Torres Shire says the Mayor of Torres Shire Council.

Vonda Malone said the state has occupied the supply of the private housing market to accomodate its staff over the past five to 10 years particularly, driving prices above what regular members of Torres Strait community, and oftentimes Traditional Owners, can reasonably afford to pay.

“The inequity that this has caused has been raised a number of times, it’s not closing the gap, instead it’s widening the gap,” Ms Malone told NITV News.

Long-term repercussions

Lifelong resident of Thursday Island, Neville Johnstone, told NITV News that the Indigenous community is growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of action to address the housing crisis, as homes on the island commonly house 2-3 families in them. 

"Our people are suffering and will continue to suffer until this issue is solved," said Mr Johnstone.

"The local and state government have acknowledged that it is a problem but we have seen little to no action taken. There is no movement on the issue, just inaction." 

Mr Johnstone also identified the high demand for government employee housing as the driving factor behind the the lack of private rental properties available and the high rental costs.

He said that meant many of the Indigenous communities had been priced out of the market, causing a Queensland Housing dependency cycle. 

"It's impossible to break when we can't even access the private rental market," he explained. 

Mr Johnstone said lack of action to address the issue has created disharmony and distrust of the government amongst Torres Strait Islanders, who have concerns for the long-term impacts on their health, education, and overall mental wellbeing. 

"If we have a generational repeat of this, it will teach our people that this is the way we have to live if we want to be in our communities. We don't want this to become a struggle that we are comfortable with and that we can't get out of," said Mr Johnstone.  

Morrison "failing" the people of Thursday Island 

In May 2018, the Morrison government pledged $108 million to Indigenous communities to fix the housing shortages in Cape York and the Torres Strait, but two years on the housing shortage remains a pressing issue.

With 20 per cent of Queensland’s Indigenous population residing in remote or very remote communities, the federal government's promise was part of a plan to address severe overcrowding in remote Far North Queensland Indigenous housing and empower Indigenous councils with direct funding to deal with the issue.

The allocation followed a 2018 report by the Queensland Productivity Commission which recommended that a sufficient supply of public housing should be established, and housing management moved under community-control.

But Ms Malone told NITV News that while Indigenous councils had been advocating strongly for improved housing, the election promise was itself evidence that there was still a great need for funds and only highlighted the minimal commitment on the part of the Morrison government.

“Housing is fundamental to a good quality of life as well as health and wellbeing. The housing shortage has contributed to the visible life expectancy gap here,” said Ms Malone.

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Pro-vice-chancellor of Indigenous engagement at the University of Queensland and an author of the report, Bronwyn Fredericks, told NITV she is calling for increased community governance over housing in the Torres Strait to mitigate the ongoing shortage of housing supply and the prevalence of overcrowding in homes.

“The local community needs more skin in the game, they have the capacity and skills that could be transferred across, and the data shows that when communities are in control and involved in decision-making, things run more effectively,” said Ms Fredericks.

The report also encouraged the provision of support by offering social housing stock to long-term residents for low or zero cost, in a bid to improve Indigenous homeownership in the area with a model which supported communal land ownership, as a solution to the growing issue.

Ms Fredericks said that it is imperative that the government creates the capacity and opportunity for families to purchase homes in their communities.

“This is not just for themselves now, but for the benefit of future generations," said Ms Fredericks.

The issue has been a result of decades of lack of investment, said Ms Fredericks.

"This government failure means that people are struggling and suffering on the ground. People are living in poor conditions and suffering with poor health, and they’re becoming despondent as to whether this will ever change," she said.

Ms Malone agreed that increased home ownership opportunities for local community members was an important shift and said it was one of the key motivators behind the endeavour to secure funds.

A spokesperson from the Department of Housing and Public Works told NITV News that it acknowledges every individual’s need for a safe, secure and sustainable home.

The spokesperson said the department aimed to deliver satisfactory housing via the Queensland Housing Strategy 2017-2027, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Action Plan 2019-2023, as well as through individualised investment in housing construction for each of these communities.

“Through our $40 million Interim Remote Capital Program, we are increasing the supply of housing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and helping to sustain jobs in the local construction industries,” said the spokesperson.

But Ms Malone said that in spite of strategic implementation, the government was failing people on the ground.

“These systems are put in place but they’re not evident. They’re lovely glossy statements and brochures, but it doesn’t change anything which is disheartening,” she said.

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