The Northern Territory government has lodged an appeal against last month's Supreme Court ruling, which found in favour of residents of the remote central desert community of Ltyente Apurte (Santa Teresa).
The long running case against the NT government began after hundreds of requests to repair uninhabitable buildings were ignored.
The residents argued that the conduct of the state's housing department in entering into rental agreements was “unconscionable” and that the condition of the houses, while not hazardous to health in all cases, should be held to a higher standard.
In her ruling last month, Supreme Court Justice Jenny Blokland said the assessment of whether the premises were habitable should have included not only the health and safety of tenants but an overall assessment of the humaneness, suitability and reasonable comfort of the premises.
Chair of Aboriginal Housing NT (AHNT) Leeanne Caton told NITV News the NT government’s fresh appeal suggests they want to “continue with business as usual”.
“Housing will remain in its current unacceptable state,” said Ms Caton.
“If successful, the government will have effectively denied remote communities the legal protection for their housing to be 'humane'.”
More than 70 households began legal action against the NT government in 2016.
It came after 600 requests for urgent repairs, including leaking roofs, missing shower heads, unlockable doors and windows, were ignored.
This decision was met with a countersuit from NT Housing, who last year lost and were obliged to fulfil its landlord obligations and keep properties in a liveable condition.
“It sends a really sad message to remote communities,” said Ms Caton.
“The government doesn't want to acknowledge the human rights of Aboriginal residents to humane conditions in their rental homes and is prepared to stand up in court and argue that position.”
She added that it also shows that the government believes it is “exempt from complying with the Residential Tenancy Act”.
“The people of Ltyente Apurte (Santa Teresa) have bravely fought this long legal battle, taking on the power of the NT government,” said Ms Caton.
“They've achieved an enormous milestone in setting historic legal protections for remote communities across the whole Territory.
“But the government’s decision to continue to fight against these basic rights, and appeal this is a disappointing chapter in that story.”
Grata Fund has been subsidising the legal battle over Santa Teresa and has described the government's decision to appeal as "appalling".
Executive director Isabelle Reinecke told NITV News it is a “devastating” move.
“It basically means that the government wants to come up in court and fight the community and argue it doesn’t have to provide humane housing,” said Ms Reinecke.
“This is pretty appalling and pretty surprising seeing as Chief Minister Michael Gunner said just a few weeks ago to people of the Northern Territory that housing was a commitment.”
Ms Reinecke said she worries if the appeal is successful it would have damaging ramifications for remote government housing.
“It could mean a couple of things. It would mean that the standard for housing does not have to be humane it has to be safe, which was won previously in the tribunal,” she said.
“And it would also mean the court wouldn’t consider if tenancy agreements were unfair.”
The housing department have developed a “Healthy Homes Policy”, said Ms Caton, which will hopefully improve environmental health in housing, but she added more needs to be done.
“This is something Aboriginal Housing NT has been asking for,” she said.
“This is one step forward, but this decision to appeal Santa Teresa over humane housing conditions is a step backward.”
Apart from arguing the definitions of the standards of living, the NT government will appeal having to pay compensation to certain residents.
The NT government’s new minister for Remote Housing, Chansey Paech, has been contacted for comment.
Dates for the appeal are yet to be set.