Santa Teresa, a remote Indigenous community 80km south-east of Alice Springs, has won a long-running class action against the Northern Territory government.
When over 70 households began legal action in 2016 against the NT government for ignoring hundreds of requests to repair uninhabitable buildings, the NT department of housing launched a countersuit to pursue unpaid rental debt.
But today the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal found the NT government was obliged to fulfil its landlord obligations and keep the properties in a liveable condition.
It ordered the government to pay a total of about $14,000 in compensation to four test-case applicants, all Santa Teresa residents, and dismissed counterclaims by the housing department.
Further compensation could cost the NT government millions of dollars.
'It made me really angry'
One applicant, Jamine Cavanagh, told the tribunal that a faulty shower and toilet system leaked sewerage over her floor.
“When it was leaking, we would have to mop up dirty water about every four hours,” she said.
“I would mop it up at 8pm, then get up at midnight and mop it up again, and then get up in the early morning and mop it up again. I used to have to go and have a shower at my mum’s house. We would also wash the kids there.”
Another Santa Teresa resident, Robert Conway spoke about how the temperature of his home became intolerable without air conditioning.
“This house is all concrete, like a box, and it’s too hot with just fans,” he told the tribunal.
“In summer, when it’s really hot, we can’t sleep in the bedroom. Me and my wife slept in the kitchen and our daughter had to move out to my [sister-in-law’s] house because they have air conditioning there.”
Mr Conway was on dialysis and his wife was receiving cancer treatment. Both feared slipping because of the leaky plumbing.
“It made me really angry that Housing did not fix things to make it safe,” he said.
'Problem felt across the Territory'
The legal action was financially supported by Grata Fund and run pro bono by the Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) and Matthew Albert from the Victorian Bar.
Lou Dargan, head of strategic litigation at Grata Fund, said the case was a “hugely significant” win for Aboriginal communities across the NT.
“This case sets a precedent that affirms that the Northern Territory government has a legal obligation to provide habitable housing to remote communities,” she told NITV News.
“So for the community to step up and bring this as a test case to enforce their right to habitable housing is really significant.”
Dan Kelly, the lead lawyer for ALRAR, said residents fought long and hard to protect their rights.
“The NTCAT decision has cemented the rights of the Eastern Arrernte people of Santa Teresa under residential tenancy law - just like anyone else who rents from a landlord - despite the Government’s attempts to shirk its obligations,” he said.
“The NT government has pursued our clients for years over these dodgy debts, which across the community came to over a million dollars. They let the rental system fall into disarray for years, and only raised it to try and silence our clients when they dared to take legal action for better housing."
Josie Douglas, policy manager at the Central Land Council, said the case proved the NT government was failing to meets its responsibilities for Aboriginal housing since the 2007 NT Intervention.
“The NT Government must return responsibility for housing decisions back to Aboriginal control, through local or regional community housing organisations in a phased approach,” she said.