The Northern Territory government has spent $2.65bn over the past 15 years to improve the quality of housing in remote Indigenous communities, but overcrowding remains a problem and many houses need repairs.
Under the national partnership for remote housing Northern Territory policy, the government was supposed to improve housing conditions and reduce overcrowding in 73 remote communities and 17 town camps around Alice Springs. But the most recent data on overcrowding in remote communities managed by the national partnership reveals it has only been reduced by 3.2% in five years.
None of this is new to Miriam Charlie. Since 2015, the Yanyuwa Garrwa artist has been capturing the state of housing across all four town camps at Borroloola, with her Polaroid camera.
“All them houses, they’re too small, overcrowded,” she says. “So I went around and took photos of everybody’s houses. What part wasn’t fixed and what part was fixed.”
Top: Miriam Charlie photographing her eldest daughter, Jade, and other family at Yanyuwa camp
Bottom: Miriam photographing her grandmother, Dinah Norman, who waited more than 10 years for a new home at Yanyuwa camp
In February, an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report found the national partnership had been only “partly effective” in improving housing conditions and showed “significant weaknesses”.
After a six-year court battle with the NT government, in which the people of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) argued inadequate and inhumane housing was due to failures by public housing authorities, the NT court of appeal upheld a ruling in February that state-owned housing must be considered habitable.
And in 2019, Ltyentye Apurte residents won an estimated $350,000 after they sued the state government on the basis their homes were uninhabitable due to neglect.
Borroloola, a town of about 900 people located in Gulf country in the NT, lies within Charlie’s traditional country and is home to Yanyuwa, Mara, Garrwa and Gurdanji people. In 2020, when Charlie had her first solo exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne she called it My Country No Home, “because we had country, but we didn’t have houses.”
“I went to my grandmother’s house and there was white ants there, on that ceiling,” Charlie says. She says she asked her grandmother: “Has anybody come to fix?” Her grandmother replied: “No, nothing.”
Miriam Charlie pictured with her sister Jeanette and her grandson Elmazri in Borroloola
Charlie’s grandmother, Dinah Norman, was represented in one of her photographic series in 2018, describing the major structural issues and repairs needed in her home at Yanyuwa camp. Norman waited about 10 years before she was given a new house, which was one of the first built since 2006.
In an essay published by Overland in 2020, Charlie said, “it’s that waiting business. You’ve got to wait so long. They’ll build it this year and you get it next year. Old people are getting older; they’ll die soon. A lot of people are going to die waiting for houses. We have been waiting for too long.”
Darwin-based researcher Liam Grealy, who collaborates with Charlie and recently co-authored an Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report on sustainable housing in regional and remote Indigenous communities, says the lack of maintenance, and lack of clarity over who is responsible for it, “significantly affects the standard of housing and community wellbeing”.
“Miriam Charlie’s photography captures how houses disassemble, or the material outcomes of underfunded and reactive maintenance programs,” he says.
Miriam Charlie’s Polaroid photographs
Angus and Nancy Kidd, one of the families Charlie photographed at Garrwa 1 town camp, had not had repairs on their home since the mid-1980s, waiting about 40 years for one week’s worth of work to be completed.
Nancy Kidd standing in front of a wall that needed repairing in her house in 2016 at Garrwa 1 camp
“The house hasn’t been renovated since a very long time,” Angus Kidd says. “There was a hole in the wall, the ceiling was coming down, water was leaking in during the rain, and in my room the water was dripping down from the wall.
“Looking at it now, we have a thick wall but there were holes all along here, so now it’s really good. The shower had a concrete floor, but now they put a tiled floor in there. There was a hole in this wall here, there was a crack, it had a very thin layer, see, and they made it thick, and now I’m living like a prince.”
The chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation (NACCHO), Pat Turner, said in an interview with the Australian in March the standard of housing in remote communities underpinned several targets in Closing the Gap and outlined that if the targets are not achieved, it would be because governments had not “invested the necessary resources in programs and services to support our people”.
Darilyn Anderson, one of Charlie’s nieces, and her family, photographed by Charlie in front of their old home in 2016
State and territory governments will be required to ensure all remote Indigenous housing meets minimum standards by 2031.
Darilyn Anderson, one of Charlie’s nieces, used to live in a two-bedroom house with her partner and at least five of their foster children in Garrwa 1 camp. Now they live in a four-bedroom house replaced by the NT government under the program. “It was a two-bedroom house, not enough room they always jammed up and they had nowhere to put the table and chairs,” Charlie says. “Now they’ve got room to sleep in.”
A fraction of the houses Charlie began photographing in 2015 have now been replaced or had necessary repairs made. When Charlie went back to Borroloola for a visit she felt a big relief. “To look at it now just brings joy to my heart, it really makes life much easier for people,” she says.