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Image: CBE

Image: CBE

In need of culturally appropriate homes

16 December 2019

10 minute read

Having been closely involved with community housing in Australia, CBE alumna Kim Sinclair has gained vast experience and understanding of the nuances of this sector.

In a candid interview, Kim, who is currently the CEO of SEARMS Aboriginal Corporation, discusses the fault lines in community housing policies, the priorities for policymakers, and the need to build homes that are culturally appropriate.

Q. From your experience, what are the most significant policy insights you can draw from the current Aboriginal housing sector?

I find housing policy generally to be patriarchal, non-cohesive and disengaged from the communities it is supposed to be delivering housing to. The housing system is complex, with Federal and State/Territory governments making numerous attempts to address home ownership and affordable rental housing barriers – some successfully, others not so. Layered on top of the general housing policy are the Aboriginal housing policies – again a piecemeal approach, designed and implemented by non-Aboriginal people. My short answer is that Aboriginal housing policy is not fit for purpose and does not have enough input from the community that it is serving.

A one-size-fits all approach doesn’t allow for appreciation of how deeply connections to country and kinship groups affect improving outcomes for Aboriginal families. There is so much diversity within the Aboriginal nations of Australia that an umbrella policy will not cover it all. Any policy framework to improve key outcomes for the Aboriginal community needs to be flexible enough to be localised and that has not been the case.

Policy and investment is best informed by the operators on the ground. As an example, when I was working with mainstream community housing development – to develop or redevelop a site required an assessment of not only the site, but also the neighbourhood and community around it. One redevelopment site took around five years of engagement with the Residents Association to understand the overall outcomes required by both parties to come to an agreed design. It’s all about developing long-term relationships and trust that cannot be established from one or two consultation meetings.

General legislation and polices, usually developed in Canberra, that impact upon these communities are citified and do not actually work on the ground for regional and remote communities. In some cases, housing policy and its application conflict with one another, creating further hardship for individuals and communities. Policymakers need to understand that there is no short-cut to engaging with communities.

Aboriginal housing policy is not fit for purpose and does not have enough input from the community that it is serving.

Q. What do you think is the least discussed challenge in this space?

It’s not all doom and gloom regarding Aboriginal housing, there are some very capable and connected Aboriginal leaders who are highly experienced and skilled across the spectrum of housing outcomes – from developing policy, assessing impacts through to design and delivery and operational sustainability. The challenge is having the Government re-frame its frankly discriminatory approach and rhetoric around Australia’s First Nations peoples and engage honestly and respectfully.

To do this, the Government must let go of the patriarchal, patronising approach of the past to overcome the trust deficit between them and the community. They must show leadership regarding how they intend to bridge the knowledge and understanding gap when they are developing or reviewing legislation and policies for communities that they have no direct experience or engagement with. Real engagement can’t be phoned or emailed in. It’s face-to-face and on country.

Will the Government fulfil its responsibility to recognise its past track record and re-visit its own thinking about the value of Aboriginal peoples and culture to establish these respectful, trust-based relationships? It’s a big ask, based not only on the track record of the Australian Government toward Aboriginal peoples since colonisation but current inhumane and non-transparent decision making regarding refugees, whistle blowers and the public service.

...the Government must let go of the patriarchal, patronising approach of the past to overcome the trust deficit between them and the community.

Q. What are your observations about the community housing ecosystem in Australia?

I look at housing as an ecosystem in Australia in a number of ways. The relationship between the end users (owners and investors); delivery pathways (private developers and community housing developers); and public/private/community housing investment and ownership.

Most people don’t know about the community housing sector. It is vast - it includes addressing housing security for youth-at-risk, pensioners, veterans, people with disabilities, and key workers as well as the very low-income population. It is a multi-billion dollar sector of the economy. It creates jobs directly for the people engaged by the sector in community housing provision and delivery (building and construction) and indirectly for the support services (health, education, justice, family, employment).

The key differences between general housing and community housing lies in community housing’s focus on increasing affordable rental supply, and focusing on sustaining tenancies and housing security.

This means inclusion of the end user as early as possible in the development process. Moving the tenant/community to the front end of the design stage and not just as the recipient of the finished product.

If you look at this from a general development perspective, the design and built-form of a property in rural South Australia is different to that in Queensland. The built-form takes into account factors such as the weather conditions, termite and pest controls, and client needs to ensure the finished home is fit-for-purpose.

Another example is how the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has focused this design approach for NDIS participants and their Specialist Disability Accommodation.

I am not sure why it should be such a stretch to extend this to Aboriginal housing policy. To pick up the cultural nuances between Aboriginal nations - between language groups, between urban, regional and rural areas. Using local Aboriginal knowledge to provide input into housing policy, delivery and ongoing sustainability.

As the community housing sector is better placed to understand and successfully deliver housing, asset management services and housing supports to the specific tenant cohorts within their jurisdictions, the Aboriginal communities are best placed to inform investment in theirs.

ANU gave me opportunities to be exposed to best practice in key business functions and use that to innovate and introduce new business initiatives. It really helped me build my professional toolbox.

Q. In what ways can your experience at ANU be linked to your success?

As soon as I started at ANU, I began to apply the rigor of academic theory and evidence learnt in the classroom in my workplace. As a senior executive and CEO, I did this in relation to how I approached and presented strategic planning and new business initiatives. My MBA classes taught me to value investing in HR - in rigorous workforce planning and performance management that would improve the company’s output, productivity and efficiency.

ANU gave me opportunities to be exposed to best practice in key business functions and use that to innovate and introduce new business initiatives. It really helped me build my professional toolbox – to ensure that I was well prepared in developing, executing and sometimes defending my strategic, growth and operational plans in the workplace.

Being an ANU student helped me gain a lot of confidence and skills to deal with different situations in the workplace. This was important for me because as the only senior woman executive I was often quite isolated at work. When you’re in class at university, you are surrounded by great sounding boards. You can draw from the diversity of fellow students or from the highly skilled and experienced lecturers to improve your professional awareness and develop strategies to get through the tough times outside of university. ANU has given me the confidence to take on new learning opportunities and keep pushing myself to do better both professionally and personally.

The ANU College of Business and Economics offers an extensive range of specialised programs in Business Administration. Click here for more details.

Updated:   11 February 2020 / Responsible Officer:  CBE Communications and Outreach / Page Contact:  College Web Team