Commencing in 2021, the Northern Territory (NT) Government’s Healthy Homes program sought a new approach to housing repairs and maintenance (R&M) at 73 remote NT communities, Alice Springs town camps and Tennant Creek community living areas. The program aims to incorporate not-for-profit company Healthabitat’s healthy living practices into R&M, and to prioritise cyclical and preventive maintenance in order to improve householder health outcomes.
The establishment of Healthy Homes followed ongoing litigation related to the failure of the NT Government – the landlord of remote public housing as CEO Housing – to provide necessary R&M to housing at the communities of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) and Laramba, and repeated media coverage of residents describing houses with broken things.
Menzies School of Health Research was employed by the NT Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities to monitor and evaluate Healthy Homes. Our team examined the implementation and outputs of various components of Healthy Homes. We attended Housing for Health projects led by Healthabitat; interviewed public servants, householders and staff of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations; participated in housing condition inspections at town camps; studied a tenancy support program called Living Strong; and examined inspections and expenditure data.
Our evaluation identified the fundamental importance of program contracts, and their proper management, for directing remote service provision. Healthy Homes reconfigured the contractual model for remote housing R&M in the NT. Under the old model, housing was serviced under both a trade panel and a housing maintenance coordinator contract. Under Healthy Homes, a single contract was typically awarded by the NT Government, with an emphasis on prioritising Aboriginal business enterprises (ABEs) to provide services to a smaller number of local communities per contract.
The chief success of Healthy Homes was the award of 25 of the total 31 remote housing maintenance services contracts to ABEs, covering 49 remote communities. However, in 24 remote communities the prior trade panel maintenance model continued to operate.
The key component of Healthy Homes maintenance contracts distinguishing them from the old model was the requirement that property managers use a condition assessment tool (CAT) to undertake inspections on all of their houses within three months of contract award and annually thereafter. This cyclical and preventive mechanism aims to generate maintenance works earlier than would occur by relying on tenants to report faults, thus reducing their severity and improving house function overall.
We found that, from July 2021 to February 2023, only 1315 CAT inspections had been undertaken across a total of 5498 houses included in Healthy Homes, equivalent to inspection of about 23.9 per cent of houses. Service providers reported that the inspection tool was confusing and difficult to use, with some providers unaware of the obligation to undertake such inspections. Government data is unable to distinguish responsive repairs from preventive maintenance works generated by CAT inspections.
It is thus reasonable to wonder how different Healthy Homes is from the prior maintenance program.
Our final report makes 32 recommendations that should be addressed by the NT Government as soon as possible for Healthy Homes to reach its potential. Chief among them is greater communication and coordination between Territory Families, Housing and Communities, which manages Healthy Homes, and the NT Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics, which superintends individual maintenance contracts.
As the Aboriginal community-controlled housing sector develops in the NT, it is incumbent on the NT Government to ensure that the programs it has designed are delivering on their goals to improve house function and householder health outcomes.