Recentring Aboriginal Voices in our Search for a Home
Through the thin plaster wall I can hear her breathing in the adjacent bedroom. Most nights it’s a faint hum but occasionally her breath morphs into a gravelly snore that is slightly alleviated by earplugs. Living with my mother triggers intimacies I wasn’t expecting, but also deepens our relationship. Coffees before work and conversations in the courtyard pull us even closer. But there is a small feeling that I am doing something unacceptable. Returning home at 33 is often considered strange, like something went wrong. When the writer Maggie Nelson contemplated living with her mother she wrote, ‘I flashed momentarily upon the ghastly scene in the French film The Piano Teacher in which Isabelle Huppert sleeps nightly with her mother in the same bed’.1
Michael Haneke’s unsettling film is a worrying comparison to make. Huppert plays an introverted classical pianist whose obsessive creative temperament leaves her socially inept. Contained in a tiny apartment with her intrusive mother and a shoebox of peculiar instruments hidden under the bed for sexual relief, the spinster never looked so unhinged and the mother–daughter relationship is soured beyond recognition. But I wonder whether Maggie Nelson’s fears reflect a deeper distrust of relationships and living arrangements that transgress social perceptions of normal. Living with a parent can be immensely positive, yet we often gravitate towards nightmarish scenarios even when our parents don’t possess the qualities we’ve seen in horror films.
Returning home after the end of another share house I was soothed by my mother’s warmth, a sharp contrast to the small room in the crumbling terrace house I had left. Every time the train passed, the walls shook violently and an enormous lean in the lounge-room floor alarmed visitors. Large cracks grew like a thick garden creeper in the corner of my bedroom ceiling. The endless dust exasperated a bout of bronchitis, which lingered through spring. The structural chaos was redeemed by the enduring friendships made in the house but eventually a large thud that reverberated through the kitchen marked our home’s demise. My housemate and I rushed upstairs. John’s bedroom door was open, and large pieces of brick and plaster rested on his pillow. Given his recent bad luck we almost laughed; the potential damage had he been sleeping was so hideous it bordered on absurdity. We lugged the chucks of cement down the staircase and placed them next to our fireplace like it was some sort of plaque celebrating his survival.
When we reported the damage including photographs of the gaping hole in the roof, little was done. Our property manager Regina liked to leave post-it notes in the kitchen criticising our cleaning techniques after inspections. She insisted that we use bleach in the bathroom to dislodge the specks of mould between the tiles. But she rarely responded to our emails. Not long after we reported the incident we received a notice asking us to vacate. Our landlord had decided to sell, giving us six weeks notice and a thin piece of plywood clumsily nailed over the hole in John’s roof to get us through.
Before the eviction, when the warmer weather disguised how quickly our house was deteriorating, I would lie in my bed reading, almost making eye contact with the passengers on the Hurtsbridge line as the train passed my window. This was Brooklyn-style high density in West Richmond, a room in which I could barely fit a bed. Cramped communal splendour with five other people. We ate together, grew veggies and fought on occasion. Living with each other solidified our friendships, but uncomfortable intimacies emerged; particularly when new lovers arrived unannounced. When I first moved in, I laughed connecting to the internet; our neighbours had named their wi-fi connection sorry4theloudsex. Unaware that their crass network eerily presaged the sounds, which reached us through our deceptively thick bedroom walls. It was a situation we never knew how to approach and resolved by finding our own discrete coping methods. Looking back, a mother who lightly snores on occasion is nothing to complain about.
Having lived with my mum for more than a year, feelings of failure have surfaced momentarily, as if milestones such as buying a home or living with a partner are passing me by. Yet I remain overwhelmingly grateful for her offer and our friendship. On occasion while watching Naked Dating and Married at First Sight, eating home-cooked meals on the couch, I wonder whether I’ve entered some warped domestic arrangement. But her cutting observations on all the blondes who look the same elevate our situation; her deadly humour brings us closer together. For my mum, who grew up poor in social housing, there is an immense sense of pride in being able to offer me a place to stay when needed.
I remember the sacrifices she made when I was a kid, working overtime, turning Maggi noodles into decent meals the last few days before pay. She was determined to own her own home and ensure she would never have to rely on anybody. On a $45,000 a year office admin salary, she succeeded. Like her own father, who managed to save $20,000 for a deposit on a house when he retired, she shocked many. In a country where Aboriginal people are tinged with disadvantage, our ordinary achievements are often overlooked. My mother’s success was sealed when she purchased the apartment on Truganini Road, named after the Tasmanian activist and leader. It was as if the great matriarchal elders were looking out for us.
The home my mum has created in the south-east contrasts with the growing rates of homelessness and housing stress threatening Melbourne’s livability. The media pushes the housing crisis, telling us we’ll never own a home and our rights have inexorably changed. Women over 50 are the most at risk of homelessness and it’s becoming a reality that home ownership is out of reach for millennials. For my mum and me, it’s a sobering realisation of just how lucky we are. But as accounts of hardship and injustice grow, media coverage remains fixated with stories of the white middle class, forgetting the challenges facing more vulnerable communities. In one of our TV dinner sessions we watched the 7.30 Report special ‘Will the budget’s housing affordability measures work?’2 While the program illustrated Sydney’s crippling housing prices, there was something slightly comical about the young, straight white middle-class couple they chose to profile.
The couple lived rent-free in the woman’s parents’ house in a converted garage in the back yard. They had decked it out in industrial milk-crate furniture and a handmade wood-panelled loft bed in what looked like bespoke hipster heaven. With the couple’s combined annual income of more than $180,000 there was something slightly ludicrous about a situation manufactured to make us feel pity. Living rent-free and earning above average incomes in a healthy relationship, it was difficult to understand their hardship. And if saving enough to buy their own home was a struggle, I wondered whether there were opportunities to readjust their dream or if they just lacked the patience and tenacity to save. While home ownership remains a marker of success, there was something appealing about their apparent failure. Their own small abode a short walk from a large family home seemed like a new ideal I would happily embrace.
As housing unaffordability worsens across major cities in Australia, reports like this are common because the white middle class dominate the debate. Whether it’s young professionals stuck in rent-free converted garages, or artists complaining about rent hikes in the inner north as if it’s their rightful home, they forget that Fitzroy and the surrounding suburbs have an inalienable meaning to Kooris, more than just access to bars and galleries. Bigger complexities are obscured by the exclusion of other voices. As the late Goernpil poet Lisa Bellear wrote:
survivors of genocide watch
and camp out, live, breathe in various
parks ’round Fitzroy and down
A recent article by Fiona Wright for the Sydney Review of Books described what so many people experience, evicted from one share house to the next, the dream of home ownership quietly disappearing. But her writing seemed unaware of her position and social advantages, as if the sense of loss and disorientation she described was unusual or unique to her generation. Although she acknowledged the challenges facing other minority groups and her own complicity as someone who is white and middle class, she seemed genuinely shocked every time she was forced to move. Invested in her lifestyle of geographical advantage and surrounded by like-minded people, she writes, ‘I love living in Newtown, not because it’s near the city but because it’s in the Inner West, a place that has a left-leaning and vaguely creative kind of culture and where I usually can walk between the places where I like to go.’4
Writer Briony Doyle shared a similar account of housing stress. Priced out of Collingwood, she ‘moved north as is the trend to the grey pastures of Preston, frolicking along the Merri Creek Sewer Rehabilitation Project and taking the long tram rides back to my old suburb with a homing pigeon’s compulsion’.5In the article, which featured in the Lifted Brow’s capital issue, she describes feeling annoyed that she’ll never be able to afford a home in Preston, much less in a place to which she feels connected. She asks, ‘What is the solution to the young middle class who find themselves shockingly deprived of their quarter-acre birth right and unsure if middle class means what they were taught it did?’ Like the Sydney couple infuriated by their cozy garage, other privileged voices speak loudly in the housing equality crisis.
These voices often detract from other perspectives, vital stories that move beyond hardship or feeling ‘deprived’, but are examples of resilience and innovation. In 2015 I was lucky enough to see Yuin architect Linda Kennedy speak at Resistance Rising, honouring Lex Wotton’s work to end deaths in custody. Her arresting speech detailed the run-down social housing flat her family were allocated when she was growing up in Wollongong. With the cheaply cladded exterior and poor design, it was suffocating, but her speech was not about injustice or eliciting the audience’s sympathy. Instead, her home was the inspiration for her career and what motivated her to start thinking about design as a young child. She instinctively knew that her home was not appropriate for her family’s situation, which stimulated her own curiosity about design, space and place, and drew her to pursue a career in architecture. She now runs Future Blak, a design studio that advocates for and practises an overall shift in the design process, to place black ways of knowing and doing as an integral priority. Lacking self-pity, she shows that we can experience challenging living conditions and use this as motivation for change.
Many other Aboriginal women I know have faced similar housing problems, particularly single mothers. At the 2017 ‘Place, Politics and Privilege’ conference at Victoria University a white Australian student presented on gentrification in Footscray. Like Wright and Doyle, she talked about being priced out of a suburb with which she had developed a creative connection and sense of community. Two Aboriginal women in the room quickly addressed her privilege, reminding her of the irony of feeling displaced on land that was never ceded. One of the women shared her own story of housing affordability in Footscray. She had been ignored by estate agents at inspections, asked to leave and had numerous applications rejected. When she called one real estate agent for more information on a rejection they simply told her that their client didn’t want an Aboriginal woman with kids living in their house.
In the field of urban planning there are attempts to address these issues but the white middle class are often the first to obstruct social equity initiatives. Most recently the state government’s Towards Home program, providing rough sleepers with housing and support services, was met with severe opposition when a site in Brighton East was selected. The area was chosen for its transport connections and close proximity to a range of health and social amenities. But residents were outraged, fearing a barrage of criminals and plummeting property prices. The CBD is awash with shopping trolleys and mattresses flung together in makeshift shelters as people reconfigure doorways for the night. But the situation elicits little sympathy from those safely tucked away in the leafy suburbs and fearful of change.
Australia still clings to the idea that we are all equal and a house is within arm’s reach. While white millennials are starting to shatter the narrative with a range of hard-luck stories, the housing industry remains slow to respond, lacking the transformative vision to radically rethink housing. The Andrews Labor government recently announced their platform to make renting fair with a package of tenancy reforms, such as abolishing rental bidding, introducing long-term leases and bonds capped at one month’s rent. While these initiatives will improve conditions and create stability for those unable to purchase their own home, they do little to address structural disadvantage and the racism that continue to impact Indigenous communities and people of colour. The reform did include an ‘end to discrimination against renters with pets’6 but there was little on offer for those who experience discrimination due to their race.
As someone who has worked in urban policy for several years, to me the situation isn’t surprising. In one workplace, a wall of white men was erected outside the still conventionally gendered female toilets in the office. The series of portraits celebrating Victoria’s first land surveyors was a comical reminder of the void we operate in. Women in the office started to joke about the wall, but there was nothing humorous about the structural whiteness that grips the industry. Having read a range of housing policies filled with directions around increasing diversity of stock, improving social housing, co-housing and long-term leases, I have seen nothing that directly supports Aboriginal people. Although a range of remote housing strategies specific to northern Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory exist, there seems to be a lack of policies to address Aboriginal housing and homelessness in urban Melbourne. In Smith Street and around Fitzroy an array of bespoke burger joints, boutique retail and pop-ups dominate the landscape, but the presence of Aboriginal people remains. As Uncle Jack Charles has said, the Builders Arms in Fitzroy was crucial on his pathway back to his family. It was there that he connected with other mob, leading him back to his sisters.
Victorian Aboriginal people have a unique cultural connection to Fitzroy, which makes it particularly painful when I am approached by mob asking for money, outside the juice bars and artist-run spaces, which used to be Aboriginal health services. When artists complain that they’ve been pushed out of the inner north I wonder whether they understand the impact change has had on the Aboriginal community. In his 2002 article ‘Fitzroy Low Life and the Invasion of the Renovator’, Tony Birch writes, ‘It is clear but again often ignored that working-class Koori and migrant groups were more likely to be displaced by home renovators and political evangelicals than by government bulldozers.’7
Councils such as the City of Yarra are doing their bit, creating a plaque to commemorate the stolen generations and being the first to ban Australia Day celebrations on 26 January. But there is little action when it comes to housing, an issue vital to resolving ongoing injustices. In the Ilbejerri biographical production Jack Charles v the Crown, Uncle Jack Charles identifies his social housing flat in Northcote as the turning point he needed to break the cycle of drug and alcohol addiction. Secure housing and a home provide the stability to transform people’s lives, but we continue to listen to the loudest voices in the housing crisis debate, neglecting those who are most at risk.
In 2016, Aboriginal Housing Victoria and the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation made a joint submission to ‘All things considered—exploring options for Victoria’s 30-year infrastructure strategy’, a critical document that outlines how infrastructure will support Victoria’s future growth and needs. Their submission illustrated the ongoing disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Victorians, stating that ‘future strategies must recognise the work that still needs to be done to bring Aboriginal Victorians in line with current norms and standards of living for the rest of the community’.8 The urgency is evident in the growing population. Between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, the Victorian Aboriginal population grew by 26 per cent, with an average annual growth rate of 4.7 per cent compared to only 1.7 per cent for the general community. The ABS predicts that by 2022 the Victorian Aboriginal population will be more than 71,000.9 The submission identified that 22 per cent of Victorian Aboriginal households are in social or public housing and with rising population growth ‘homelessness and housing outcomes are likely to deteriorate or at least not improve’.10
The statistics are alarming, yet the broader discourse tends to ignore the problems facing First Nations people. Aboriginal Housing Victoria is pushing for change that puts our community back into secure long-term homes. It identifies the need to ‘encourage and/or induce local councils to make available land or air-space, specifically for affordable housing for the Victorian Aboriginal community, especially in forecast areas of high demand’.11 Given the statistics, increasing housing stock is an important next step. However, reading a range of other state and local government strategies, I find it exasperating that so little is prioritised for Indigenous communities. While delivering social and affordable housing for Indigenous people is complex, requiring government and the private sector to work together, it is not impossible either. Across the Tasman Sea our New Zealand neighbours are managing to deliver housing solutions for Māori people. While Māori communities continue to face homelessness at a higher rate than the rest of the country, structural changes are beginning.
In a country with a treaty it’s not surprising, but it also demonstrates that solutions are possible. In New Zealand Māori freehold land is held by individuals who have shares as tenants in common. Unlike privately owned or government land, an Act sets strong rules ensuring that the land stays in the hands of its owners, the Whānau and the Hapū. Furthermore, to increase housing ownership in the community, in 2016 Housing New Zealand launched Kāinga Whenua Loans for individuals.12The scheme enables Māori people to borrow up to $200,000 to build, purchase or relocate housing on their land. Loans can also be used for maintenance or renovations of existing houses on Māori land. New Zealand is creating partnerships between government and First Nations people that begin to address health, economic and social inequalities. As Melbourne continues to struggle with housing affordability there are significant lessons to be learnt from our neighbours and an opportunity to shift the focus of our housing strategies.
Earlier this year a group of friends and I were waiting outside the Kathleen Syme Library before a Blak Critics workshop for Yirramboi First Nations Festival. Sitting around in the sun we weren’t expecting a flurry of questions from a slightly panicked woman as she struggled to find the meeting room for a new co-housing initiative that was starting up in Carlton. She asked us if we had any idea where the meeting was happening and one of us, Ryan, replied with his dry black wit, ‘Sorry, love, wouldn’t have a clue. We’re Aboriginal, we don’t get housing in this country.’ A slightly confused look grew across her face as she thanked him and scampered off. We cracked up, relishing Ryan’s response and her discomfort.
As white middle-class voices like hers saturate the discussion, the problems facing those pushed out much further than Preston are eschewed. When two close friends of ours moved to Point Cook after their parents bought their first home, we all carried our own prejudices. We wondered what they were thinking; surely they could have found something affordable in Springvale, the suburb in which they had only recently been renting. But even I was a little surprised when my friends joked about the taxi driver who refused to take them home, as their Point Cook address didn’t register on his GPS.
The first time I visited them I missed the turn-off. On the wide road at night the small street signs were concealed and everything looked the same among the KFCs and big box retail. I found myself in Werribee South on a lonely dirt road surrounded by paddocks and quickly decided to turn around. As I headed back a car appeared behind me, their headlights flashing erratically as they edged towards my car, threatening to make contact. My mind raced to horror-film scenarios where crazed killers tailgate lone drivers. When we hit the main road, the car sped past me. I was relived but a little shaken.
When I arrived at my friends’ place I was astonished at how inviting their home was as they showed me around and started to prepare food. They lived across the road from a large park and although the row of identical houses had a bland uniformity synonymous with the suburbs, their home was warm; the delicious smell of Latin American cuisine blended with the brightly coloured furniture. I was happy that they were living with their parents and seemed content. But as we started discussing the neighborhood and my incident along the dirt road they shared their own stories of aggressive drivers and being regularly approached by hostile men when they were parked in their own street. Werribee had a drug problem; youth unemployment was rife and poor transport links made it hard for people to connect to other amenities and opportunities. These encounters were increasing, amid a range of community tensions.
Unlike many people experiencing these challenges, my friends came from a strong family and were pursuing exciting careers. They knew they were lucky and like me felt privileged to have parents who provided them with a home. They never complained about the distances they travelled to get to uni or being deprived of their own quarter-acre block. My friends’ situation illuminated new ways of adult living, re-evaluating what we may have once desired, and recognising that we still have significant advantages. Rather than focusing on increasing housing prices in the inner north, there are other issues that require attention such as intergenerational disadvantage, isolation and kids whose parents don’t have a home.
As Australia’s homelessness and housing-affordability crisis deepens, a range of initiatives, strategies and angry middle-class opinions have emerged. But too often these voices overshadow the needs of First Nations people and other more vulnerable communities. While small steps to address Indigenous housing in urban areas are beginning, we need to recentre Aboriginal voices and change the narrative. This may force some people to question their relationship to place and reassess their own privilege before they mourn the loss of Fitzroy, Footscray and other inner suburbs. But this is crucial, because we all know we live on Aboriginal land.
Timmah Ball is an urban researcher and freelance writer of Ballardong Noongar descent. She has written for ABC online, Westerly, Griffith Review, Cordite and Overland.
- Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts: A Memoir, Free Press, 2007, p. 81.
- Doyle, ‘No High Rise’.
- Lisa Bellear, from ‘Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum’, 1999.
- Fiona Wright, ‘Perhaps this one will be my last sharehouse’, Sydney Review of Books, 9 May 2017.
- Briony Doyle, ‘No High Rise on Our Street’, Lifted Brow, no. 32, 2016, p. 6.
- Daniel Andrews, ‘Andrews Labor Government will make renting fair’, 8 October 2017
- Tony Birch, ‘The Best TV Reception in Melbourne: Fitzroy Low Life and the Invasion of the Renovator’, Cultural Studies, 2002.
- Aboriginal Housing Victoria and the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, Submission to the ‘All things considered—exploring options for Victoria’s 30-year infrastructure strategy’, June 2016.
- Victorian Government, Victorian Government Aboriginal Affairs Report 2014–2015, Melbourne, December 2015, p. 23.
- Aboriginal Housing Victoria …
- Aboriginal Housing Victoria …
- Housing New Zealand, ‘Kāinga Whenua Loans for individuals’, May 2016.