According to the 2016 Census, just 38.1 per cent of Indigenous Australians owned their home. While that’s higher than the 2011 figure by 2.1 per cent, it’s still well below the levels of home ownership for the Australian population as a whole (65.5 per cent). Lucy Dean asks why.
“People seem to skip over the part about how Indigenous people's land was taken,” said Amanda Young, CEO at First Nations Foundation. “It’s hardly surprising given the circumstances and the history that Indigenous home ownership rates are significantly lower.”
She’s speaking about the 2016 Census results which showed that in that year, 38.1 per cent of Indigenous Australians owned their home and, of those, just 12.2 per cent owned their homes outright. That’s compared to a home ownership rate of 65.5 per cent for Australia in general and an outright ownership rate of 31 per cent.
First Nations Foundation has a mandate to empower Indigenous Australians through promoting financial literacy and inclusion. As founder, Ms Young considers the issue of home ownership as one of great importance. But western civilization has played unfairly, she said.
According to the CEO, it’s been a case of, “We’ve taken your land, we’ve made our profit, and now we’re just leaving you to try and straggle and catch up.
“I think all of Australia who have enriched themselves on Indigenous land owe a significant debt to our First Nations.”
She said that a treaty is an important part of the conversation about home ownership, arguing that it would promote recognition and fairness.
The 27 May 1967 Commonwealth Referendum ended constitutional discrimination and allowed for Indigenous people to be recognised — and four years later to be included — in the Census. Fast forward another 50 years and there’s a further constitutional push: for Indigenous people to be recognised as the first people of Australia.
But it’ll take more than recognition to improve the rates of home ownership for Indigenous people. These things change slowly, explained William Sanders, senior fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University.
He said that there’s no easy solution. “You need to think about how housing relates to income and employment over lifespans, and once you think about those things you can pretty much predict that these things only change slowly, over quite long periods of time.
“There are ways in which they can change quite significantly, [but] that does take time. So it's not something that you can set up a policy for and see significant results of within three, four, five years. This is something that plays out over generations. You really need to be looking at trends over, say, 25 years, 20 or 25 years.”
A diversified policy approach
A poor level of home ownership within the Indigenous community is not a new issue, Mr Sanders noted. There hasn’t been a time when Indigenous Australians weren’t experiencing lower levels of home ownership. “It’s not a quality that’s deteriorated,” the researcher said. “It’s fundamental historical inequalities that haven’t shifted.”
Mr Sanders said that investing in remote housing is a step in the right direction for remote Indigenous communities, but policymakers need to be careful to not simply transpose an urban housing development policy on a remote area.
When investigating the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian rates of housing, there are three stories that need to be told, he explained: “There's the remote, discrete Indigenous story where we're talking about how do you get Indigenous ownership going on community-held land, versus the urban and regional story which is that — in those places the markets for land and housing exists and it's mainly about Indigenous people having the amount of income they need to be in the housing market.”
When it comes to the big city and regional markets, the income factor is much more prevalent, Mr Sanders said. Basically, it’s hard to service a mortgage if you are unemployed or on a low salary. According to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2014 Report, 43 per cent of Indigenous people had incomes in the bottom 20 per cent of equivalised gross weekly household incomes, compared with 17 per cent of non-Indigenous Australian adults in 2012–13. The report also found that Indigenous adults living in remote areas were more likely to be in the lowest quintile of equivalised household income, at 59 per cent.
But lowering lending criteria isn’t necessarily the right answer either, Mr Sanders stressed. “Things could go pear-shaped if through various policy mechanisms you pushed home ownership towards the bottom of the income distribution.”
He said: “That's the really hard point. How do you house people in low incomes and long-term low incomes? In the past, people relied on public housing and social housing of various sorts to do that, and we still have that. There's 4 per cent of the housing supply in that category, but maybe there's more than 4 per cent of people on low incomes.”
Without financial education, it’s difficult to enter the housing market, and the impact of not having access to the housing market, even generations down the line, is manifold, Ms Young said.
With home ownership comes the benefits of having managed and created wealth as well as the opportunity to build on your assets; and, in an intergenerational sense, the ability to pass that wealth in both property and knowledge on to the next generation, she added.
“It's particularly significant if you tack it to . . . the current housing affordability crisis and the inability of Gen-Y to get into the market because the Baby Boomers have had so many years' advance on us in wealth creation that they're locking them out of the market.”
The problem is magnified for Indigenous communities. But education is the crucial element in improving rates of Indigenous home ownership, Ms Young said, referring to the ‘It Is Known’ attitude as the greatest barrier to financial inclusion.
“I think it's a terrible area of neglect [financial literacy],” she said. “After 25 years in this Indigenous space, it is the number one threat that's unravelling any other money that the government puts in. They haven't given enough attention and focus to the economic wellbeing [of Indigenous people].”
She provides the example of the Cairns used-car salesman who, earlier this year, was ordered to pay $1.2 million for encouraging Indigenous Australians to purchase dodgy second-hand cars, with an interest rate of 48 per cent charged on the loans.
“Every non-Indigenous person [I tell that story to] has a sharp intake of breath and cannot believe the interest [and asks] how could they let that happen? And the answer is: People who have had generous experience of handling money and growing wealth know how it works. But for Indigenous people, it's not known.”
However, the worst possible response to a lack of financial literacy is to remove financial autonomy, she emphasised. Referencing the government between 1860 and 1970 withholding portions of Indigenous wages, and cashless welfare cards recently introduced in the East Kimberley in Western Australia, she said that withdrawing the opportunity for Indigenous people to control their own money is disempowering and will only perpetuate the cycle of financial illiteracy.
“Indigenous people had land, had their own homes, had a system, had their own economy, and they were pulled off their land and [removed from] their economy, forced to become a workforce, had their wages managed by government. . . . Indigenous people never learned the money skills and didn't also receive the income.
“Suddenly, we're in a place where some 200 years later after all the good land's been chomped up, they're told: ‘Okay, you should really get into the home buying market.’” But, she said, it’s just not that easy.
A way forward
There are myriad problems contributing to low rates of Indigenous home ownership, but there are ways to begin addressing them, Ms Young said. Pro bono financial planning advice, similar to pro bono legal advice, could be a possible step.
It's something that, while not currently existing in any significant form, Ms Young wants to take forward.
She said: "This is a really critical skillset. You can learn how to budget, you can learn financial literacy, but it's that next stage of making that judgement between products: What's a good mortgage? What's not? What's a good way for me to invest if I live in the city and I can't crack the home market? Where should I be putting my money? Should I put it into super? All of those sorts of questions [are] really targeted to your personal circumstance. You need financial planning."
Mr Sanders said that change might seem slow, but given the centuries of disadvantage, it's actually happening at a reasonable pace. He added that, while politicians may not be rewarded electorally for pursuing policies that will take generations to pay off, there are others who will continuously pursue change.
"Politicians come and go," he said, laughing. "But other people will just keep beavering away."
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