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NT houses filling up as overcrowding continues

Neve Brissenden -

Waitlists for social housing in remote Northern Territory communities continue to blow out, as families battle overcrowding and dilapidated homes.

Francis Marrawungu has waited forever for a room to call his own.

Darting through the new house handed over minutes earlier to his family by the Northern Territory government, his shrill voice fills the empty rooms.

"This one! This one! This one!" he yells after being asked which one might soon be his.

He's been living with his mother Charmaine Marrawungu and multiple siblings in a relative's home down the road, often with 15 other people.

On Wednesday Ms Marrawungu, Francis and her newborn baby moved into her new home in Gapuwiyak, a remote Indigenous community in East Arnhem Land.

"I've been waiting a long time, so many years," she says.

The Marrawungu's are one of 10 families handed keys this week to new social housing dwellings as part of the NT government's remote housing project.

Next door, Walter Garawirrtja and wife Madeline Gurruwiwi are also moving into their brand-new cyclone-proof home.

They have been on the waitlist more than five years, with their 12-year-old Tobias continually begging for his own room.

"He's always asking us, come on, when are we going," Mr Garawirrtja says.

"That's the hard part."

The family of five has been living in overcrowded quarters with relatives and friends.

"We were sharing one washing machine and one kitchen and one bathroom," he says.

"Also we don't smoke so it was hard because everyone else does."

Mr Garawirrtja says he is excited about his new home but worries about friends and family still living in overcrowded and run-down houses, with no new homes in sight.

When NT Housing Minister Selena Uibo issued keys to the latest lucky families this week, she said it marked an important government milestone.

A billion-dollar funding deal shared with Canberra was set to deliver 1950 additional bedrooms in remote Indigenous communities and Alice Springs town camps by June.

That target was missed and the Territory blamed the delay on the slow commonwealth funding rollout and COVID-19 trade and construction disruptions.

A building surge last month resulted in 100 houses being built in 100 days, finally meeting the government's promised target.

"We're starting to see the bigger impact which is reducing the amount of overcrowding, which also has benefits for education, employment and healthcare," Ms Uibo says.

A report from the Menzies Institute in September found there were 3329 active applicants in March on the wait list for remote community housing.

The same month, 34 households were moved into new housing with an average wait time of more than three years.

The report also made findings about the maintenance of Aboriginal social housing, saying the government encountered significant delay in delivering contracts for maintenance and repairs.

The department started a new project last year aiming to "institute a new approach to remote housing maintenance by prioritising cyclical and preventive maintenance".

Providers were then required to also undertake annual inspections of the homes through an assessment tool, though as of September 2023 "very few" had completed them.

The report found the training of service providers required to undertake the inspections with the tool was "unspecified" and "limited".

The report highlighted part of the maintenance issues in remote areas is the lack of tradespeople and service providers willing to work in the communities.

It recommended commiting "greater resources to business development in NT regions where there is no take-up of remote housing maintenance services".

The housing minister says the government is working hard to improve things.

"We have a large portion of the funding which is allocated around upgrades and improving houses," she says.

The government says it will continue lobbying federal counterparts on the next housing deal but nothing has been confirmed yet.

Last month, the High Court ruled First Nations people living in remote dilapidated housing were entitled to compensation for distress or disappointment.

It marked the end of a long-running battle between residents of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa), 85km southeast of Alice Springs, and the Northern Territory housing authority, which began in 2016.

Back in Gapuwiyak, Tobias Garawirrtja and his dad unpacked their most important possessions for December in Arnhem Land: an AC unit and a Christmas tree.

Neve Brissenden - AAP

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