Rabu, 21 September 2011

Tenancy Culture Studies: The Fringe Dwellers

The Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies returns with a look at Bruce Beresford's 1986 feature The Fringe Dwellers.

The Fringe Dwellers tells the story of Trilby Comeaway, a young Aboriginal woman who struggles to reconcile her expectations with her ambition. Trilby lives with her family in a makeshift shack on the outskirts of a country town, where she dreams of better things. She doesn't ask for much - just a life where she can study, work and live as an equal among the white, middle-class townsfolk... but for these dreams she is consigned to a life of derogation by both the mainstream she covets, and her family, who she would rise above. She fits nowhere - but she can't be ignored.

Trilby discovers that you can't escape yourself simply by changing your material circumstances. When her father Joe finds steady work, the Comeaways move into a neat fibro cottage in town, courtesy of the Housing Commission. It has all the mod-cons they had to go without on the fringe - running water, venetian blinds, a local school and a short walk to the hustle and bustle of Main Street. For awhile it looks as though all Trilby's dreams have come true.

Alas, it's not to be. Family and friends start to move in, and the house soon ends up as a microcosm of life on the fringe. But town-life comes with the entrenched racism and stigma that often follows Aboriginal people wherever they go. The neighbourhood fails to embrace the Comeaways and the townsfolk continue to malign them, as they struggle to live up to the expectations of their new community. Indeed, they rally against them, as Joe Comeaway proudly insists that no-one can remove his relatives from his home but he.

He needn't worry, because in all this time nobody's actually paid the rent. A simple oversight - an indication of the family's uneasy relationship with the town, and their failure to adapt to their new form of tenure - no-one's been down to the Housing Commission office since they moved in. Joe takes it on himself to sort this out, but is sidetracked on his way by an opportunity too good to pass up - an easy game of cards and a chance to double his money... He loses the lot, and goes walkabout rather than face the shame of telling his family what he's done.

Thus, the Comeaways are forced to give up life in town, and move back to their old shack in the bush. Here they can be themselves again - truly at home... But Trilby still doesn't see it that way. She leaves for the city, and an uncertain future.

The Fringe Dwellers presents a caricature of Aboriginal Housing - and a 25-year-old one at that. But there are many tales within that should still resonate today, particularly those of struggle, paternalism and prejudice. Because unfortunately, the Aboriginal Housing sector in NSW faces all of these things today...

Aboriginal Housing is a complicated beast. In NSW, it currently exists in two main forms - housing owned and managed by Local Aboriginal Lands Councils (LALCs) on behalf of LALC members; and housing owned by the Aboriginal Housing Office (AHO), often managed by an Indigenous Corporation specifically set up for that purpose. Each of these has their own administrative or legislative context within which to operate, and each is responsible to its own chain of command. These organisations have survived years of policy neglect and poorly targeted resourcing from various governments, to which they've adapted as best they can. The upshot of this is that a relative amount of rental housing is owned and managed directly by Aboriginal people in their own interests. The downside is that much of this housing is in poor condition, with significant maintenance and repair costs (on top of administrative costs and other expenses for many of these organisations) making the Aboriginal Housing sector as it is today largely unsustainable.

But the sector has the capacity to evolve, and it had begun to emerge from its predicament with a hint of confidence through a policy framework known as the Sector Strengthening strategy. A key aspect of this strategy was to support Aboriginal Housing providers in their tenancy and property management, predominantly through the use of Regional Aboriginal Management Services (RAHMS). RAHMS provide sector specific, independent, professional management services at arms-length, by Aboriginal organisations established for the purpose - and they take a huge amount of pressure off many small, struggling providers.

Another key aspect of the strategy was that it was based on a great deal of consultation and discussion amongst providers, tenants and relevant government agencies. It provided a solution that many people saw as workable, and those affected felt at least some ownership over it. So it came as a surprise when a new policy direction was announced shortly after the Sector Strengthening strategy kicked off...

The Build and Grow Aboriginal Housing Strategy follows reasonably closely the reforms to the mainstream Community Housing Sector - at least in spirit. It requires Aboriginal Housing organisations to register under a new registration scheme (the Provider Assessment Registration System - or PARS) in order to become eligible for funding made available under the National Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (even though the vast majority of Aboriginal people live in urban locations). But the registration requirements are more onerous than anything previously encountered by the sector, and the funding will not be recurrent... so there are concerns that many Aboriginal Housing organisations will opt not to register. Those who take this path will have a choice - to offer their properties to the AHO to be head-leased for a minimum of ten years to a registered provider, or to go it alone without further assistance.

Anyone with even a vague understanding of Aboriginal disadvantage will see that this is no choice at all. But the thought of handing properties over to the AHO is completely unpalatable to many Aboriginal people - who have fought long and hard for all that they've got - so there's a high probability that some Aboriginal Housing organisations will just opt out of the strategy completely.

This brings us back the The Fringe Dwellers, and its messages for Aboriginal Housing:

- Aboriginal people face a particular disadvantage that can't be overcome by simply requiring them to behave like their non-Aboriginal peers. Genuine support is needed.

- Aboriginal people are best placed to determine solutions to many of the specific problems they face - but paternalism, prejudice and the shackles of disadvantage will often prevent them from seeing these solutions through.

For all it might achieve, the Build and Grow strategy has failed to address these two critical points. For those who make it through PARS, we will applaud with gusto. But for those who don't, an uncertain future awaits...