ONE year old today – Housing for Health – the Guide

October 2nd, 2014

The 2nd of October, 2014 is the first anniversary of the launch of Housing for Health – the Guide. Happy Birthday!!!

The history preceding last year’s launch of Housing for Health – the Guide began with the first edition of the National Indigenous Housing Guide (NIHG) in 1999, two subsequent editions between 1999 and 2007 and ended with the refusal of the two most recent Australian Governments to update the 3rd edition of the NIHG.

In late 2012 Healthabitat (HH) decided the content of the NIHG was too important for it too disappear. Rather than continue to try and revive the NIHG we decided to ‘steal’ the content, add new data and make it available as a free on-line publication to all. Why was it necessary for Healthabitat to steal back the Guide from the Australian Government? 

What follows is a brief history of the The National Indigenous Housing Guide, the reasons why HH decided to steal back much of the content and form of the predecessor, and why was it published Housing for Health-the Guide as a website in 2013.

The Guide has been constructed as a web site that describes the link between housing and health or how parts of the living environment impact on well-being. The Guide is the culmination of almost 30 years of thinking by literally thousands of people and uses detailed housing function data as evidence to support the ideas presented. This data has been gained from Housing for Health projects that have improved over 7,500 houses around Australia. The Guide is available free to all.

This is a story about innovation of the idea, real work, removing evidence, theft and finally the future.

Innovation of the idea

In 1996 Senator Jocelyn Newman (a senior politician in a conservative Australian Government) asked a simple question of HH. “What would you do to improve Indigenous housing if you had my job?” 

As the Government Minister responsible for Indigenous housing, the question was serious and part of the answer contained the idea of establishing a place to store what was known about Indigenous housing. The idea being that this ‘store’ would ensure the absence of history, that allowed mistakes made by each newcomer, to the area could be avoided.
The idea that was to be called The National Indigenous Housing Guide (NIHG), was born. It was to be based on the principles of safety and health and structured around the nine Healthy Living Practices. In time, it would contain evidence in the form of housing data and most importantly it would be reviewed and updated every 2 years. The critics and detractors of any part of the NIHG would have their voices heard in these regular reviews and the NIHG would change to reflect what new information was known. The first edition of the NIHGwas met with strong opposition from all states and territories to . The last thing the states wanted was a way of measuring success or failure so prescriptively.

The real work

After the ‘idea’ that led to the National Indigenous Housing Guide, followed the real work, the writing of the first edition. This was completed by one Departmental staff member and HH.
In hindsight, this first edition was crude and brief. It contained no housing data and had no real input from the states. The real work of the first edition was to establish the idea of a national indigenous housing guide.
This idea remained unpopular with the state and territory governments all of whom continued to oppose the first edition. The reasons for their opposition will be made clear later.
Despite this vocal opposition from the states, the first edition of the NIHG was launched by Minister Newman in 1999, and this began the process that led to three editions being published between 1999 and 2007. 

Each subsequent edition of the NIHG involved hundreds of hours of data collation, review meetings that actively sought out contributions from any interested parties, re-writing, revisions, and proofing. The 2nd and 3rd editions contained housing data derived from Housing for Health projects being carried out nationally. The detailed data presented a true picture of how, at the end of the bureaucratic chain of policies, plans, meetings and money indigenous housing actually performed. It measured the function of over 250 items in 780 houses in the first edition and then in the second edition the data represented 3,600 houses. Much of this picture was not pretty, and the NIHG captured the fine detail of systemic housing failure.

The many millions of dollars that produced, maintained and managed houses nationally, showed results of only 9% of houses were electrically safe and only 35% of houses had a working shower, hard questions had to be answered by those states and territories charged with spending the money.
Tenant damage had always worked well as a reason for house failure but the NIHG noted that the damage levels in all the fix work needed to improve safety and health function to the houses remained at around 8-9% of all works done. 

Reporting on these poor function rates and giving proof that the tenants were not the prime reason for housing failure could have meant a quick end of the NIHG.

Despite the states continued complaints about the content and direction of the NIHG, Senator Newman pushed on. Slowly, the NIHG was seen as the only reference source for the fine grain detail of Indigenous housing, and the states opposition waned.
The NIHG was never seen by HH as a replacement for the national building code or standards or any state codes. It was not to become a ‘standards’ document, but rather a repository for lessons learnt and a guide to improved design, design detail, construction, maintenance and management practice.
The NIHG was a detailed store of knowledge, available in hard copy or online at no cost, to assist the real work of skilled designers, builders and housing managers – to make better housing. 

Most importantly, the NIHG was based on evidence. It recorded function and made decisions based on the performance of real houses in urban, sub-urban, rural and remote Australia.

Removing evidence

When the largest remote Indigenous housing program in Australia’s history was being conceived in 2008, one of the reference documents cited in all tender documents for the design and construction of housing was the NIHG. This was a great chance to upgrade housing and build new housing based on the safety and health principles and what had been learnt from past 23 years of successes and failures. The national housing program’s commencement coincided with the scheduled review of the NIHG in 2009 (2 years after the publication of the 3rd edition in 2007). 

HH continued to lobby for the commencement of the 4th edition of the NIHG in the same way we had pushed for the 2nd and 3rd editions.
By 2009, the Housing for Health project database, (from which the contents of the NIHG were tested and informed), had grown from 3,600 houses in the 3rd edition to over 6,000 houses. This meant there were detailed data measuring the performance of over 250 items in each of these 6,000 houses. At the time the Australian (Labor) government estimated that this number of houses represented over one third of the Indigenous controlled housing stock.

The Australian government continued to delay the review. The remote Indigenous housing program (The $AUD 5.5bn National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing) was too big and important to be distracted by the 4th edition of the NIHG.
By 2011, the NIHG 3rd edition was 4 years out of date but still a noted compliance document for the national remote Indigenous housing program.

In early 2011 two important things occurred. Firstly, the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing was receiving criticism for slow delivery and increased costs. 

Finally there was a meeting to discuss a review of the 3rd edition of the NIHG with the aim of producing a 4th edition.
The meeting between national housing departmental staff put three suggestions to HH. The NIHG was ‘too thick’ and the content needed slimming down. The housing data presented was irrelevant and should be excluded … this would also help in the slimming process. Finally, all the states would have to agree to all the sections of the NIHG before it would be published. Given the NIHG’s history these ‘suggestions’ were counter to its very foundations. The NIHG was evidence based and it had been conceived and produced in an environment where the states opposed the very idea of the NIHG.

As the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing began producing the first housing (both new and upgraded) it became clear that the quality of the work was very poor. In design and construction little attention had been paid to the NIHG. At one point HH was asked by the Australian (Labor) government to review design work to try and ensure the NIHG principles were being included in the designs. However, producing housing results quickly to deflect political criticism was now paramount and the quality or ongoing function of houses were distant thoughts. The reviews were stopped.

In this environment, the NIHG was quickly becoming an ‘inconvenient truth’. Tests involving function were now considered a threat to the national housing program. The NIHG had become the mirror reflecting the poor standard of works. The mirror, and the evidence on which it was based, needed to be removed.

The National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing was now described in terms of how many houses built and how many upgrades completed. Function rates and the ability of houses to actively deliver services to residents was off the agenda.


For more about the Guide CLICK HERE