Legal advocates say the Northern Territory government has quietly wiped $70 million worth of rental debt that is owed by remote residents who didn't know the debt existed.
The existence of the alleged debt came to light when the Santa Teresa community sued the NT Department of Housing for providing uninhabitable housing stock.
In 2016 the government announced that it would countersuas the residents taking legal action against them, saying individual households owed up to $21,000 to the department in unpaid rent.
Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights solicitor Dan Kelly represents the Santa Teresa community and said that debt came out of nowhere for residents.
They were under the impression that they had been paying their rent through direct debits. Freedom-of-information requests revealed that the Territory government claimed that the community owed $2 million in unpaid rent, but had never pursued the debts.
The wiping of debt came to light because a similar countersuit taken out by the government against residents for Laramba was dropped early this month at the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal NTCAT. Laramba's residents have been involved in legal action against the Department of Housing, claiming that their water contains three times the recommended levels of uranium.
We know that's essentially all we know. The decision to wipe the alleged debt was made by the NTCAT at the end of June.
The government said that renters were visited by tenancy officers to advise them that historical rental debt would not be pursued up to December 11, 2021.
The decision to wipe $70 million worth of debt has not been publicised by the government.
Mr Kelly said that the government's countersuit against Santa Teresa residents was eventually unsuccessful because records were unable to support the fact that the amount was owing Wiping these debts means the government can no longer countersue residents who take them to court in this same way, but based on the outcome of the Santa Teresa countersuit, it was questionable whether any debts would have been provable.
In a statement, the government said that the rental system was outdated and ineffective, confusing for tenants and challenging to administer. Kelly said that the saga surrounding the unpursued and unproven debts was indicative that remote housing policy was failing in the NT.
It is a policy that failed because Aboriginal-controlled organisations were not part of the conversation and Aboriginal voices weren't involved in the policy.
This was money that should have been fixing up houses and making sure they were at a reasonable and comfortable standard. The decision to waive the alleged debt comes as the government plans to increase rents for many residents in remote communities and town camps as part of the new remote rent framework.
On September 5th, the government will abolish income-based rent setting for these properties and introduce pricing schemes that researchers from the Australian National University found will increase rent for 68 per cent of tenants.
The researchers found that the rent would increase for 80 per cent of renters in Central Australia and 81 per cent of residents in Barkly.
In a statement, the Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities said the new framework was simple and has built-in safeguards to protect people from rental stress if rent tenants pay more than 25 per cent of household income. Consultation on the Remote Rent Framework began in 2018 with key stakeholders, including a working group with leaders from the housing sector.
Tenancy officers have gone door to door in more than 80 communities to give tenants information about the new framework.