She accepts that access to good health care and educational opportunities are also crucially important but says: “Everything else relies on a safe, secure place to live.” Leeanne, a Kalkadoon woman who grew up in Darwin, is Chief Executive of Yilli Rreung Housing Aboriginal Corporation, which manages 200 properties scattered across a vast area from Darwin to Adelaide River, 100 kilometres south, and Bulgul, 188 kilometres by road to the south-west. There are supposed to be only 1000 tenants but, in reality, pressure on the affordable housing market means there are at least 1500 and possibly as many as 2000.
The organisation covers five town camps, Amangal, Bagot, Knuckey Lagoon, Palmerston and Railway Dam, and five outstations, Bulgul, Humpty Doo, Pandayal, Walangurrminy and Woolanging. It also leases properties from the Northern Territory Housing Department across Greater Darwin and subleases the Berrimah Estate from a private landowner.
The organisation has added to its housing stock by taking advantage of the downturn in the housing market to buy private properties at a good price. Yilli Rreung, a name for an ancient ceremonial meeting place at Doctors Gully, is enormously successful; its financial stability and sound management have been praised by politicians and bureaucrats from Darwin to Canberra. It has obtained its 11th unqualified audit and its asset base keeps increasing steadily every year.
The not-for-profit organisation’s good reputation enabled it to obtain a $1.8 million commercial loan to buy new headquarters at Yarrawonga, on the outskirts of Darwin, and to secure a $1 million grant from the Aboriginals Benefit Account to refurbish the building. Yilli Housing is lobbying the NT Government to transfer the management component of a further 200 publicly-owned houses in the next couple of years.
“Once we’ve proved that we can manage them properly, we’ll ask for title transfer,” she says. “We can then capitalise on these assets to increase housing stocks.” Leeanne wants to change the whole culture around the provision of affordable housing. “It can take eight to 10 years for someone to get into public housing after putting in their application. “The system keeps people in poverty – because while they wait for a home, they have to maintain a low-income level. That discourages people from accepting a job. “We know of a family who had to move out of their public housing accommodation because their daughter obtained a job after completing high school, therefore tipping the household income over the threshold. “We don’t kick out people just because they are working.
We encourage economic development. We will change the status of the house to meet the needs of the family.” Leeanne, who has held senior positions in Aboriginal affairs for more than 30 years and is a finalist in the 2020 Telstra Women’s Business Awards, says the private rental market is innately racist. “Real estate agents don’t want Aboriginal tenants, but they are only doing what the landlords want. “I’ve had personal experience of this. I had a senior job and was earning a very good salary, but suddenly there was nothing available after I sent the agent a photo and he saw that I was Aboriginal.”
Yilli Rreung, which has a strong board of management chaired by Jon Harris, is funded by the Territory Government, private maintenance jobs and rent paid by tenants. But it wants one day to wean itself off Government funding and become fully self-sufficient. “That’s a big ambition,” says Leeanne. “But we can do it.” The housing body has a good record for project management, including housing maintenance and construction, and property management and municipal services, from rubbish removal to ground maintenance.
Yilli Housing wants to diversify its revenue-raising streams and is keen to collaborate with potential joint venture partners. Yilli Rreung is the only Aboriginal housing organisation in the Top End to gain national community housing registration. “That was a great achievement,” says Leeanne. “There were approximately 150 criteria and that basically involved revising and/or rewriting every policy, practice and procedure. “We were commended on the high quality of our documentation.
This demonstrates compliance with the national standards and shows we are on par with other big community housing providers.” Yilli Rreung has project managed $27 million worth of housing and infrastructure work in town camps over the past two years, including full and partial housing upgrades, street lights, parking lots, speed bumps, underground infrastructure upgrades and fencing. It contracted local companies, including two Indigenous-owned Darwin businesses, Dice Contracting and Lew Fatt Constructions, as the primary contractors and it was stipulated that they had to employ Aboriginal people from the communities where they were working.
Dice director Ray Pratt says: “We have relished the opportunity provided by Yilli and the NT Government for our team to get involved with the town camps project. “We are proof that when given an opportunity and the ability to be innovative, strong Indigenous businesses can deliver large-scale projects on time and in budget. “The increase in workflow has allowed Dice to share our successes with an expanded subcontractor base, a substantial increase in staff levels across the board and an increase in in-house Indigenous employees.
“We are proud that of the 28 staff in our electrical division alone, 11 are proud Indigenous Territorians and this includes five Indigenous apprentices. We look forward to continuing our strong working relationship with the Yilli team.” Jeremy Lew Fatt, managing director of Lew Fatt Constructions, says: “By hiring local Aboriginal companies such as Lew Fatt Constructions to work in NT Aboriginal communities benefits them by being able to hire local tenants in the community and also other Aboriginal businesses and tradesmen, helping them gain skills and earn wages. “Having an Aboriginal company present in the community also helps the tenants feel comfortable and is able to gain immediate trust within and helps with understanding the way the community lives. “It gives Lew Fatt Constructions great satisfaction and we are proud to be able to give back to our Aboriginal communities.”
Yilli Housing is in final discussions with Killara Foundation to form a joint venture partnership for the delivery of its residential and life skills coaching program, which supports Aboriginal people entering the workforce to secure safe, secure accommodation while receiving the support of a Killara coach. The Yilli Board of Directors and Members are all volunteers and receive no seating fees. TQ
Yilli Rreung Housing Aboriginal Corporation
08 8935 0100