Overcrowded houses

Overcrowded houses are a major problem in Aboriginal communities, with up to 17 people sharing a 3-bedroom house.

Overcrowding leads to a wide range of problems affecting all areas of peoples’ lives.

Selected statistics

Average number of people sleeping in one house (visitors included) on Palm Island, one of Australia's largest Aboriginal communities [11].
Times higher: The probability that Aboriginal people live in overcrowded houses, compared to non-Aboriginal people [12].
Proportion of Aboriginal people living in overcrowded houses [12].
Percentage of "severely overcrowded dwellings" in Australia that are in the Northern Territory [15].
Number of houses on Palm Island in 2007, a community of 3,500 people [11].
Maximum number of people per bedroom found in one study [5].
Proportion of Aboriginal housing budget directed to remote communities in 2007 [13].
Number of Aboriginal Australians living in severely overcrowded housing [15].
Number of homeless people in the NT who are Aboriginal [19].

Overcrowding is a major problem

Overcrowding is a common problem in Aboriginal communities and camps. Houses and tin sheds in Alice Springs’ town camp are home to 10 people on average, sometimes to 17 people [1,2], in Mowanjum, an Aboriginal community in Western Australia, about 350 people share 42 houses, most of which have only three bedrooms [3].

Families in Western Australia’s Roebourne community have to share one shower and bathroom with up to 12 people and sometimes up to four generations. The lack of privacy is another concern of overcrowding.

Rates of overcrowding increase with remoteness, affecting 13% of adults in major cities, 20% in regional areas and 48% of those in remote areas [14]. In some remote communities two-thirds of Aboriginal people live in overcrowded houses.

A UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing wrote in his report [8]: “The conditions that I saw of overcrowding, up to 30 people living in one house, and the fact that these conditions have existed for 7 decades, it is definitely amongst the worst I’ve seen around the world.” He also noted that Australia lacked a “clear, consistent, long-term and holistic housing strategy” as well as a national legislative framework against which initiatives could be measured.

Similarly, an NT health advisor suggests to “define the endemic ‘overcrowding’ we see in the NT as effectively being a form of homelessness” [4].

Most Australians are not aware that [in 2006] the United Nations declared that Australia has the worst Indigenous housing in the world.—Mick Mundine, CEO, Aboriginal Housing Company [13]

Why live so many people in one house?

Houses can overcrowd temporarily or permanently.

Temporary overcrowding happens because

  • Family visiting. Family come from their homes in remote communities into town and stay with their relatives. They come in for shopping or visiting family who are in town because they have to be on dialysis. 21% of families in remote or very remote communities had temporary visits lasting two weeks or more in the previous 12 months [18].
  • Sorry business. Mourning a death in the family can take several days, so families have to stay with other Aboriginal people. More than half of temporary visits was due to cultural reasons, only a quarter due to holidays [18].

Permanent overcrowding can be due to

  • Uninhabitable houses. According to the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 40% of Aboriginal people in non-remote (32%) and remote areas (58%) reported that their homes were structurally unsound (e.g. rising damp or major cracks). 7% needed to be completely replaced [18].
  • Choice of lifestyle. Some families will choose to live in large, multi-generational households, despite other houses being available in the community. These families will not necessarily consider their house to be crowded, but could suffer the same health effects (see below).
  • Low income class. Many Aboriginal homeless people are disabled, in poor physical or mental health, or have substance abuse issues. [19]

My whole family is all squeezing in the one house. Ten to 15 family members in the one house. No one has privacy… We all share one bathroom, one toilet, one everything.—Julie Djarpirr, Yolngu woman, Yirrkala, NT [20]

Effects of overcrowding

Overcrowding leads to stress, fighting, drinking and, in some cases, suicides [19]. Overcrowding can make one “deaf and blind” [4] and if people have to live in such conditions for a long time it can lead to “enormous mental health problems” [19].

The lack of safe and adequate housing in remote communities is a key driver for people to move to urban centres, live on the street or in bush camps. [19]

Hygiene is hard to maintain in such conditions and made even worse when people cannot afford to restock soap in time, or when pipes, showers and taps become blocked through calcification from the bore water many remote communities depend on. [21]

Diseases spread fast in overcrowded conditions. Overcrowding is a ‘direct cause’ of ear and eye disease, according to Chips Mackinolty, a health advisor for the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT [4].

Overcrowding helps spread antibiotic-resistant infections such as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) which is a common cause of skin infections and may also cause more severe bone, joint and bloodstream infections [5].

Meningococcal disease, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and respiratory infections are other diseases that spread easily when too many people live too close to each other.

Public housing… [is] at the root of all our social problems: overcrowding, domestic violence, child abuse, a range of health problems associated with a lack of adequate, well-maintained housing.—Robyn Lambley, chairwoman, Public Accounts Committee, Katherine [19]

Watch an ABC news clip about the government’s 2010 Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP):

Not good for learning

Children don’t have an environment where they can learn for school, and many develop behavioural problems which negatively impact their life.

“One of the biggest issues hindering school attendance is overcrowding on the island,” explains Bryan Hughes, Principal, Shepherdson College, Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, Northern Territory [6].

“An average of 15 people live in each house, and one house has 54 occupants. The houses have only three or four bedrooms, so families sleep in shifts and older students and adults walk the streets at night. At 2am, there can be 40 to 50 or even 100 people walking around the community, and we’re expecting these kids to be at school in the morning.”

Homework: Not houses, but families are overcrowded

Read the following statement and compare it to the housing situation of Aboriginal families:

“We are being judged as failing to live in a nuclear family concept when we have an innate culture of communalism. We live the vibrant value of togetherness as a living breathing example whereby our children have many generations to live and share with on a daily basis. It is not our houses that are overcrowded, it is our families!” [17]


  • What does the speaker want to say?
  • What does it mean that “families are overcrowded”?
  • Create a table comparing the characteristics of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families.

Measuring overcrowding: Not as you thought

Intuitively one would measure the level of overcrowding by dividing the number of people in a community by the number of its houses.

If, for example, a community has 20 houses and 120 people live in the community, its “crowding level” is 6 people per house.

But it is not that simple.

The National Indigenous Housing Guide (NIHG) is a key compliance document for the government’s National Indigenous Housing program. It stipulates that houses need to be beneficial to their residents’ health. The NIHG’s highest health priority is the ability to wash [16].

Statistical data shows that only 35% of houses have a functioning shower [16], which means only 7 houses can serve the community’s need to wash.

This means a functional crowding level of 17 people per house to have a shower.

Other examples include people’s need for cooling or heating with the crowding level depending on functional fans or air-condition units.

Thus, overcrowding can fluctuate over the course of a day, depending on the needs of the people in the community.

With the poor record of the government’s housing program, crowding levels are likely to be much higher than simple maths suggests.

The Health Habitat website shows how it is more feasible to repair and maintain existing houses than building new houses to reduce overcrowding levels.

“Not in our street” - Eviction

Some housing companies use overcrowding as a reason to evict tenants after complaints from neighbours, overlooking that Aboriginal people have cultural obligations to care and look after family and relatives. Camps and houses have always been meeting places, and evicting people when they live their cultural obligations is a racist attitude.

Aboriginal people feel that their family values not accepted. “We are judged on our poverty. We are judged on the ‘cleanliness’ of our houses, a hangover of the mission days when the white-gloved hand ruled. We are judged on what is in the cupboard or the fridge without recognising that our children go to nan’s, aunt’s, cousins, etc. We have community. We have an extended family within and without,” observes Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association [17].

We come from a caring and sharing culture and we don't turn people away who don't have somewhere to sleep.—Charlie Kickett, Nyoongar Elder [7]

After waiting for a long time to get a Territory Housing place I was kicked out after only 3 days. I was never told why. Maybe because we sat outside, that's our way, and the white neighbours didn't want us to be there. We weren't making any noise, just sitting outside painting.—Aboriginal resident [9]

“Not in our street”

A Dubbo Aboriginal family with 8 children wanted to escape their overcrowded home. But it was not meant to be.

The Aboriginal Housing Organisation (AHO) had planned to buy a 5-bedroom house in Beveridge Crescent, South Dubbo, to help the family. It was told the house, with a price tag of around $400,000,
was “outside of standards” for public housing and not to proceed.

A local newspaper reported Beveridge Crescent residents’ fears that Aboriginal public housing would lower the values of their surrounding properties.

“We have seen what happens to homes purchased and we are saying not in our street,” said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “We would like the value of our homes to remain as they are and rise again when times get better.

“We are all hard-working, honest people, many of us built our homes here and many more made the decision to purchase and stay in this great street.”

The home in question had five bedrooms, three bathrooms - one with a spa - a rumpus room, air-conditioning and a paved patio. The residents indicated they felt the purchase of such a home would be an abuse of taxpayers’ funds.

Dubbo MP Dawn Fardell undertook to speak to NSW Housing Minister David Borger about the issue. The day after the newspaper report, Mr Borger told AHO to look elsewhere or to look at building extensions onto existing properties [10].


  • Is it true that people of another race can lower the value of your home if they live next door?
  • What does “we have seen what happens to homes purchased” allude to? How could it be overcome?
  • “We are all hard-working, honest people”—What implied the resident with this statement?
  • Why did residents feel a purchase would have “abused” taxpayers’ funds?
  • Do you think what the Housing Minister did was righteous? Consult the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


View article sources (21)

[1] 'Decision a 'matter of principle'', Koori Mail 452 p.5
[2] 'Aboriginal housing', Insight program, SBS One, 27/10/2009 7.30pm
[3] 'Report blasts housing 'inaction'', Koori Mail 447 p.7
[4] 'Where the art is', Koori Mail 516 p.48
[5] 'Another serious danger revealed', Koori Mail 428 p.56
[6] 'Children of the Intervention', Submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concerned Australians, 6/2011 p.8
[7] 'Housing 'needs millions'', Koori Mail 441 p.9
[8] 'You try living there, says housing expert', Koori Mail 403 p.16
[9] 'Concerns of town camp residents about the Territory Housing takeover', Intervention Rollback Action Group, Alice Springs
[10] 'Bad taste as family denied Dubbo home', Koori Mail 446 p.13
[11] 'Palm Island housing deal signed', Koori Mail 412 p.8
[12] 'OID Report: Key findings', Koori Mail 455 p.6
[13] 'Brough's housing bid sparks debate', Koori Mail 395 p.7
[14] 'Housing Circumstances: Overcrowding', Australian Bureau of Statistics,, retrieved 1/10/2012
[15] 'NT houses the Nation's most overcrowded', National Indigenous Radio Service, 28/3/2013
[16] 'Solutions to overcrowding', Health Habitat,, retrieved 21/6/2014
[17] 'Still Stolen: The campaign to stop another generation of forced Aboriginal child removals', Ray Jackson, email 16/9/2014
[18] 'Review of the impact of housing and health-related infrastructure on Indigenous health', Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2008, retrieved 22/12/2014
[19] 'Self-harm risk in NT housing overcrowding', Nine News 11/4/2016
[20] 'This Is What Aboriginal People From Remote Australia Want This Election', BuzzFeed, 20/6/2016
[21] 'Indigenous girls in remote areas skip school because they lack pads and tampons', The Guardian 3/7/2017

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - Land - Overcrowded houses, retrieved 22 July 2017