Healthabitat: an odd partnership

The three directors of Healthabitat (HH) met first in 1985 in the Anangu Pitjatjantjara Lands, north west South Australia.
They were ‘thrown’ together by Yami Lester, at the time he was the Director of the Aboriginal controlled health service - Nganampa Health Council, to work on a project that would 'stop people getting sick'.
Yami Lester saw that despite the Aboriginal (Anangu) control of the health service in the region and the improved treatment of illness, health had not improved. He proposed that both medical services and a healthy living environment were both required to achieve health gain.

Healthabitat commenced as a not-for-profit partnership, not as a consultancy group, with each partner contributing their professional skills to various projects as needed. Any income not used on the projects was used to defray travel and running costs.

In 1998 Healthabitat became a private Australian company with similar aims and the original partners became directors.

Healthabitat is a private Australian company founded by three Directors:
The late Paul Pholeros AM (Architect), Managing Director (1998-2016)
Dr. Paul Torzillo AM (Thoracic Physician), Medical Director and
Stephan Rainow (Public and Environmental Health Officer), Community Director.

The Directors made a not-for-profit charter which allows the private company to trade as a Pty Ltd company, receive fees and government contracts and act as a social business. This structure also allows Healthabitat to use any profits to develop the Housing for Health methodology and tools, provide seed funds for national research projects and support overseas projects. (read more about what is a social business  OR  hear the Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus talk about social business.)

Directors receive cost reimbursement. All Healthabitat staff are paid and many staff informally donate additional time and resources to achieve better project results.

Healthabitat Pty Ltd,
Australian Business Number (ABN) 96 087 592 489.
PO Box 636 Mona Vale NSW 1660
+ 61 2 99731316 ph
+ 61 2 99731316 fx

Since 1985..... stopping people getting sick..... is still the goal

Upk Report 1987 Cover

The three directors, of what years later was to become HH, were invited by Yami Lester and Punch Thompson to work with a team of local anangu (Aboriginal people) to ‘stop people getting sick’ or in the local language ‘Uwankara Palyanku Kanyintjaku’. For reasons of brevity this became known as the UPK report.

Between 1987 and 1990 UPK became regarded nationally as a yardstick for environmental intervention in Indigenous communities. For example, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made specific reference to the importance of the UPK model and recommended that it be widely implemented (Recommendation 76).

The reasons for UPK’s success were:

  • the initiative and motivation were provided by local Indigenous people
  • immediate action - there was ‘no survey without service’, the Dr Fred Hollows principle that insisted on immediate improvements to the living environment.
  • a strong health priority, known as the nine Healthy Living Practices, focussed limited resources onto important health targets
  • strong liaison, using a predominately local team, ensured all community members knew about the project's goals and methods.

Having worked together since 1985, the three partners of what would become Healthabitat, became uncomfortable with the growing uninformed support by government agencies and departments of UPK. By 1990 the UPK work was 4 years old and the methods, focus and approach had developed. UPK, as practiced on the ground, had changed.

Improving of Indigenous housing was possible: Housing for Health, Pipalyatjara, 1991

Housing For Health CoverThe Healthabitat team proposed a research project (using mainstream housing research money) that involved working for one year in one of the smaller Pitjatjantjara communities (at the time this community consisted of 12 houses used by Aboriginal families), that was part of the original UPK review work, to assess;

  • to what extent had UPK had an impact,
  • was it possible to achieve ideal house function rates in the whole community for one year and at what $ cost,
  • what level of community involvement in all parts of the process would be possible,
  • could standard tests be developed and used by local indigenous people to measure the function of housing in a more detailed and repeatable way than during the UPK review,
  • could health gain be shown if house function levels were maintained over the full year?

With the main proportion of the $40,000 grant being used for maintenance works (not research) to keep houses functioning and with strong local involvement (both $’s and human resources) the project managed to maintain the 12 houses throughout the year.

The results were overwhelmingly positive and were recorded and published in great detail in Housing for Health: Towards a better living environment for Aboriginal Australia by Healthabitat in 1994.

The Housing for Health book was launched in Parliament House. by the then Federal Health Minister Carmen Lawrence and Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commissioner, Michael Dodson. The work then received the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Presidents Award. It has since sold over 5,000 copies, many overseas, and still provides a concise statement of Healthabitat’s aims and methods of how to improve health by improving the immediate living environment.

It was the need to publish Housing for Health that brought about the name 'Healthabitat' and the formal partnership.

The publication of the Housing for Health book confirmed the future direction of Healthabitat and a philosophy that no profit should be made from people living in poverty.