As you drive over the long sprawling bridge that spans the swelling Murray River, and cross from New South Wales into the Victorian town of Mildura, a sign on the side of the highway greets you.
"Mildura, the most livable, people-friendly community in Australia," it says.
The sign is particularly jarring when you've just come back from interviewing an Aboriginal man living at his mother's house 20 kilometers out of town, who says nobody in Mildura will rent to Aboriginal people.
"They're not giving it to Blackfellas," says Charles Johnson, as he sits sipping a cup of instant coffee at a wobbly dining table outside his mum's house on what used to be the Aboriginal mission at Coomealla. "That's just how it is out here."
Racial discrimination rife in the Mildura rental market
The dozen or so houses at the old mission site line a dirt road that peels off from the main highway. As you drive in, stray dogs emerge from the shrubbery, sniffing around to see if you will feed them.
Charles is a Barkandji man, his people are traditional owners of the area, but he grew up in Murray Bridge, South Australia before moving to Adelaide. He had never had trouble with rentals until he came to Mildura at the start of last year.
"I called a bunch of real estate agents, cabins, caravan parks, motels, all that, it's all the same story. They won't give to Aboriginals," he says.
They don't really give you a chance. I think they see other people do bad stuff and they think that everyone is like thatMildura resident Charles Johnson
"It's difficult, they don't really give you a chance. I think they see other people do bad stuff and they think that everyone is like that."
Charles, who has a permanent disability and receives the government's Disability Support Pension, says his steady income is enough to cover the cost of many of the rentals he has inspected. He says the reason he is knocked back all the time is discrimination based on race.
Agents still send emails of the listings, says Charles. But he's been beaten down by the constant rejections. He has the money, he can pay the rent, but he says he's got no chance of getting a house.
"I've given up hope, big time."
I said to my worker 'am I going to be homeless for my birthday? Am I going to be homeless for Christmas?'
One local homeless support organisation managed to put him up at a motel out of town for an extended period, another offered him a tent if he wanted to camp down by the river.
"November is my birthday, I turn 30, and I said to my worker 'am I going to be homeless for my birthday? Am I going to be homeless for Christmas?'"
Mildura is a part of Victoria's food bowl region, known for its production of oranges and wine.
Local experts agree there's a problem
Mildura is known as part of Victoria's food bowl region. It's famed for its oranges and wine, and the historic steam-powered paddle boats that traverse the Murray River. But there are tensions beneath the surface. For people like Charles, experiences of discrimination are not uncommon.
Gazi Mustakim is the coordinator for the Aboriginal Private Rental Assistance Program for the Murray Valley Aboriginal Cooperative.
He is a former real estate agent himself, but it's now his job to help First Nations people get into private rental accommodation in various locations around the region. It's not an easy job.
There is a lot of homelessness, a lot of people sleeping in cars and then a lot of people who don't even have the warmth of a carDarlene Thomas, CEO, Mallee District Aboriginal Services
"There is huge racial discrimination in the Mallee area. Some real estate agents give a vibe to some clients that they will not be looked at, that their applications will not be looked at," he says.
Darlene Thomas, CEO of Mallee District Aboriginal Services, says there is a lot of racism in Mildura when it comes to housing, and that they struggle to even get crisis accommodation providers like motels and caravan parks to accept their First Nations clients.
"There is a lot of homelessness, a lot of people sleeping in cars and then a lot of people who don't even have the warmth of a car," she says. "They camp by the river, which can be very cold in winter."
Study reveals complexity of the issue
Back in October 2022, researchers at Swinburne University published a landmark study that revealed the depth and complexity of discrimination faced by Aboriginal people trying to enter the private rental market.
It's a problem that's growing worse as renters continue to outstrip the supply of rental units and social housing.
The number of Aboriginal Victorians in private rentals increased from 28% of the Aboriginal population in 2006, to 35% in 2016, according to Census data analysed in the report. In the same time period, the number of Aboriginal Victorians in social housing plummeted from 30% to 19%.
Lead researcher Wendy Stone from Swinburne's Centre for Urban Transitions says the Victorian study, which was conducted with the backing of the state government and support from Aboriginal peak organisations, was important due to the previous lack of local research into the topic of housing racial discrimination.
Aboriginal organisations reported directly observing applicants being treated differently and not being assessed in the same way as non-Aboriginal applicants
The research involved 'yarning' circles with Aboriginal people who had experienced barriers to entering the private rental market themselves, as well as workers from organisations that supported them and interviews with real estate agents and former agents.
She says Aboriginal organisations reported directly observing applicants being treated differently and not being assessed in the same way as non-Aboriginal applicants.
"There was overt and intersectional discrimination, particularly at that point of trying to access housing," Stone says.
While the report concludes racial discrimination is undoubtedly occurring in the rental market, it also notes that proving 'unlawful' discrimination remains a huge hurdle and that strengthening anti-discrimination legislation may not fix the issue.
CHOICE reporter Jarni Blakkarly visits Mildura to talk to First Nations people who are finding it impossible to secure rental accommodation.
Rental crisis making matters worse
The impact of discrimination isn't just felt when Aboriginal people are looking for housing, but also throughout their entire housing journey. According to the report, Aboriginal people were less likely to communicate housing issues to landlords or agents for fear of eviction.
And the issue is hardly limited to the state of Victoria.
National rental property vacancy rates fell to a new record low of 1.1% in September, according to numbers from property data firm PropTrack.
With so many parts of the country in a rental crisis, the problems facing First Nations people trying to get into the market are likely being exacerbated
With so many parts of the country in a rental crisis, the problems facing First Nations people trying to get into the market are likely being exacerbated.
Alice Clark, executive director of Shelter South Australia, says they conducted research into discrimination in 2019, but anecdotally she is hearing the situation has gotten much worse now.
"All renters are struggling at the moment and if you overlay that with this racial discrimination component, it must be the worst of all time," she says.
No easy solutions
Both Clark and the Swinburne University research paper point to cultural awareness education for real estate agents and getting more First Nations people into the real estate industry as potential solutions to the problem of racial discrimination in the sector.
But Stone notes this is no easy feat. It will likely take years to change cultural attitudes.
Back in Mildura, Thomas says that there is an urgent need for more social and public housing to be made available in towns like hers.
She also advocates for the return of the Aboriginal hostel model, largely phased out in Victoria, which provided short-term accommodation run by Aboriginal organisations to help get homeless people back on their feet.
Richard Mitchell has given up hope of finding a rental property after constant rejections.
'They didn't have somebody else, they just didn't want to give it to me'
In a garage at his girlfriend's parents' house in the suburbs of Mildura, Richard Mitchell is racking up pool balls in a triangle. Richard, who has an intellectual disability, says knocking the balls around helps keep him focused on the conversation.
For over a year and a half he has been looking for a private rental in town, somewhere he can call his own. Between his Disability Support Pension and his National Disability Insurance Scheme payments, he is able to afford many of the rentals he has applied to, but he's had no luck.
To get your hopes up for a rental again and again, just to be turned down, it really hurtsMildura resident Richard Mitchell
"I can't keep track of how many houses I looked for. I gave up. Every day I was looking for rentals, every day, every week. Nothing happened," says Richard.
"It feels like shit, to get your hopes up for a rental again and again, just to be turned down, it really hurts. There's no point [in] me getting my hopes up and knowing that the result is going to be the same as all the others."
One property he applied for denied his application and then a few weeks later the property was re-listed for $20 less per week. "They didn't have someone else, they just didn't want to give it to me."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.