Having set out a framework for a more effective and equitable national housing policy, it is time to deepen the discussion. In this week’s column, I will further analyse the existing housing policy so as to highlight those errors which we must avoid if we are to do better.
My proposed framework would quantify housing subsidy and allocate that in accordance with identified housing need, with the quality of the new homes also being monitored to ensure constant improvement.
To go further into the issues requires that we examine these aspects –
- National Planning – It will be very difficult to achieve improved levels of housing quality if we proceed to build large numbers of new homes without reference to a national land-use plan. 1984 was the last time our Parliament approved a national land-use plan. Over 25 years have elapsed and the position of the last government was that the national land use plan was being prepared for discussion in the next 2 years or so. We have very limited developable land in this country – only about 9 to 10% of the total – so it is critical to plan and co-ordinate our future for best results with our limited resources. Transportation, education, shopping, health-care, industry, housing and recreation are the main aspects which need to be fit onto those developable lands. This ongoing housing programme has already had grievious cases of the alienation of agricultural lands for housing. Alienation of agricultural lands is when we pave over farmland for non-agricultural development. That land is permanently lost in terms of our food supply, but we need to preserve our agricultural lands. That is vital in terms of maintaining our food security.
- Intensity of development – An associated aspect that we need to reconsider is whether we can spare the land to continue HDC developments of homes with gardens. The HDC must publish its figures on the numbers of new homes built; the amount of land consumed; the numbers of houses versus the numbers of multiple-family homes and of course, the numbers of these various types of homes which have actually been occupied. At this point the HDC has only built 15,394 new homes, compared to their annual target output of 8,000 new homes, which, if attained, would have been 60,000 new homes. The HDC has only built a quarter of the intended number of new homes, which means that we still have time to adjust and improve the programme.
- Pricing – The more I consider the dilemma in which this housing policy has been caught, the more it seems that the fundamentals were poorly-considered. Just consider the issue of the pricing of the units – How did the pricing model evolve? I have already, in part 2 of this series, critiqued the HDC’s cost-based model for its erroneous outputs in terms of assessing the quantities of housing subsidy being allocated. One can go further to ask how these price points emerged. Was any reference made to the incomes of the people on the waiting-list or were the HDC prices driven by the demands of the physical development agenda? It seems to me that the latter was what took place, if indeed any conscious process of setting prices ever did occur. If we are aiming for people-centred development, that entire misguided approach to pricing needs to be revised. We need to give serious consideration to building more modest multiple-family homes for rental.
- Quality – Another matter which has been in the news from both the last administration and now the new one, is the issue of the poor quality of some of the new homes. We have been given various ‘horror stories’ about poor construction and the need for further works and so on. But there is more to this story. The fact is that the norm in the construction industry is that a contractor only has a valid claim to be paid in the case of ‘works properly executed’, so how did the HDC end up paying for all these defective buildings? I am not seeking to exonerate the contractors from any wrongdoing, but the simple fact is that someone in HDC ought to have had the responsibility to inspect and approve the works before payment was authorized. Either the HDC has a process for doing that or not. If yes, what went wrong? Who signed-off on those poorly-built homes? If there is no such process, then the HDC system is one which exposes the Treasury and the neediest families in the land to real abuse. These are serious questions which need to be answered, and soon. If there are indeed civil servants and consultant advisers who have been approving defective work, they need to be dealt with. If that were so, it seems to me that such actions would amount to grave professional misconduct, at the very least. Such people should be banned from any State work for a period, as a minimum. The real horror story is the official silence on the fact that someone from the HDC had to approve these very same defective works. Lying by omission – see http://guardian.co.tt/commentary/letters/2010/06/03/don-t-blame-contractors-only-shoddy-hdc-work. That continuing dishonesty is the real horror story. To remind readers that this is no new issue, please see – http://guardian.co.tt/news/general/2010/04/26/capacity-firms-weak-non-existent.
I close this week by renewing my call for Minister Moonilal to take leadership on this burning national issue. A conference on revising Housing Policy should include participation from the leading civil society organizations such as the JCC, the National Land Tenants’ and Rate-payers’ Association, the Sou-Sou Land group, Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army.
Basic facts need to be compiled and distributed to seed the discussion. The framework and philosophy need to be clearly articulated, if we are to get it right this time around.
The continuing presence of over 10,000 empty homes is intolerable – it is solid proof of a seriously failed policy. Our silence has to be broken on this issue. We cannot continue this way.