“…Whereas the People of Trinidad and Tobago—…(b) respect the principles of social justice and therefore believe that the operation of the economic system should result in the material resources of the community being so distributed as to subserve the common good…”
—From the preamble of our Republic’s current Constitution (1976)
In this, my Season of Reflection, I return to my constant concern with our national housing polices and the outcomes of the State’s housing program for our neediest citizens. The quality of discourse and understanding is in my view rooted in the quality of the questions one poses. How we define the problem allows us to improve our chances of seeing and solving.
The inescapable challenge for our national housing program is to provide sufficient affordable housing options of a decent quality. The HDC’s waiting-list is now in excess of 176,000 individual applicants, which excludes co-applicants or dependents. Over 90% of those applicants cannot afford a mortgage or to ever buy their own homes. They are just too poor to do so.
So this is the big question which our Housing program must answer.
How do we house those who can least afford good-quality housing?
Current housing program discussions are now charged with fresh approaches – Public Private Partnerships (PPP or P3); Housing Bonds; Housing Construction Incentive Program (HCIP) and so on. Those new approaches are being used to improve the levels of home ownership. None of those new approaches touch on the biggest problem. In that regard, they might be viewed as interesting new approaches to public housing which do nothing to solve the largest public housing issue. Almost tautological.
There are those who hold that the State has no business in housing and that rental housing has not been a success for the State. Those are widely-held beliefs, but they are not borne out by the actual facts.
The primary information on this important sector of our society is closely-held and seldom disclosed in any formal manner.
The period before the existing housing policy was created was during the UNC government of 1995-2001. At that time, the approach placed a focus on the creation of affordable, serviced house-lots to facilitate home-ownership at the pace of those with modest means. That period yielded a modest result, since only about 2,200 serviced lots were sold via the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), with 376 new homes built. A total of 2,576 new housing opportunities created in say, 5 years.
In the current phase – i.e. within the 2002 Housing Policy – the State’s housing program is now implemented by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) – before October 2005 those functions were done by the National Housing Authority (NHA). In the 17 years since the PNM return to power, there have never been any annual reports issued by either NHA or HDC. No accounts either.
It is important to note that the UNC teamed up with other political elements to form the Peoples Partnership from 2010 to 2015 and did not improve on those aspects at all. Indeed, the noteworthy thing is that the PP seemed to adopt the PNM Housing Policy without a blink. It always makes me smile when one of the UNC spokesmen claims boldly that ‘PP housing policy this or that’. The PP accepted and adopted the PNM’s approach, which is set out in our national Housing Policy – i.e. a strong focus on building comprehensive developments of new homes for sale.
The original headline target of the 2002 housing policy was 100,000 new homes to be built in ten years. These are the actual results of that program, according to HDC sources:
|Year||Total new HDC homes completed|
Both our political parties are therefore now committed to promoting home-ownership within the State’s housing program. While consensus is often regarded as a good thing, it must be based on reality. The reality is that the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our country is such that a significant number of our citizens are poor. Those citizens ought to be able to rely on our common-wealth to help them do better. The national Housing Policy speaks directly to building affordable housing for low and middle income applicants. The order is intentional, as is the statement that arrangements will be made to provide adequate rented homes.
So is the State abdicating its responsibility to allocate our resources for the common benefit? That is a fundamental part of our Constitutional rights, as per my opening citation. I am aware that colleagues at HDC are grappling hard with this affordability issue to deal with the issues shown by the actual figures and of course I am in support of those efforts.
Are we witness to a toxic political consensus to exclude our poorest citizens from proper access to State resources. If this is progress, how long can it last?
Our Housing Market
Our housing market is divided into 5 layers, moving from the neediest to the wealthiest –
- Homeless – People who have nowhere to live or rely on charity for shelter.
- Permanent Renters – People who can never afford to buy.
- Transitional Renters – People who are renting now, but will end up as home-owners.
- Home Owners – People who own their homes.
- Multiple Home-owners – People who are wealthy enough to own more than one home – these people are also the ones who rent property to the others.
The tenures of the new homes distributed by HDC were –
- Rental – permanently rented homes;
- Rent to Own – Homes rented to persons who intend to purchase, but are unable to do so due to short-term financial encumbrances. Two-thirds of the rents paid are applied to a deposit when the purchase is realised;
- Licence to Own – Homes rented to persons who are qualified to purchase, but are presumably unable to do so due to challenges on the HDC side of the transaction. It is likely that those challenges are the lack of good title as required by lenders. 90% of the rent paid is applied to the purchase price;
- Outright Purchase – Homes which are sold to persons on the waiting list.
The numbers of homes distributed in those tenures were:
|TENURE||Rental||Rent to Own||Licence to Own||Outright Purchase||TOTALS|
The small numbers of actual sales disclose a substantial issue which will likely have a bearing on the proposed Housing Bonds, but that is for another article.