Ronald Thwaites | Housing reform for poor can happen
Let us begin a serious debate on what Desmond McKenzie calls "praass-perty". Delroy Chuck calls it "abundance". Of what, and for whom?
For Andrew Holness and Audley Shaw, concluding the Budget Debate last week, prosperity seems to consist of a state of mind, the political incarnation of Dale Carnegie's Power of Positive Thinking made manifest in the policies of the present.
Don't ask for detail or clarity, they assert: On February 25, the people chose "prosperity over poverty". Believe me, if quantum of words or forcefulness of tone could do it, salvation would have come and we would all be prosperous already after last week's House speeches.
Because the governing class can't, or won't, it is important to encourage a wider discourse about the life we want to craft as a people, to persuade many to come or come back; to make some of those in the endless lines in front of the US Embassy every day, want to stay, want to try.
The prime minister's ideas to fuel growth, provide jobs and improve living standards through land titling, vesting ownership and stimulating housing construction, especially among inner-city communities, has huge potential. That we have heard the same ideas for at least two generations must not be allowed to dim the prospects this time round.
IT CAN WORK
Recently, Dr Horace Chang, one of the more practical and less hyperbolic ministers, commented on the dilapidated state of eest Kingston. His comments, and those of The Gleaner editorial that followed, are applicable to all other inner-city communities. The infuriating irony is that we have the money and the technical skills to transform them into 'winner cities', but fail to do so.
Consider the assets available. Most lands in the metropolitan areas already have registered titles. There is ample law and established agencies to register the remainder and to sort out complexities of ownership leading to the vesting, at reasonable cost (no freeness!). In developers, purchasers and preferably occupants. Just speed up the existing regulations relating to adverse possession and intestacy.
A registered title means reduction, if not elimination, of squatting and creates an asset that can be pledged to fund redevelopment. Squatters and inner-city tenants will contribute to the National Housing Trust if they see a real prospect of gaining access to lands or houses. Right now, I cannot find a reason to encourage people living in central Kingston to join the Trust because there is no hope of them ever getting a benefit to improve their yard. This is true even if the property is in an area ripe for regentrification, where capital gain is certain in the short term.
Additionally, the inner cities already have considerable, if run-down, infrastructure. There are roads, electricity and water facilities and, very often, some kind of sewerage scheme. We are allowing the huge investments of the past, still capable of delivering dividends, to deteriorate beyond redemption. When greenfield schemes, like the 10,000 houses announced ritually every year, are ever built, the price ends up much higher than it would be to renew inner-city areas because new infrastructure costs have to be factored.
Government Square, the logical and aesthetically appropriate dream of Norman Manley which has, to his credit, now been taken on by Andrew Holness, can happen if basic post-and-panel, three-floor structures are built and sold reasonably to several of those 'kotching' in subhuman and grossly ugly 'whappen-bappems' on Heroes Circle.
And there need be no subsidies. Just a 30- or 40-year intergenerational mortgage at the kind of rates that have been announced. More than that, what a $2-million loan can do with sweat equity in a 'big yard' would surprise any big contractor: provide space and decency and safety for real family life, and a basis for durable community revival.
My encouragement to Minister Chang is to stimulate a real partnership between those who possess the required skills and are, at the same time, really passionate about housing our people; and give us targets and time frames and access to relatively modest loan finance sought from the private sector and supported by secondary mortgage arrangements with the National Housing Trust.
After that, watch Kingston gully banks and other major towns change up. My fear is that the NHT money is going to be sequestered to help finance that irresponsibly large, politically inspired fiscal gap ahead of u,s which no taxation can cover.
Now, how about a real partnership towards growth and a better life for so many!
- Ronald Thwaites is an attorney-at-law, member of parliament for Central Kingston, and opposition spokesman on education.