Editorial | Broaden the NHT debate
Prime Minister Andrew Holness didn't specify whether it was before the end of the calendar or parliamentary year that he intends to open debate in the House on the future of the National Housing Trust (NHT). Either way, the move is welcome - but with provisos. First, this discussion ought not to be confined only to politicians. And just as important, the public has to have the basis of the debate.
The NHT is an agency owned by Jamaican taxpayers, established by law "to add to and improve the existing supply of housing in Jamaica ... by promoting housing projects to such extent as may from time to time be approved by the minister". Essentially, the NHT is funded by payroll tax of three per cent of an employer's wage bill. Workers pay a separate two per cent, but that is refundable after seven years. More benignly expressed, the employee's payment is forced savings at a low interest rate.
But the NHT has not been without value to contributors. In over 40 years of existence, the Trust, which has assets of more than J$250 billion and spends above J$20 billion on housing, has written around 200,000 mortgages and helped to finance several housing- and shelter-related developments. Its borrowers pay substantially below market rates. Government has even tapped the NHT for cash to fund projects in education and other schemes considered socially worthwhile. The NHT has, over the past five years, also been called on for nearly $60 billion to help stabilise the fiscal accounts.
These matters and others, including the fact that many of its poor contributors still don't qualify for its mortgages, have raised questions about what it should be, and how it should operate in a country where a third of the population is estimated to live in informal, or squatter, communities.
Indeed, not long after his Jamaica Labour Party came to office in 2016, Prime Minister Holness commissioned a review of the Trust. Although delivered nearly a year ago, that report hasn't been made public. Mr Holness disclosed that it recommended a merger between the NHT and another government entity, the Housing Agency of Jamaica, as well as tabled proposals for strengthening the NHT's governance.
What the public doesn't yet know is the task force's vision for the Trust, and how that may differ, or align with, Mr Holness', or if the prime minister has changed views since his speech 18 months ago on how he perceived the NHT.
"The NHT is not a housing agency," the prime minister said. "The NHT is a financial institution, and we have to treat the NHT like a financial institution," but bearing in mind "the provision of affordable housing solutions for Jamaicans". Meanwhile, Peter Phillips, the opposition leader, has declared as a policy of his party the use of up to J$10 billion annually in NHT unclaimed refunds to tackle the problem of urban blight and to formalise squatter settlements.
These have added relevance in the context of projects like the controversial one backed by a Chinese developer for the construction of a new Parliament at National Heroes Park, the building of ministries around it, and the redevelopment of several central Kingston communities suffering from urban blight. Many people believe that the project will lead to the displacement of long-standing central Kingston residents.
This newspaper has advocated a redevelopment model that involves the NHT helping residents to finance the upgrading of their homes and includes the utilisation of sweat equity of residents.
The broader point is that a discussion about the future of the NHT shouldn't be the province of only the Government, the Opposition, policymakers, or the management and technocrats of the agencies involved. It's a matter for all Jamaicans. That is why the task force's report should be widely circulated now and be subject to a parliamentary committee hearing before a full debate by the House.