Putting people in houses
Right up there with "We want justice!" is the cry of the people, "We want houses!"
Much of the public anger directed against the National Housing Trust (NHT) over the cloudy purchase of the Outameni property, or parts thereof, has been sparked by the feeling that money that could have been used for housing had been diverted to a non-housing activity. Never mind that simple calculation shows that only twenty J$9-million houses could be built from the J$180 million spent on Outameni, hardly making a dent in the estimated annual demand for around 20,000 units. And never mind that, in its best years, the NHT has never delivered more than 5,000 units in a year. This year, the Trust is projecting bringing 3,000 units to market, many of them completions from earlier starts.
True to form for public issues in Jamaica, Outameni is fading away, but the University of Technology has decided not to let go just yet. Or is it to deliver las' lick? Last Thursday, I was privileged to moderate a panel discussion on 'The Evolving NHT and the Way Forward'. This Thursday, the university will also be showcasing its research and innovation work.
The NHT was invited to be a critical player in the think tank forum, Chairman Easton Douglas initially accepting an invitation to respond and to field questions. On the eve, Chairman Douglas wrote the university to say, "Much of the information being sought at your forum is now the subject of deliberations here at the Trust. It would, therefore, be premature to participate in a public discussion on those matters at this time. We would, however, be delighted to partner with you in planning a similar event at some later date ... ."
Now this is the kind of thing which will only deepen distrust in the Trust!
Panellist Michael Steele, speaking from his position as head of school of UTech's Joan Duncan School of Entrepreneurship Ethics & Leadership, made a great deal of the ethical conduct of the NHT board and the processes of corporate governance and accountability in the public sector, generally.
Attorney Alfred McPherson, dean of the Faculty of Law, gave out the startling quantitative data bit that 70 per cent of parcels of land in the country are without title, confirming what we have long known without a number. The rigorous Torrens system for land registration borrowed from Australia, he said, while good, is complex and expensive. As part of the solution to the housing crisis, McPherson is proposing that the process of title acquisition be simplified and that the NHT itself underwrite costs to borrowers as part of a mortgage deal. They can then build on their own titled land, with the house and land as collateral.
I tried to explore the critical issue of the input costs that determine the final cost of a house. Some of these are fees to the State, which McPherson describes as a "cash cow" for the Consolidated Fund. Other costs derive from government stipulations for a whole slew of approvals that keep the professional service providers in the housing industry busy and fat. Building material and construction techniques also came up, along with the cultural sentiment for low-density housing with land space for yard.
The NHT has taken a lot of beating over Outameni, with hardly any notice of the cold, hard fact that, since its inception in 1976 under the Michael Manley 'Better Mus' Come' Government, it has never been able to successfully delivered on its mandate for providing housing solutions for its contributors anywhere near satisfying demand.
And the Trust, on its own, can't, no matter how much money it accumulates and how many Outameni-type actions it avoids, or how many times its board is changed under public pressure.
We have seen that land is a fundamental factor that the NHT does not control. A member of the audience raised the crucial question of the dominant influence of some players in the housing sector. A whole set of players in housing development and professional services for housing are living well off the status quo that they have no interest in being disturbed. There are several public-agency players in housing other than the NHT. And out of sheer playing politics, the NHT is not even under the Ministry of Housing but under the Office of the Prime Minister.
Government, so far, has been unwilling to use its muscle and money to radically reset the housing game by deep intervention at a number of critical points: land availability and security, reduction of housing costs by altering fee regimes, and bringing low costs units to market in large numbers, by subsidy, if necessary, driving down the general costs of housing.
Dr Carol Archer, dean of the Faculty of the Built Environment, spoke of the extensive policy and planning work in which the university has participated, including formulation of a National Housing Policy. The data available and the planning done she declared good. So why can't the State lead the effective delivery of houses to those who need them, but can't now afford them even when they are wage earners contributing to a national housing trust?
Dr Archer offered a 14-point set of solutions to the housing dilemma that were adopted from the National Housing Policy on which she and UTech worked and which I run here for public education:
1. Promote a wide range of housing choices in the areas of design, material used and location for all income levels.
2. Develop a framework to promote the sustainable use of local resources in the housing sector.
3. Foster partnerships with the private sector and other providers to increase the supply of additional housing solutions to meet projected demand.
4. Rationalise the roles of the public-sector agencies directly involved in the provision of housing (JMB, NHT, UDC & HAJ) to facilitate a more efficient and effective utilisation of resources.
5. Identify strategies to formalise the informal sector in the production of housing.
6. Identify mechanisms to make land more accessible to all income groups, for housing development.
7. Provide a framework to support the delivery of social housing, particularly for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
8. Streamline the role of the housing finance sector to increase accessibility and reduce bureaucracy.
9. Encourage the optimal use of existing and proposed infrastructure in the provision of housing to reduce urban sprawl and facilitate urban renewal.
10. Promote integrated settlement development in keeping with the National Settlement Strategy.
11. Establish mechanisms to reduce the impacts of natural disasters and other emergencies on human settlements, inter alia, through appropriate planning mechanisms.
12. Promote the upgrading of informal settlements and urban slums as an expedient measure and pragmatic solution to the urban shelter deficit.
13. Provide a mechanism to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the policy.
14. Foster partnerships with civic organisations, non-profit and for-profit organisations to ensure the improvement and continued viability of existing neighbourhoods through preservation of the existing housing stock.
We have talked up a big hurricane over Outameni, much of it uninformed. We have talked up a little storm at the UTech Forum on 'The Evolving NHT and the Way Forward'. I have recommended that the UTech recommendations be dispatched to the absent NHT. But who is going to run with the package of solutions bigger than the cash-rich NHT?