Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Martin Henry | House and land: between a rock and a hard place

Published:Sunday | April 2, 2017 | 4:00 AM
Martin Henry

When it comes to promises of house and land, Jamaican voters are going to have a hard time choosing between the Solid as a Rock Man and the Prosperity Man. Both have thrown down elaborate promises of finally fixing the historical injustices that have denied masses of Jamaicans access to land and owning a home.

'Phillips wants end to squatting, better housing solutions for Jamaicans', 'PM wants NHT to address historical land, housing issues', the headlines read.

Appointed to the presidency of the People's National Party by acclamation without contest, Dr Peter Phillips devoted a big chunk of his inaugural presidential address last Sunday to the problem of access to land and housing. "Today, the People's National Party that I lead is recommitting to confronting directly the root cause of poverty and inequality in Jamaica. To do this will require a direct assault on squatting. And once and for all, we will have to ensure that we get land into the hands of the landless. Government cyaan have land locked up when our people cyaan find place to build a home ... . The next PNP Government is determined to undertake the most ambitious land-titling project ever ... . Hand in hand with land titling goes housing, and it is our mission to ensure that all Jamaicans get the opportunity to live in affordable, decent housing."

On his part, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, while breaking ground for a mere 37 serviced lots, said that his Government intends to address traditional land and housing issues dating back to Emancipation. "Our history is such that at the abolition of slavery, the enslaved were not compensated ... . So what you had ... were people divorced from all the assets and endowments that would create a true country, a true community, a true society. It has been a struggle since then for our people to acquire the assets to build community, to build a society."

What a way Holness sound like Michael Manley! And Dr Phillips sound like Edward Seaga! Both of whom tried to fix the land and house problem from the inequities of history.

 

Institutional review

 

Holness is promising 4,000 'new housing solutions' from the National Housing Trust this year, which is now under the heavy manners of institutional review. The same sort of average number that the Trust has been able to provide annually for 40 years! The demand is like 20,000. Four thousand hardly a revolution. And that has been the problem with the fixes for the land and house hunger, running since Emancipation.

The plantocracy plotted and schemed to keep the ex-slaves out of land ownership so as to have a pool of landless cheap labour for the plantations. A pool that exists until today.

Trelawny landholders in a meeting in 1838, the year of 'Full Free', concluded that "the people will never be brought to a state of continuous labour while they are allowed to possess the large tracts of land now cultivated by them for provisions, which renders them perfectly independent of their employers".

Landlessness and wage slavery were a major cause of the Morant Bay Uprising.

I was surprised to learn when I researched the history of community development in St Ann for Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, along with the wages issue in urban centres and on the sugar estates that fuelled the 1938 Labour Uprising, there were 'land hunger' marches and protests in rural places like Walkerswood.

When Andrew Holness' political mentor, Edward Seaga, as minister of development and welfare, presented the Five-Year Independence Plan for 1963 to 1968 in the House of Representatives on July 24, 1963, he grounded the plan on that "turning point in history" in 1865 when the Government "turned its back on the people" rather than accepting that "it was part of its responsibilities to assume responsibility for some of the welfare of the people".

The plan presented a 'Land Reform Programme' and addressed housing. The projection then, in 1963, was for 165,000 units over the next decade, mostly in the low-income sector. That is, 16,500 units per annum. In the same ball park as demand is today, 54 years later. Against this demand, or need, the Government proposed to build 3,000 low-income houses per annum!

There would be "need for mortgage money in order to finance the development in housing production", the minister told Parliament.

The Michael Manley administration of the 1970s solved the problem of financing with the creation of the National Housing Trust in 1976.

Manley was perfectly clear about the operations of the Trust. In his Budget Speech that year on May 12, that famous 'No Turning Back' speech, he told the House, "The key to the Housing Trust money is that it is a savings scheme that permits for the first time an experiment that has already been tried in sugar. That is, where the payments for a house have no down payment and are fixed at a percentage of income so that you are not forced to strain as a poor person to pay ordinary mortgage charges, but it is worked out through time, that 20 per cent of your income goes to the payment, and at the end of the period, 20 years or whatever it is, that then becomes your house. It is a wage-related payment system that is releasing the poor ... to a new capacity to get into houses."

 

Mortgage arrangements

 

Manley, wrong on many things, but not this one, saw very clearly that if the money was "put into the mortgage bank" with standard mortgage arrangements, as the NHT quickly descended into, the first casualty would be that "it wipes out immediately all chances for the poor to have an income-related form of paying for their houses ... ."

Manley has been betrayed!

The fix for the land access and housing problem, whether by Apostle Andrew, now heading the Government or Apostle Peter, aspiring to do so, is not rocket science and requires no Big Committee running the risk of paralysis by analysis. What is required is Big Determination.

A few necessary, ground-level things must be done for land:

- Every parcel of land with uncontested occupancy (to be checked) must be titled to the undisturbed occupier/owner on a fast track to become capital and collateral.

- State lands must be released into the real estate market at affordable sizes and prices on a scale large enough to satisfy demand, change the dynamics of the artificial and controlled market, and realign prices to reality.

- The State must repossess abandoned lands, particularly in urban centres, and offer them for development.

The NHT must be forced to revert to its founding Manley Principle, functioning primarily as a financing institution in the manner Manley made crystal clear, fundamentally. With new-titled lands and lots of lots from former government lands, build-on-own-land will throw up multiple thousands of houses. Private developers, most of them small and non-traditional, must be competitively given NHT financing to build houses. Money going to those who can get units to market at the lowest prices in preset mortgage bands and who can do so within time frames set. Income penalties for budget and time overshoots and for building faults, with warranties for correction. A quality assurance inspectorate.

And who are these non-traditional 'developers'? Many small teams of professionals with competence in building and finance, little start-up companies across the country that may be able to put down only 20 or 30 units per year either as small schemes, part of larger schemes, or providing building services as NHT-approved contractors for BOL mortgagees. Entrepreneurship, job creation, housing, communities.

The price of housing must be driven down by a combination of downward adjustments in the cost of land, fees, and taxes, and by using cheaper methods and materials in construction. Government holds the power and the resources to reset the housing market.

Andrew and Peter, two leaders, two parties, one country, one people, moving to resolve the historical injustices and inequities of land and house, for the first time at last.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns-medhen@gmail.com.