House fight - Holness, Phillips tussle over construction starts and stops
The National Housing Trust (NHT) and the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) may have to enter the ring to settle the political fight over the number of houses built in the last four years.
The calls were triggered by Saturday’s national political debate between Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips.
Using his sole opportunity to question Holness, Phillips asked the prime minister to reconcile data from the Planning Institute of Jamaica on housing starts with the claim that 20,000 houses were built during the current political term of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
“The PIOJ’s numbers say that in 2019, there were 8,000 housing starts, and the number of housing completions was less than 2,000. How do you explain the discrepancy between the PIOJ’s numbers and your own?” he asked.
In replying to Phillips’ question, Holness, the JLP leader, said he was depending on the NHT’s “very accurate data”, which, he said, showed that since he took office in February 2016, there have been “close to 20,000 housing starts”.
He said that when figures from the HAJ were considered, more than 22,000 housing solutions were provided during his term.
“We have done very well in the provision of housing solutions, far better than the previous administrations,” Holness said.
Phillips, however, was not satisfied.
“It would seem, again, it is another PR (public relations) gesture which does not face up to the fact that the number of solutions have not been provided for people to be able to live in these houses,” the People’s National Party (PNP) president said.
In a statement Sunday, the JLP continued to push its claim that housing starts this term have doubled the number achieved under the previous PNP administration.
It produced a document showing that over the four-year period 2016-17 to 2019-20, the NHT delivered 18,967 housing starts, compared with 7,420 in the PNP’s years of 201-13 to 2015-16.
In the 2019 Economic and Social Survey, the PIOJ said there were 22,848 housing starts for 2016-19, of which 8,120 were initiated through the NHT.
The document also said there were 7,362 completions over the period, of which the NHT accounted for 6,702.
The PIOJ explained that data on housing starts and completions came from the NHT, private developers, and the HAJ.
Meanwhile, based on a review of NHT annual reports for 2016-17 to 2018-19, housing starts numbered at least 14, 755, with 5,415 completions over the period. The report for 2019-20 has not yet been published.
Precise data on the HAJ’s housing starts and completions for the period under question were not immediately available.
In post-debate Gleaner commentary, financial analyst Dennis Chung said he did not believe that Holness faces credibility issues over the housing issue, arguing that Phillips may have been misquoting data.
“I think that Phillips was focusing on one year (2019), and that is the issue,” he said. “Holness’ answer didn’t clear up or clarify enough the 22,000, though.”
In a separate interview, the hard-hitting Howard Mitchell, chairman of the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal, said Holness’ credibility on the housing matter was “strong”.
However, he said that overall, the prime minister disappointed him on issues relating to corruption and explanations for the administration’s failure to achieve some of his 2016 election promises, including outlining a job description for Cabinet ministers.
“Phillips, a little shaky at the start, came across very committed, very national and credible,” said the former president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica. “I have to say Holness won in terms of form, in terms of style, but he lost out on content.”
Saying he could not name a “clear winner”, Mitchell said that Phillips was weak on the issue of gender parity in the Senate and on explaining aspects of his party’s manifesto, especially given his role in pushing fiscal reforms.
“There is no question that this JLP administration has actually done more infrastructural work ..., but you know why? Because they’ve had the financial flexibility to do that,” Mitchell told The Gleaner.
Phillips, he said, could counter by arguing that “they (JLP) did more because I enabled you to do more”.