Dennie Quill, Columnist
As a youth growing up in Jamaica, one of the greatest sources of pride among village people was owning a home. It was right up there on their list of priorities with providing an education for their children.
It didn't matter if the structure was basic and devoid of archi-tectural splendour; for people emerging from forced labour and oppression, it was simply great to have somewhere to call home. I never understood the reference to 'me little Jonnathon', but there was a certain swagger associated with that declaration.
Indeed, it was something of a culture shock when I arrived in the big city and observed people living in shacks literally on top of each other. I soon learnt that some of these people had captured land wherever they could and had gathered pieces of zinc, cardboard and other material to create some crude dwelling places. Dozens of people lived like that in what became known as inner cities.
VISIONARY LEADER = HOPE
So when the forward-thinking Michael Manley administration created the National Housing Trust (NHT) in 1976, it was decreed that every working person and his employer had to contribute to the fund. I saw first-hand how many persons were transported from being renters into their own substantial house.
Greater Portmore became the city of hope where scores of families got their first taste of homeownership. It was simply awesome to see how the new owners had added style and elan to their new homes. Even those houses which provided the very basic foundation and walls were stylistically embellished to create something of beauty. People were leading happy, useful lives in these newly created communities.
Back then, it was estimated that 25,000 housing units were required each year to satisfy demand. Somewhere along the way, the NHT's mission became distorted. One is not even sure what its mandate is these days.
Meanwhile, with mortgage and interest payments swelling, the NHT has managed to amass a substantial pool of funds over these many years. We have seen how these funds have become vulnerable to be tapped by politicians under pressure. NHT funds have been raided by the Patterson and Simpson Miller administrations. And each Government has provided justification for using NHT money for purposes other than supporting housing for contributors.
Only yesterday, Finance Minister Peter Phillips took the legislation to Parliament to validate the NHT drawdown.
One recognises that an agency formed in 1976 would possibly need some adjustments to respond to 21st-century realities. But the responsibility to promote the well-being of our citizens is as relevant now as it was then. To lift people up from their weak state goes a far way towards strengthening our democracy.
Still, my question is this: What about Jamaicans for whom the dream of home ownership continues to be elusive? What about those who continue to live under zinc sheets and cardboard? Is there to be no hope for them? Do we continue to drain the NHT to the dregs and ignore the needy? Who is really responsible for distorting the mission of the NHT?
Before this, the protest about withdrawing NHT funds was somewhat muted. But today, the plan to withdraw $45b of NHT funds over four years is being widely debated and is being challenged in a court of law. Could this 'raiding' of the NHT undermine the future health of the Trust and its ability to pay beneficiaries? Should this money be borrowed instead of purloined, as some commentators have suggested?
And perhaps the most important question is whether the withdrawal of these funds will help the economy grow, or will it simply be part of the legacy of public waste?
Dennie Quill is a veteran media practitioner. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.