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Editorial | New approaches in inner-city renewal

Published:Sunday | March 31, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The undertakings promised by the National Housing Trust (NHT) for the new fiscal year, as outlined by Prime Minister Andrew Holness during his Budget debate intervention recently, was impressive.

The Trust will slash mortgage rates, to all borrowers, by one percentage point, while hiking the wage cap at which mortgagors can still enjoy its lowest interest. The NHT will also introduce intergenerational mortgages, allowing children, at a certain point, to take over the loans of parents, thereby maintaining homeownership in the family.

The most impressive bit of the data offered by the PM, however, is of the Trust’s J$39.4 billion housing budget for the new fiscal year, which more than doubles the amount of three years ago.

So, in 2019-2020, the NHT plans 5,800 housing starts and 2,800 completions. Looked at another way, that statistic says that for every home financed by the NHT this year, in 2019-2020, one will be a little less than half-finished (48 per cent) over the same period.

Over the last three years, Mr Holness disclosed, the NHT has been responsible for 14,000 housing starts and 6,400 completions. That’s one house being 45 per cent complete every time a new one begins.

These figures don’t include private sector, but the NHT-financed construction account for the bulk of Jamaica’s housing starts. And as impressive as the figures may be, they clearly don’t begin to dent Jamaica’s annual housing need, although not effective demand, of nearly 20,000 units. Too many people can’t afford homes.

It is in that context that this newspaper again proposes a robust debate, with radical thinking, on how to attack Jamaica’s housing problem, including using NHT’s resources. This debate shouldn’t contemplate building new cities, or encroachment on the country’s fertile, and potentially agriculturally productive lands, as is proposed for Bernard Lodge, on the St Catherine plains.

It should start in blighted urban and rural communities, whose long-term neglect has been a catalyst for social dysfunction, crime and violence. Many of these communities, though run-down, still enjoy basic infrastructure. They have roads, drains, water and, in some instances, malfunctioning sewerage systems. While large portions of the houses are tenements, a substantial amount, though in need of major refurbishing, remains structurally sound. They can be worked with.

CREATIVE THINKING

But there are, however, real, and difficult, problems. In many instances, the occupiers are squatters and often, the ownership of properties is uncertain, or not certified by title. Of greater significance is that owners and occupiers are usually unable to afford to refurbish their property.

Herein lies the need for creative thinking, hard work and the expenditure of political capital.

Most inner-city renewal programmes contemplated are the relocation of existing residents to virgin developments ahead of gentrification. Usually, that process is slow or nothing happens.

While we appreciate that some relocation may be necessary, what we see in these communities is not only poor people, but large numbers of mostly ambitious Jamaicans, who wish to escape the squalor of their environment and would be willing to invest in that transformation. They possess an abundance in the potential of sweat equity.

It can’t be beyond the capacity of smart people in Government and its agencies, as well as the private sector, to develop models for partnerships that leverage sweat equity, as well as cash and other forms of equity that exist in these communities – government money, such as the NHT’s J$39 billion, and private capital – to launch an assault on blighted urban communities and squatter and informal settlements, where up to a third of the island’s population lives.

These projects need not be handouts. They must provide a reasonable return on investment. Getting them done requires hard work, an expenditure of political capital and honest and transparent dealing.