Holness’s bombshell, the NHT, and shelter for poor people

Franklin Johnston

Friday, March 17, 2017

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Housing is a great equaliser and gives all kids the same good start in a community; so the rapper and market trader will exchange stories and discover they once lived on the same street — all front doors look alike.

But here, housing divides as discrete low-, high-, middle-income schemes foster inequality. It also incubates social discontent and leads to violence.

So the elephant in the room is not education, health care, or food, but the 20 per cent living in 700 squatter settlements. We ignore them at our peril, as decent housing makes decent people and vice versa. Good housing (owned or rented) makes kids self-assured, respect order and become good citizens.

Housing for all should be a priority, but leaders may not see the big picture and the linkages. Our leaders are vocal on the National Housing Trust (NHT), which serves a small group; yet silent on housing for the poor, and demographics an essential precondition to a "crime-free" nation and growth.

A week ago Friday, speaking in Westmoreland, Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared: "The NHT is not a housing agency, the NHT is a financial institution, and we have to treat the NHT like a financial institution." (
Jamaica Observer, March 13, 2017) Frankly, I was shocked. My hero of a year ago by this unilateral declaration — a 180-degree turn — declared war against we who aspire to own a house, removed a major plank of equality from the social fabric, and placed the NHT with institutions which exist to maximise shareholder value. Did my PM, who knows "a man’s castle is his house", have a Damascus Road vision, or was he justifying Audley Shaw’s extracting $11.4 billion from the Trust, 24 hours before?

We need a new champion for poor people’s housing, as removal of the NHT from among housing institutions is bad news — though it only indirectly impacted poor people’s housing needs. But what is the context?

Government’s target is 15,000 new houses a year to fill the backlog by 2030, yet no more than 5,000 are built in any year. We will miss this by a mile, plus the extras each year brings. Second, our serial Cabinets seem wedded to one housing solution: Build to sell! But is it working?

The fact is we all need a place to live, whether owned or rented, as kids need stability to be social and stay straight! Some parents can afford it, others partly, and the destitute need subsidy. So why does Cabinet not promote rental housing as a priority when most have no deposit to buy? What is Cabinet’s stake in the profit of contractors, real estate and mortgage firms? Then, why is a mortgage penal? It takes nearly 50 per cent of wages. Consequently, we cannot afford some fun in youth when we wish to travel and see snow? Why not a Scandinavian model in a 75-year mortgage linked to the life of the asset? No more anxiety, as my family — and after, my son’s — will pay a small mortgage. Can I take the house with me? No! So what’s the issue?

The NHT is out of sync with true housing needs. It has not reinvented itself to sync with the vision of the founder or reality, but entrenched as provider to the nation’s elite — those with good jobs. It is a contributor’s only scheme — quite exclusive, covers some 30 per cent of our workforce yet 25 per cent get a benefit. Do the maths! At last check it had some 450,000 contributors, yet some 300,000 never got a benefit. Are you okay with this? The Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education cohort of some 400,000 do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of playing in the NHT’s league. And squatters? Well, Michael Manley would weep! The NHT, as structured, only has meaning in a new diverse architecture of housing which covers all citizens.

Here’s why:

Demographics determine provision, but housing need exists just by being alive. We all want house and land, but even in rich nations it is not so. Therefore, 100 per cent ownership cannot happen here. "Fehgat it!" We need variety to fit our pockets — own, timeshare, rent, but nuanced by need.

So, families with children are priority. Many can buy but the majority need rental housing, and all families must be housed to assure well-adjusted kids, responsible adults, and a "crime free" nation. Our youth 20 to 34 (some 650,000) need flats to leave home, work, study and share; save a bit and enjoy life. The State ignores them, and with few private investors stepping up, youth are underserved and irascible. Old folk is a burgeoning cohort (300,000 plus above age 60) and are collateral damage. Who serves them? Any rental schemes when you can no longer cope with homeownership, stairs, get a mortgage? And, if the poor have no housing the rich cannot rest easy in theirs.

Mr Vision 2030, this is not a place to grow old! Investment housing and commercial makeovers are vibrant niches, but they drive up prices and cramp first-time buyers. Other niche markets include dormitory rental for employees in tourism, business, or even public servants who may be transferred (teachers, vets, extension officers, police, librarians, health workers, etc). We need decent rental housing all across the island.

So how might Cabinet serve all demographics? The NHT may continue as specialist provider of "build to sell", but transformed to impact at least 70 per cent of contributors. Then, expand offerings as those who wait to own still need good homes to raise kids. Then, Cabinet should focus on rental housing to achieve decent housing for all, as most don’t have the lump sum. Also promote "rent to buy", where a small portion of rent is put toward a future mortgage on the same house — they will own it one day. The care of the "rent house" would be un-flippin believable!

Then Cabinet should create a new Michael Manley legacy entity to mobilise pension funds, etc, and invest in rental housing to include the 20 per cent who squat. Imagine the impact on kids of a place to do homework, read, and "no fixed address" exits our lexicon — wow! Many classes may live side by side as a poor family of five needs a three-bedroom house, same as a rich one — the former subsidised. The difference in opulence is behind closed doors as in New York or London. Every front door looks the same.

The laws governing owners and tenants must be updated to achieve fairness, good property management, prompt execution, and protection for pension funds invested. Going forward, PATH should cover rental subsidy paid by the State to the management firm. If we truly believe Jamaica will prosper, this is a small leap of faith. It enures to good conduct, crime control and growth. Minister Horace Chang can do it. Stay conscious!

Franklin Johnston, D Phil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager. Send comments to the Observer or





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