Member of Parliament for St James East Central Edmund Bartlett (left) and Prime Minister Andrew Holness (second left) speak with Orville Whittaker (right), his wife Pauline (third right), and their children Donna Marie (taller of two girls), Kemeisha and Jameal, during the handover of a house to the family.

CANAAN, St James - Orville Whittaker tried to hold back his tears, but failed. He was simply too overcome with joy after receiving the keys to a newly constructed three-bedroom house for his family.

"I want to say thanks to you and your team on behalf of my wife and kids for providing this house for us," he said as the tears flowed.

He was speaking to Prime Minister Andrew Holness during a brief handover ceremony in Canaan, St James. The concrete structure was built under the Government's New Social Housing Programme (NSHP).

The Whittaker family, like many other beneficiaries, used to live in a dilapidated wooden structure. The severity of recipients' need, the prime minister stressed, is a major factor in the selection process.

"There are many sceptical and cynical persons watching the programme and who may take the view that the beneficiaries are only selected on who they may know and their political allegiances or connections. I wish to assure Jamaicans that this programme is not designed in that way or for that purpose. The beneficiaries, all of them, are deserving of the benefit," Holness said.

He stressed that there is a rigorous vetting procedure in place.

"Before the beneficiary is finally selected we examine, we go physically and look at where they live and we certify that the housing condition is substandard," said the prime minister.

He also hit back at critics of the NSHP, which he established in 2018 as a component of the Housing, Opportunity, Production and Employment (HOPE) programme, who have described it as Government propaganda.

"It may now seem routine to see the prime minister driving up and down handing over the houses. Some people may also believe it's a PR stunt. And, there is no question there is some public relations value. The bigger point is to drive home squarely to the Jamaican people that the Government is working to provide housing solutions to the most needy people in Jamaica. That's one very important point that should never be underestimated," Holness argued.

The parliamentary Opposition has taken swipes at the prime minister, arguing that his handing out of one unit here and there does little to address the chronic shortage of affordable housing in Jamaica.

Holness argued, however, that handover ceremonies are important to update the country on how State resources are being used.

"It is absolutely important that the public is made aware of the beneficiaries and the resources that are spent on this programme," he said. "And one way to do that is to make sure that every house that is turned over to a deserving family, that the public sees the family that they can judge for themselves and that they can see the units so that they can judge for themselves."

The Whittaker family was the 119th recipient under the programme. Their house was one of five handed over by Holness across St James last Friday. Keys to units were also handed over to recipients in Norwood, Salt Spring and Lottery. Two units were handed over in Norwood.

BY HORACE HINES Observer West reporter

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