June 22, 2003
By Raffique Shah
IT is not accidental that in determining the needs of man in the modern world, shelter, meaning housing, is ranked second only to food. The latter, for obvious reasons, is the number one requirement for the sustenance of life outside of the elements that are given freely by nature, namely the air we breathe and water. Mercifully for man, no malevolent politician or entrepreneur has as yet been able to harness oxygen and force us all pay to breathe. Food will forever remain a contentious issue in the sense that while Mother Earth is still able to produce more than adequate amounts to feed all of Her children, man has managed to manipulate prices and distribution to the disadvantage of a substantial percentage of the world’s population.
Housing, though, has grown into a global political and financial football to the extent that hundreds of millions of people live their entire lives not knowing what owning a house means. And here I mean any kind of house, from the cardboard-and-polythene-covered shacks that are universal in the slums of Asia, Africa, and Latin America to basic units with roofs-and-floors than are deemed minimal for shelter from the elements. Indeed, even in the developed, very rich countries, including the USA, almost 50 per cent of their populations are too poor to own houses.
In Trinidad and Tobago, our housing needs have grown with the natural growth in population. As a society that evolved from landless ex-slaves and penniless ex-indentured immigrants, we weren’t doing too badly before the mass urbanisation and population explosion that began in the 1950s. The former—people migrating from rural districts towards cities and towns where jobs were available—saw districts like Sea Lots, Laventille, Morvant, parts of Marabella and similar places literally explode with bare shacks in which living conditions were close to primitive. And the lure of an oil-based economy with more job opportunities proved to be too strong for “sufferers” in the less endowed islands in the English-speaking Caribbean.
From as far back as during colonialism, governments recognised the need to intervene, to provide housing for the poorest of its people. In fact, even the sugar and oil companies that dominated the economy in that early period, saw a commitment to house many of their employees, providing barrack-rooms and basic single units for their lower-level employees.
In the case of Government, building lots, small and affordable single units as well as apartment buildings in the main town centres were constructed. From around the late 1970s, there was a virtual explosion of government housing, that is units that were rented to those who could not afford better, and others that were sold to families under subsidised mortgage programmes.
But supply never caught up with demand. So desperate people started squatting wherever they could, and the problem grew to nightmarish proportions. All of this happened even as the first oil boom of the mid-1970s saw a parallel explosion of private sector housing initiatives aimed mainly at the middle-to-upper-classes. The latter, because of their relatively high costs, grew into greater nightmares when the economy went into a slump in 1980 and many middle and upper class people were forced to surrender their houses to the banks and other financial institutions. This problem has become institutionalised because banks have made home ownership such a daunting challenge, only the brave or stupid would venture into such arrangements.
I have painted the above pictures to enable readers to better grasp what’s happening to the current Government’s housing policy-to build 10,000 units a year over a ten-year period. It’s a very ambitious programme, and I have my doubts about their ability to deliver.
What has compounded the issue, though, is the row between the IDB and Government over a US$32 million loan to fund 75 per cent cost of Phase I of the programme. The IDB, it seems, has instituted a new system “which aims to encourage private mortgage companies to address the needs of low-income households”. The houses the IDB envisages are units that cost TT$110,000 or less. The prospective owners are expected to be families whose annual incomes are less than $46,000. But the “conditionalities” are horrendous.
If the IDB has its way, the homeless would remain homeless, we would end up with hundreds of unfinished houses, and most of them would be evicted from their properties. For $110,000, one won’t be able to get more than a floor, roof and bare bricks in very small units. Worse, if they do get past the loans’ officers, bank charges will kill them before they see one brick put in place!
The IDB’s aim is to make the rich nations richer, and keep poor countries and poor people in a state of persistent poverty. Well, this is not a poor country. Can Prime Minister Patrick Manning explain why we need to grovel at the feet of this inhuman international agency for a petty US$32 million? Why we can’t fund this programme from our resources, even if it means tapping the reserve fund from oil revenues until the big bucks start flowing in from our new oil finds and gas utilisation? The Government has already lowered interest rates for loans of up to $300,000 to six per cent-the lowest ever. It also plans to make land available to prospective home owners at favourable prices, not the madness that obtains in the real estate market. Overall, while it won’t solve all our housing needs, it will make the dream of secure shelter a reality for so many people.
Are we about to sacrifice this lofty goal and desirable component when measuring human development on the satanic altar of the IDB? No way, I say. We are about to enter a period of plenty. Ours is a blessed country when measured by global standards. But we must not allow another gas and oil boom to pass by and leave thousands of children hungry, our old, infirm and handicapped mired in squalor, and most of all with so many decent families unable to put proper roofs over their heads. The fallout from these deficiencies is partly responsible for our myriad social problems, especially runaway crime. We must use our resources to uplift our people in every possible way, and housing is critical to our overall development.
Manning needs to muster the cojones to tell the IDB “thanks, but no thanks”. It’s time we assert our independence, stand up to the bullies of globalisation, and make our people the real beneficiaries of the wealth of this nation. As citizens, we must demand nothing less.