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Raffique Shah


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The housing conundrum

By Raffique Shah
June 28, 2018

At two ends of the nation's housing spectrum there are seemingly intractable problems that defy solutions unless the population is prepared to change the cultural mores that have contributed to us facing this conundrum.

At the base, we see tens of thousands of citizens ranging from low-income workers to no-income "lochos" clamouring for Government to provide housing for them. Many among these can afford to pay the subsidised rental or mortgage rates that the Housing Development Corporation, either directly or through certain mortgage facilities, charges for its low-end units.

I strongly contend that rental options should be the agency's prime focus.

But the most vociferous elements are persons who cannot, or likelier, will not pay even basement rates for shelter. Mostly, they do not earn the requisite regular incomes. Or if they do, their spending priorities rank rent way below cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and cable television. Then there are poverty-stricken older folk who arrived this sorry station in their lives largely because of poor choices they made, and who expect Government to house and upkeep them for the remainder of lives.

At the upper end of the housing spectrum, there are problems that go unnoticed.

There are older persons who worked hard throughout their lives to build and expand residences ranging from modest cottages to mansions. They educated their children, gave them the best they could barely afford, convinced that in their latter years their offspring would be there to care for them and for the properties they will inherit.

Only the scripts don't quite pan out this way.

The children go off on their own, many of them migrating, and their children in turn have no interest in the country, far less in their grandparents or properties. The old stagers, now infirm, lead lonely lives until they pass on, whereupon the homes are either abandoned to the elements or sold off by the heirs—neither scenario envisioned by their parents.

Think of how many such properties you personally know of that fall in the above categories: scores, I'm sure, hence thousands nationwide. One or two lonely old people occupying three-to-five-bedroom homes; others abandoned, in ruins—such waste even as so many poor people live in squalor.

I'm not suggesting that such homeowners invite the homeless, heaven knows how many criminals among them, to share the houses they sacrificed so much of their labour and lives to build. Far from it, these older people must enjoy the fruits of their lifelong labour, except, as I noted above, few do.

What these two contradictory scenarios indicate is that in a general sense, we may have an adequate number of houses to meet the requirements of our 1.4 million population. But they are unevenly owned or distributed, resulting in maybe as many as 100,000 citizens living in hovels that barely provide them with shelter, hence the hollering for Government housing that is really a cry for free housing.

The 2011 population census revealed that just over 1.3 million people occupied approximately 401,000 households. A household is defined as "a group of persons who usually eat together and share common living arrangements". The survey found that the average number of persons per household was 3.3, but a whopping 19 percent were single-person households.

This latter anomaly was attributed to "the industrialisation of Trinidad and Tobago (which) has brought with it the first-world phenomenon of growth in the number of persons who live alone". While I agree with this reasoning in part, I think those who compiled the report failed to note the increasing numbers of older citizens who are among the expanding single- and double-person households.

Another disturbing finding is this: "With respect to single-person households, men accounted for the majority, some 65 percent of all persons living alone. However, women outnumbered men among persons 65 years or older living alone."

This is so because statistically women tend to live longer than men.

Not surprisingly, older couples who live by themselves, and older women more than men, are vulnerable to criminals, especially in incidents of what are widely described as "home invasions". Age and infirmity render them easy targets for bandits. Many such persons have been severely injured or killed in attacks.

I know of several persons in this category who have been all but abandoned by their children and grandchildren, who suffer in silence, aware that the "corbeaux" will swoop down only when they die to cash in on their inheritance, which, really, they do not deserve. It is why I have no problem with property tax being deferred while the pensioners/owners are alive, but becoming payable, maybe with interest, before ownership is transferred or the properties sold.

Back to the substantive issue of the housing conundrum in which thousands of houses remain unoccupied or under-occupied even as tens of thousands of people are homeless or live in squalor, one cannot solve the other. Mostly, the former worked assiduously to own what they have today even if it has failed to deliver the happiness they anticipated.

Among the latter, many are victims of a skewed system that keeps home ownership out of their reach. But most are architects of their own indigence, authors of a warped sense of values in which victimhood becomes a scapegoat for their suffering, and "de govament" is to blame for all their woes.

This country seems doomed to dwell with this conundrum for a long, long time.

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