Housing and quality of life
HELEN DRAYTON Sunday, July 15 2012
A housing unit is on top of the wish list of every person who does not own one. It is the physical container of family life, and the desire of every young couple, most of whom cannot afford one. Often, the news media bring home to us the heart rending situations of elderly citizens living in squalor. Also, many children and their parents live under appalling conditions — the rusted, leaking galvanize roof, dirt floor, single room shack with no running water and electricity which shelters upwards of four persons are familiar scenes.
It was the American professor of psychology, Abraham Maslow, who defined the individual’s hierarchy of needs as physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. Safety includes shelter.
He believed that the basic needs had to be addressed if the higher needs were to be fulfilled, and linked this to mental and emotional health. He correlated the degree of satisfaction of these needs with contentment and happiness. However, there is a price to satisfy these basic essentials for survival. For the billion people living in poverty, access to food, water, clothing, shelter and education is not achievable without governments’ intervention.
As a nation striving toward a higher quality life, a cost effective and efficient housing intervention is necessary. In this context, the State’s programme enabling citizens to access housing is noteworthy. How the Government weights this need in social budgeting against other critical needs such as health and education, and the cost efficiency of the housing programme, are not features of this article.
Suffice it to say that education is the key to employment and the satisfaction of needs and wants, and staying healthy.
The Government has maintained an impressive multi-dimensional housing strategy which commenced many years ago. Qualifying citizens have options of rental, rental towards ownership, low cost mortgages and home improvement grants/subsidies. There are construction subsidies, and a squatter regularisation programme.
An aspect of the Ministry of Housing mandate is to ensure good quality, affordable and accessible housing solutions. There are approximately 421,196 dwelling units in Trinidad and Tobago (2011 census preliminary count). Based on other research, there are approximately 25,000 government units. A large number requires renovation due to shoddy work, as well as age.
In one highly publicised case, an entire block has to be demolished. The outstanding list of applicants for government housing is about 156,000 or roughly 16 percent of the adult population. The country’s poverty rate is 14.7 percent or 195,000 persons of which, roughly, 120,000 are adults.
Over the past two years, the ministry distributed 1,481 units which benefited 2,378 persons. Recipients included the elderly, physically challenged persons and members of the protective services. Some 2,690 homeowners received home improvement grants, or subsidies. Another 8,400 persons received property titles, and 5,360 families benefited from the upgrade of squatter communities. All told, approximately18,828 persons received assistance with shelter, which, in terms of numbers represents continued progress. There are plans to facilitate land acquisition – some 10,000 lots, with spin off benefits of employment.
The beneficiaries have obligations to pay rents and mortgages. Persons earning over $8,000.00 monthly pay a competitive interest rate. Persons earning under $8,000 pay an interest rate of 2 percent. Housing recipients have contractual obligations to maintain properties within reasonable expectations.
Given the critical importance of education, health and shelter to the quality of life, the Government needs an urgent reckoning with social services costs, and should embark on a robust rationalisation of programme.
A matter worthy of research is the extent to which some citizens, excluding indigent, senior citizens and physically challenged citizens, benefit from multiple subsidies – food, housing, CPPEP and URP employment, and utilities. To be factored in, is the average cost for water, insurance and common services.
Recipients of government housing do not pay water rates. In some cases, government subsidizes the cost of electricity. The subsidised cost of health, education, transportation and gas are applicable to all citizens.
Sustainability of the slate of social services remains a key topic. Increased social spending severely hampers future economic growth, and the cost, as defined by expenditure on transfers and subsidies, has expanded over the years from 14.9 percent of total expenditure in 1976 to 52.1 percent in 2011.
Given the depressed, global economy and consequences for small, open markets, unless there is economic growth through increased productivity to support social initiatives, there will be consequences for the most vulnerable people, and the economy as a whole.
The Ministry of Housing and its agents face significant challenges, including high maintenance cost, enforcing tenant obligations, health and safety issues, squatter containment and land acquisition, as well as legal and project management issues emanating from development.
Never-the-less it has made progress in providing shelter, especially for the elderly and children. The decision to make access to land ownership easier is a practical move. This strategy eliminates the cost and the numerous related burdens associated with building.