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Chance to fix T&T's housing stock woes

Published: 
Friday, April 14, 2017

Wednesday’s announcement of a new housing initiative from two private sector entities—Canada-based Wylde Orchid Design and Management Ltd and local firm Prime US International Ltd—was a breath of fresh air to many citizens.

Indeed, the signing of a memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the firms for construction of 120,000 houses across T&T could bring welcome relief to thousands of citizens hoping to achieve their lifelong dream of acquiring a home.

The firms are promising to build 110,000 houses in Trinidad and 10,000 in Tobago over a 15 to 20-year period.

The cost of the two and three bedroom units will range from $650,000 to $2.5 million and they will cater specifically to 20,000 single parents and 10,000 senior citizens, while 50,000 will be used for government’s distribution programme and the remaining 40,000 homes will be sold on the high-end property market.

Construction of the first stock is scheduled for next February with distribution by year’s end, according to president and CEO of Wylde Orchid Designs Aneil Singh.

Mr Singh and Prime US International CEO Stephanie Bonaparte-Primus say they undertook the initiative after conducting a housing survey which showed senior citizens and single parents did not qualify for homes, while people who fell in the age bracket 18-25 were seldom provided funding to purchase a home. Mrs Bonaparte-Primus believes construction of these homes will bring a “solution” for the 100,000-plus Housing Development Corporation (HDC) applicants waiting for shelter.

The plan seems well-intentioned enough, since it caters mostly to citizens in the low income earning bracket who, no doubt, make up the majority of applicants on the HDC’s current waiting list which has been estimated at roughly 100,000.

Consecutive governments have tried to break the back of the local housing demand, with some of them undertaking plans which fell by the wayside or went horribly wrong along the way.

The perfect example of this is the Victoria Keyes development in Diego Martin, started under a PNM government but continued and expanded by the previous People’s Partnership government.

Somehow, this project spiralled out of control so that the cost of units now range from $1.6 million to $4.5 million, well out of reach for the average citizen seeking a housing unit through HDC and T&T Mortgage Finance initiatives.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was quite disturbed by this at a ribbon cutting ceremony for another nearby HDC housing development in late 2015. During that event, the PM wondered how a state entity whose mandate was to provide affordable shelter and associated community facilities for low and middle income earners could have strayed so far from its moorings.

The PM was adamant then that any government should not have undertaken such a development and announced his Government would mandate the HDC to return to its original mandate of low cost housing.

PM Rowley also mentioned then that Government would welcome private sector initiative in the housing drive. A comprehensive national housing programme involving government and the private sector would no doubt satisfy the current housing demand while easing some of the burden on the Treasury. So the current joint initiative by Wylde Orchid Design and Prime US International is welcome.

We note, however, that while the firms seem to have approached all other local stakeholders in their build-up plan, they have not yet initiated talks with the Government.

To his credit, Minister of Housing Randall Mitchell is welcoming what he calls a “noble initiative” and preparing, at least from his initial comments, to welcome the firms to talks where he seems ready to offer whatever incentive the Government can to encourage the plan.

The minister’s enthusiasm is no doubt also fuelled by the fact that any direct foreign investment opportunity, with its propensity to create jobs, would be welcome at this time.

We hope though that the minister will ensure the legitimacy of the firms, their ability to fund and carry the effort through to the end and ensure any plan entered into is a comprehensive one which works to the benefits of citizens.

But there are other things which must occur if the country is to benefit from this latest plan by private enterprise.

The HDC must now ensure that the many housing developments left abandoned or unfinished are completed. This must be coupled with a drive to reclaim houses now owned by individuals who are renting them out or own other properties in contravention of HDC rules, or who have abandoned their properties or are in arrears and cannot service their mortgages.

The reclaimed housing stock can easily be immediately distributed to applicants in the system for years who can now take advantage of lower TTMF mortgage rates and rent-to-own plans put in place to make it easier to purchase homes. It is only then the HDC and by extension government will truly know the supply and demand need for housing in the country and thus be able to direct its brand new housing stock initiatives better.

We hope though that the minister will ensure the legitimacy of the firms, their ability to fund and carry the effort through to the end and ensure any plan entered into is a comprehensive one which works to the benefits of citizens.