“The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home”. – Confucius
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describes the most basic human physiological needs as food, water, warmth and rest; which are interpreted as food, clothing and shelter. Given that shelter or rather housing is the least mobile of the three and we always need shelter, most people attempt to secure this on their own rather than have it become a so called ‘welfare’ good. Very much unlike healthcare or even food sources, housing is that constant that one cannot compromise on. Since housing is permanent, it is also predictable and consequently this allows for a measured and disciplined supply of homes.
More than 80 per cent of the local housing needs are satisfied by private sector market forces either through rental or purchases. This leaves a minority who cannot provide housing for themselves to rely on the state for the provision of housing, or live on the streets. That brings us to the salient point here – the reliance of that small section of the population on the state for housing.
The background to this goes back to the housing stock devastation caused by Hurricane Janet in 1955 which led the Government to create the Housing Act of 1955 bringing the National Housing Authority (NHA) into existence. Under the NHA, the Government Worker’s Housing Loan Fund was established to assist low-income households with loan financing for housing.
NHA also built low-income housing and from inception found it impossible to satisfy local annual housing requirements, which were in the vicinity of 200 units per year. The NHA allowed tenants to purchase their units since 1963, with as many as 225 units being sold by 1968. Neither concept worked and by the early 1970s the NHA was afflicted with a number of debilitating problems; heavy arrears from tenants, increased construction and maintenance cost; general inefficiency within the authority and a general lack of funding as demands on government funds were stretched.
In 1973, the National Housing Corporation Act was passed creating a new statutory body. The NHC assumed responsibility for all NHA properties; some 4,305 units across 27 estates. The Corporation remained plagued by the problems of its predecessor, finding it impossible to satisfy demand for lots and houses, due primarily to a lack of funding and suitable land.
The situation got worse in the 1980s when the NHC was responsible for two major failures with the West Terrace Gardens and Starter Home Projects. The project suffered severe overruns; unit prices went from a budgeted $80,000 to $120,000 and only 40 per cent of the homes were completed when the budget was exhausted. By the following year, the Government of Barbados had reported major losses and declared the NHC inefficient and corrupt.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the NHC was repeatedly plagued by construction overruns, home delivery shortfalls and financial burdens; from its Twin Core Starter home to housing at Oxnards, Apes Hill, Grazettes – all abandoned after major overruns.
In what the courts deemed a wrongful dismissal, George Edgehill, a career civil servant who had worked for several years as a deputy director at the NHC, was publicly sacked by the late and former Prime Minister David Thompson after the party’s first Cabinet meeting in February 2008. Age 61, at the time of his dismissal, Mr Edgehill would have no doubt have been a primary member of the National Housing Corporation executive team throughout the 1980s.
Mr Edgehill now returns to the NHC as its Chairman and the role of the NHC as a provider of low-income housing to those who can ill afford to access housing on their own appears to be in conflict as the National Housing Corporation (NHC) pushes ahead with one of the most robust crackdowns in its history on delinquent tenants.
The local press has reported that pensioner Charles Fraser is unsure of his future. The 73-year-old resident of Phillips Road, Pinelands, was served with a notice to quit from attorney Fiona Greenidge on behalf of the NHC, dated August 22. The letter detailed Fraser was in arrears by $25, 235 and had seven days to vacate the premises. At this age, what is Mr Fraser to do?
Additionally, several tenants at Country Park Towers, Country Road, St Michael, were served their eviction notices to quit by an attorney on behalf of the NHC. At the high-rise housing unit on Monday, some occupants said a man with a stack of papers served the notices which gave the tenants seven days to vacate their units. In another instance, a mother of three was also evicted from (NHC) housing units at Barbarees Gardens, St Michael.
All these cases are heart-breaking and though we aware that state support for low-income or ‘welfare’ is a well-established part of the Government structure, we also understand the need for Government to arrest a problem of tenant delinquency that has plagued its organization for decades. It still hurts that a “caring” Government forcibly evicts its citizens and is not aware of where they may reside after the fact. A previous administration evicted a squatter and moved her and her young children into another unit immediately.
So, there are two issues being balanced here; capability and control. Are a small number of the citizens of this country asking the Government or any other entity to provide a housing solution for them when they are capable of providing that housing solution for themselves? Next, we need to appreciate the issue of control, in that what matters is who has the power over the resources necessary to provide good quality housing for those who could least afford it. Understanding these two issues is at the heart of housing provision for low-income households in Barbados.
There is a presumption that the poor are incapable, have no assets themselves and are not able to negotiate through the complexities of the modern housing environment. With the depth and quality of education in this country, I am not sure one can use the same barometer for our people as others are measured globally. Thus, I believe that the issue for the poor in Barbados is not a lack of resources but the ability to use and integrate their assets into the mainstream economy. What matters is what low-income households are allowed to do, and what prevents them from achieving their goals. This is not due to incapability, incompetence or any lack of knowledge of what constitutes good housing – but of the access and control over resources.
This insight points to the role Government should play in housing. Rather than Government seeking to provide housing itself, it should play the role of a facilitator. It can provide resources, put in place the general framework and ensure that contracts are enforceable and protected.
The Government has a history of providing for those in society who are unable to provide for themselves. Most often those persons are the elderly and single mothers who have found themselves out of work. There has to be a conscience driving the actions of administrators as they execute their edicts. In an environment that is becoming increasingly onerous for those caught on the outside where cost is increasing at a rate that decisions are made about utilities or food, there has to be a medium to support the indigent and give them guidance to ensure they will soon substantiate themselves.
George Connolly is CEO of Business Technology Solutions Firm and a former candidate of the Democratic Labour Party.