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Raymond: T&T in danger of repeating housing mistakes

Monday, August 25, 2014
On the Home Front
In his offices at Raymond & Pierre, overlooking Lord Harris Square in uptown Port-of-Spain, Afra Raymond describes his vision of the housing system in T&T. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

Recent reports that the HDC housing waiting list has reached 200,000 have thrown up questions about strategies for land usage, housing design and urban planning in T&T. In our series on housing, JOSHUA SURTEES speaks to architects, planners and surveyors to find out if there is enough land available, whether everybody on the list can get a place to live and what kind of accommodation makes best use of space while providing comfortable, functional living that complements people’s lifestyles. Part four features AFRA RAYMOND, president of the Joint Consultative Council, MD of Raymond & Pierre Ltd chartered surveyors and an expert on land usage issues, procurement and housing.

Regarding the state of houses that people are currently living in, what is the extent to which there are people who should be rehoused immediately because their dwellings are unfit to inhabit? 

That sort of housing-condition survey is not something on which we have very accurate or timely information. We ought to have that information and the lack of it, on a national basis, gives rise to sober questions about the 200,000 waiting list. 

Because, if you look at the official population of the country—and I say official, because there’s a clear doubt about the accuracy of the CSO figure (1.3 million) compared to the Elections and Boundaries figure (900,000)—and look at the 200,000 entries or applications on the waiting list, which each represent, very likely, a family. 

So each housing application could actually be four people?

If we’re talking about three people per application on average, we’re saying that 600,000 people in the country are waiting for HDC housing. 

Is that true? Because this country’s percentage of owner-occupation is 76 per cent, one of the highest percentages in the world. 

When Vision 2020 issued its report on housing in 2002, T&T’s percentage of home ownership at that time was 70 per cent. It was in excess of the percentage in North America and Britain. And it’s gone up. 

So how then can one account for the waiting-list figure? One has to have a very rigorous questioning of these figures, put alongside each other on a sheet of paper to create a balance sheet, so to speak.

So somebody could be over-inflating the need for housing?

Something has got to give, because those figures make no sense. 

The housing policy started 12 years ago under PNM Senator Danny Montano, who was then the Minister of Housing, was a ten-year programme to build 100,000 new homes. 

We passed the ten years in 2012 and the time is nigh for a proper housing policy review to see what were our targets, what were the methods we deployed, what have we achieved and how well have we done? What is the quantity of resources we’ve consumed? What are the lessons learned? What methods were effective and ineffective? 

Unless we conduct a review, we are in grave danger of repeating the errors of the past. 

We know the HDC was involved, like a lot of state enterprises and statutory bodies, in questionable things. It came out in the Uff Enquiry and in various manifestations. 

And we also know that an important part of the housing review is that a fundamental accountability mechanism collapsed. We are sitting here in 2014 and the HDC has never had accounts. It’s a multi-billion-dollar company. And the vogue words nowadays are: accountability, transparency, good governance, value for money. How can we have any reasonable assurance that those targets are being moved towards in the absence of fundamentals like audited accounts? 

How does land and property stay so cheap in Trinidad? 

Cheap in what sense?

Affordable. Is it affordable?

I wouldn’t say so. It’s a tantalising discourse—is it affordable?—and to delve into that, I think I need to lay out the hierarchy of the five levels of need in housing.

One of the mistakes we make when we discuss housing is we speak about it in two partitions: 

Private—you may have a sister in El Socorro who is renting privately from a private landlord, which the Government has nothing to do with; and State—you might have a cousin who applied and got an HDC house in Barataria, and she’s renting state housing. 

So we have this partition in our mind between private and state housing. And the partition, though not without justification, could lead you to make the error in thinking that the two different things don’t affect each other, when in fact they do. 

We have a small country, limited land space and a tremendous amount of money in this country. 

Now, I devised a model on housing need which I’ll lay out and the first person I will name is the person with the greatest need: the homeless—the person on the street, sleeping outside Courts in San Fernando with nothing but the shirt on their back.

Is anything done for them?

Some, but not through the HDC and it’s very sporadic, through the Ministry of Social Development and so. 

The second class of housing need is people who are permanent renters. The sort of family who, for whatever reason—the occupation of the parents, their wages or the number of children they have—means they will never own a house. 

We all know they are perfectly respectable people who’ve served their country, fought in wars, been in the healthcare system, the education system, they’ve worked their whole lives for the country and paid every penny of tax that was earned, their children have gone on to become honourable citizens and they’ve never owned a house.

The third class is what I call transitional renters: I’ll just make up a fictitious couple—they went to UWI they fell in love, got married, qualified in various things, ambitious and want to buy a house. They get a place to rent and everybody knows—the girl’s family, the boy’s family, all their friends—they’re just renting there for a while and they’re saving money to buy a piece of land. 

Three or four years later they’ve saved the money and they buy the piece of land. 

The fourth class is the owner-occupier, a family living in a house they own.

The fifth class is the class of person we never discuss in T&T, the person who has so much money they can buy as many houses as they want—15, 20, 30 houses. Multiple homeowners.

I now want to link the things together...If you want to have an informed discourse about land space or affordable housing provision, it’s impossible to do so unless you factor in all the five stages of the equation, in particular the class of person who owns 20 and 30 houses. 

Because the impact of those people on the market is that the developers can go out and buy up blocks of land that are available, put a certain price on those lands, put up buildings, and people who are multiple homeowners can come in and buy three, four, five, six units. And that is the impact. The two sides relate to each other across that mental boundary.

So that means the wealthy are getting richer off the poor, exactly like what happens in London? 

Yes, buy-to-rent.

Do you think the solution is to limit these multiple homeowners to a maximum limit of properties? 

Well, that is verging on a zone where you’re possibly trampling on the rights to enjoyment of property set out in the preamble to our Constitution. But it’s an interesting concept that one has to toy with, because a limit on ownership isn’t the only mechanism that could be effective.

When you think about housing, one also has to remember the whole encounter we had with property tax. Which was a proposal which had considerable merit. 

Unfortunately for that proposal it was proposed by a singularly unpopular government led by a singularly unpopular man, so people conflated the merits of the proposal with the merits of the author. So it remains impossible to have a sensible discussion on its merits. 

Would it have put a levy on rich people owning property?

First of all, it would have taxed property ownership. Most importantly, it would have necessitated the construction of a modern database, which would have allowed us, at the touch of a few buttons, to see who owns the property next door—how much rent do they earn for it? Is it held in a company name or one person? When did that person buy the property? How much did they pay for it? 

All of these pertinent questions would have been exposed to public scrutiny in a modern, searchable database. It was a fundamental requirement of a property tax system, and that is not a very comfortable prospect for the people who have profited from the existing system. 

Would it have disadvantaged poorer people as well?

Well, that was the campaigning limb that was used. 

But in fact, if those people who campaigned against it had been really interested, and we know they’re not—I’m speaking about Prakash Ramadhar, who’s now the Minister of Legal Affairs; rent control is within his ministry—if they had wanted to protect the rights of the poor and the elderly, which is what the campaign was masqueraded as, they could have simply said to Manning as a counterproposal that any property under half a million dollars could receive an exemption. 

But in fact, the fundamental thing—and the whole thing has screeched to a grinding halt in the four years the Partnership has been in power—would have been that searchable database to allow the people running the property tax system to see if you and I, who might have buildings side by side that are the same square footage on the same street, are paying the same tax, and how the rent you’re declaring of, say, $3,000 a month, can be correct if next door is paying $8,000. 

You can see the use of the system. It would have allowed us to see if people are paying the correct income tax on the rent they receive, for example.

Continues next week


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