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A NATIONAL HOUSING CRISIS ?

A NATIONAL HOUSING CRISIS ?
October 26
12:49 2018
By: Major Lloyd Jones, (Ret'd) -

“Access to adequate housing directly affects other human rights. Without it, employment is difficult to secure and maintain, health is threatened, education is impeded, violence is more easily perpetrated, privacy is impaired, and social relationships are frequently strained.” — Housing Rights are Human Rights! American Bar Association, October 2012.

There is a serious housing crisis in Belize and despite all the political promises the crisis has gotten worst. Surely in 2018, housing has to be viewed as a basic human right. If we accept housing as such then it has to be the duty of the Government to do all in its power to ensure that such a right is fulfilled.

You can tell a lot about a country’s development pathway by looking at the systems it has in place to deal with housing; after all housing is what anchors the family. People need good, decent and affordable housing in which to raise their families.

It is unquestionable that housing drives day to day economic decisions; especially for the poor who must choose between housing and other basic needs such as food, health, education, etc. The lack of proper housing also unduly exposes the urban poor to crime, fire hazards, extreme weather and health issues among other things. It is fair to say that the lack of affordable, decent housing negatively impacts the poor in a disproportionate way.

The demand for decent affordable housing in Belize City has so outstripped supply, that it has caused a sharp increase in rental prices. In Belize City a decent two bedroom detached dwelling on the Southside now rents for about $700/month, putting it out of reach of the working class. These houses are, for all intents and purposes, for the middle class; and that is IF you can find one. The same house on the north side rents for at least $1,000/month. The fear of crime has driven more and more middle class households to the north side and in the process consuming more of their earnings thus threatening to shift their social status downward to working class.

If you are making minimum wage you will not be able to rent a detached dwelling so your choice of accommodation has to be an “apartment.” The use of the term “apartment” is misleading as it conjures up the idea of luxury living. But in many cases apartments in Belize City are nothing more than a bedroom with a small bathroom and kitchenette.

Sadly, the inadequacy of the current housing supply has led to the emergence of slumlords. These are people who put together poorly constructed/maintained “apartment” buildings and then charge the working class an arm and a leg for those “apartments” which are well below any decent housing standards. These slum lords have been able to get away with this practice because the rental market is not regulated.

If the demand for housing cannot be met by rentals then the alternative has to be private home ownership. For the middle and working class this means securing a mortgage and that is harder than it sounds. Even if a person has been renting a house for $1,000/month that does not mean that he/she can obtain a mortgage that requires a monthly payment of $1,000. First off if that person has no land his/her dreams of a mortgage is dead. Secondly the risk averse nature of our banking system imposes heavy collateral requirements which often kill the dreams of prospective home owners.

Given the state of the housing sector there is clearly a need for policy intervention. Such intervention should come from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development whose mission is to “implement government’s view that a secure home is fundamental to the development of a strong family. The Ministry will take positive action in assisting families to access quality and affordable housing for all”

In pursuit of its Mission over the fiscal year 2018/2019 the Ministry was allocated a mere $2.03 million. With a staff of 46, emoluments gobbled up a significant 63.4% ($1.28 million) of its entire budget. In fact the only expenditure that can be considered to be in pursuit of the Ministry’s Mission is the $190,000 allocated to home improvement grants/loans and the $168,000 subvention to the Central Building Authority (which seems to have assumed a significant portion of the responsibilities of the Ministry).

It would not be unfair to say that the Ministry of Housing has failed miserably. Despite the fact that the housing crisis is growing worst the Ministry has offered no meaningful intervention. In fact, the Ministry does not yet have a Housing Policy to guide its work, notwithstanding the launch of said policy back in June of 2015. The policy development process should have taken three months but forty months later, nada! This is a clear indication of the importance that the Government has placed on housing.

We can all agree that an effective Ministry of Housing is essential if we are to properly address the housing crisis. Firstly they need to start with empirical data. The Ministry does not have any updated data on the housing stock and since it does not forecast demand it is unable to ensure the adequacy of supply. Whereas, for example, the Government regulates the prices of basic food items it does not regulate the rental market. Since this is where the poor resides there is a need for some regulation to protect them from price gouging at the very least.

It is clear that the political class is well aware of the housing situation; that is why every Party promises voters that they will build them houses. The Barrow administration’s outlook is captured in the mission of the Ministry of Housing as stated above. John Briceno’s PUP has included housing in what it dubs the “Belizean Bill of Rights;” housing is second only after universal land ownership.

The BPP perhaps has the most well articulated road map for the housing sector. It starts with the development of a Housing Master Plan which would be anchored by the granting of a house lot to every Belizean upon registering as an elector. Financing for first time homeowners would presumably drive the construction of homes for the middle class and the working class/poor would benefit from a regulated rental market.

The 1998-2008 Musa administration had promised to build ten thousand homes and by his supporters’ count they came close to fulfilling that promise. However many of the approximately eight thousand homes that were built ended up being foreclosed on and as part of his successful 2012 election strategy Mr. Barrow moved to write off outstanding loans of $50,000 or less.

The Barrow administration has not made the construction of new homes a priority over its 10 years thus far and Mr. Barrow has been successful at the poll for an unprecedented three successive terms. This might very well signal, on the part of the voter, the abandonment of the idea that it is the Government’s job to build people homes. If this is so, I wonder how it will influence the next general elections and the promises made during the lead-up campaign.

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