When the PUP of 1998 forwarded the promise that if the party was elected to government it would embark on constructing 10,000 houses across the country, it seemed as ambitious as the UDP promise to deliver free education to students if the party was chosen at the polls in 1993. Both promises struck a chord, and the UDP, 1993, and the PUP, 1998, got elected to government. Neither party, despite putting in some effort, delivered in a major way.
In the years since 1993, education costs at most institutions have increased, but there have been some subsidies for high school students whose parents aren’t well-off, and the tertiary level education provided at the University of Belize is less costly than in most countries. The ambitious plan to build 10,000 houses got off with a bang, but when the paint dried, there were cracks in too many walls, too many Belizeans couldn’t afford the mortgages, and Belize was up to its neck in debt, in bondage to foreign money lenders.
In his memoir, with malice toward none, former Prime Minister, Said W. Musa, wrote, “In 1998 far too many Belizean families lived in over-crowded, dilapidated houses with little hope for improvement.” The PUP of 1998 to 2003 is deserving of praise for recognizing the urgency to improve and increase our house stock. There is benefit to living in a nicely painted home, because the aesthetics are pleasing, and a house with sufficient space and the basic facilities positively impacts the physical and mental health of its occupants.
In his memoir, former PM Musa said, about his government’s housing agenda, “Our fiscal and monetary policies also stimulated the Credit Unions, Building Societies and the Commercial Banks to provide mortgage financing at competitive rates. Housing loans could be secured at 12% interest rate.” An interest rate of 12% is on the high side for housing, and that probably contributed more than corruption did to the housing initiative not being nearly as successful as it should have been, as the people hoped it would have been.
Disappointingly, since then (1998-2003), a period going on two decades, there has been little done to improve the housing situation. The state of housing when the new government took over in November last year was woeful.
At the concept stage of the PUP manifesto for 2020-2025, the world was not in the grip of a pandemic, but some months before the last general election the PUP knew, had to know, that the economic landscape had turned upside down, yet the party did not temper, downsize their promises. We are living in the worst of economic times, on the edge of the financial cliff, as we were informed by the Financial Secretary, Mr. Joe Waight, but the PUP still pledged, if elected, to “facilitate the building of at least 10,000 low-income homes in the next five years.”
Almost one year into its five-year mandate, the PUP has only just begun work on 150 starter homes. In comparison to what was promised in their manifesto, this is far too little, but facing the reality of the times, it’s a praiseworthy program, one that should be lauded, not only for how much it is helping out Belizeans who are most in need, but also for what it can do to motivate Belizeans toward a new vision on home ownership.
Persons who qualify for a starter home are paying just $25 per week, and after ten years they will own the homes. The government is heavily subsidizing the program, bearing 67% of the cost, while using the $25 per week that Belizeans are paying to cover the cost of labor. The starter homes are ferroconcrete structures built to withstand hurricanes, and they come with a kitchen, bathroom, living room, wash room, and a single bedroom.
When Belmopan was built in the 1960s, the smallest houses had two-bedrooms, and some have suggested that the new starter homes are a step back, but these detractors might not have factored in the present state of the economy. Things are so bad in Belize that the government had to cut the salaries of its employees and freeze all increments to keep the economy afloat.
Fifty years after Belmopan came into being, there are few houses in that city that homeowners haven’t made improvements on. The starter houses are designed to be expanded until they can hold as many as four bedrooms, if the new homeowners have that initiative. For those new homeowners who are in need of more rooms at this time, it would be good if conscientious community leaders got together and gave them some assistance. It’s easy. The core is already in place.
This is a great project: starter houses for the most needy among us, and when our economy picks up — hopefully the Covid-19 pandemic releases its grip on us soon — it will be good if the project continues to identify and help Belizeans across our land who are in need of a starter home. Maybe new starter homes will have two bedrooms. That can’t be impossible.
Because of decades of failure, Belizeans in need of a good home are in the thousands, and because our government is cash-strapped, it most likely will, for some time, not be able to get its housing program into full gear. But, using the concept of the starter home, Belizeans with a little wherewithal should be able to get going with the construction of their own.
Thanks to the National Bank initiative of the last government, the 12% mortgage interest rates that helped doom the 1998-2003 housing expansion program have been reduced at most lending institutions. The new government has to work to make it lower. The new government also has to identify/source or develop cheaper building materials. The cost of imported cement, steel, and all lumber is enormous, and increasing.
A house is almost always a sound investment, because we all need a roof over our head, and because land values and the cost of materials tend to go up. Houses tend to appreciate in value, but there is climate change to consider, and neighborhoods can go sour.
In the past, we have tended to overextend our wallets when constructing our homes, and then we spend the rest of our working years straining ourselves to meet the mortgage payments. The starter home idea, beginning at the beginning, a single bedroom, and ending up down the road with 2, 3, or 4 bedrooms is a good blueprint. In a time when there isn’t much to cheer about, the new government gets a plus on this one.