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Is the housing boom our friend or enemy?


EDITOR: With the hurricane season on us again, no doubt homeowners in SVG must be thinking seriously about the safety of their homes.

Recent environmental events and discussions of hurricanes, tsunamis, climate change, coastal erosion and rising sea levels must take on new meaning for property owners, especially those on the seafront. Those contemplating future construction must also be preoccupied with thoughts of moving inward and upward to more sheltered land, but this must be a carefully monitored approach. {{more}}

My hope is that our houses in SVG are well designed and built to withstand the ravages of the brutal hurricane season Mother Nature promises to unleash this year.

As I thought more in depth about the housing situation in SVG, I was forced to ask myself whether the housing boom that we have witnessed over the last couple of years is indeed our friend or our enemy.

Within the last decade, and particularly in the last five years, we have witnessed a proliferation of housing construction in SVG. It appears that hundreds of new units of housing have been built, which must have significantly contributed to the national budget and job creation. Access to financing for housing construction has also increased with almost every financial institution competing to offer the best deals, despite the ghastly interest rates market wide. Despite this, private and public housing has taken off to new heights.

However, the situation of housing in SVG must be examined beyond the positive aspects of home-ownership.

Homeownership is a positive thing. Besides creating potential wealth for those who are able to repay their mortgages and stave off foreclosure, there is a sense of security in having a property that can be called your own. There is also a sense of pride in being able to live in a decent house with good sanitary conditions.

Additionally, some people have seen the benefit of building smartly, so that the property pays off for itself through rentals. A house is also an asset that can be used as security for financing other things such as an education, or to pass along to other family members and relatives. But beyond these positives we must think of the challenges.

For many people, repaying a mortgage is nothing more than a thorn in the flesh, which causes other stresses on an individual’s finances and lifestyle.

Nonetheless, some may call this a necessary evil. But, what I find particularly disturbing is the penchant for grandeur that appears to flatter the aesthetic imagination of Vincentians while busting their pocket lines. There appears to be a competition for the biggest and best-designed house, despite the strain of paying for pride. I often wonder about the terms of repayment to the banks, how long the owners will have to repay the loans, whether retirement will be burdened with mortgage payments, and the general strain on the family. I often wonder too, whether or not these houses are built with the thoughts that some day parts of the house may be inaccessible due to old age or disability. Similarly, I wonder how much consideration is given to the rising costs of insurance and maintenance.

Additionally, I wonder about the environmental impact of our housing boom. A drive around the country reveals expanses of cleared landscape, scattered with houses, where once there were only trees and greenery. Some may consider this the price of modernity and development. But what is the impact on our water supply, plant and wildlife, and therefore our national efforts at conservation? Also, I have only recently begun to hear discussion about adherence to building codes, with regard to the ability of properties to stand up to hurricanes, floods and other disasters.

I wonder what efforts will be made to ensure that houses built before 2005 are in compliance with these codes. Housing in new areas also demands an increase in infrastructure such as roads, which can generate other environmental problems associated with vehicular traffic. In fact, the issues raised in this piece are only a sampling of the things that must concern us as Vincentians as we develop the housing stock in our nation.

As a Vincentian with an interest in social policy and development, I am concerned about our housing situation in SVG.

There is an urgent need for Vincentian policy makers to set in motion a cross-sectoral, nationwide debate about housing and its relationship to other aspects of our society. We cannot continue to build with the ferocity with which we are doing, without considering issues of sustainability. The challenge is to come up with an approach that does not deny persons the right to a decent place to call home, while at the same time protecting our people and land.

Sherrill-Ann Mason