The Price of Late Development

OUR country can be likened to a school boy who during the year has been playing truant and did not bother to study.

But come exam time, it is then that he tries to catch up and do everything over night. The results are always disastrous, as most of us know. I am saying this in light of the sudden urgent attention, which is being given to the housing issue with the announcement of the so-called mass housing scheme or initiative. This is a big national programme judging by the billions that have been budgeted for this ambitious venture.

Now this week, as I was watching the NBC’s ‘Talk of the Nation’, I realised that this ambitious programme is not likely to solve the housing crisis in any significant manner. I’m afraid it will flounder like the Tipeeg programme – where there are no concrete figures of how many jobs were created and in which sectors or companies.

What we are witnessing now are individuals who are lining up and are not really eager to help Government address the issue of housing head-on, but instead to cash in on the big bucks to be gotten through all sorts of under the table deals.

A front-page headline in the Windhoek Observer said it all: ‘Mass housing a rip off’. The paper was citing some companies that are charging aomical amounts just to service land. Some other local companies were also exposed, for teaming up with foreign companies to build houses as if there are no bona fide Namibian companies, which can do the job.

But my main concern, just by listening to the panel on that ‘Talk of the Nation’, are the usual excuses that we have been hearing from many uncritical people as to why houses are so expensive – with Namibia being listed as the fourth most expensive in the world, after Hong Kong, Dubai and Brazil.

Some of the reasons that are usually proffered either for the shortage of houses are because of population growth. But this is precisely the price we have to pay for late development as if we did not know that population growth was a yearly occurrence.

Then the other problem cited is the typical capitalist argument of demand and supply. We are told that because the demand is higher than the available houses that this leads to higher prices as well. But the question is: if there is higher demand for the product (in this case land), why can’t I produce more of the product if there is many to make? Here again, the excuse that we get is that there is not enough serviced land or that there is no land at all in most towns. Again there are some problems with this kind of argument.

First, in a country with so many cities and towns and a small population, I will not buy the argument that there is not enough land available. The point is that urban land has not reached such a level of scarcity as to make the prices so high. The reason must be sought elsewhere. When I interviewed Niilo Taapopi, the Windhoek’s CEO, way back in 2008, he admitted that land was the city council’s number one money-spinner followed by electricity, rates and taxes.

Which now begs the question as to why our cities and towns don’t service more land? One reason that is usually given is that it is costly to service plots. By this is a circular argument because the high plot prices are explained in terms of cost cover. In my view the problem is that our townscities have not been creative enough to explore other sources of revenue and that’s why they have to milk the consumers every now and then.

But it is clear that municipalities are pushing the urban poor into margins of city life and into poverty. When he was the PM, Nahas Angula, warned that most cities were simply making it difficult for the poor to afford land. The ironic thing is that when the poor are trying to help themselves by setting up their own structure (in the absence of decent housing units) these are quickly bulldozed by our heartless municipalities.

But it is enough to put blame for either the shortage of land or houses in our cities on municipalities alone. The commercial banks are their evaluators and the various estates agents and developers are also to blame because at the end of the day, they are the ones who determine the prices of the houses.

It would be interesting to see as to who is going to determine the value of the state’s funded houses under the mass housing scheme! Since the Government is the custodian of urban land and the new houses that will be build under this scheme it should step in and rein in the municipalities, the bank, agents and developers alike.

Otherwise the provision of housing to all will remain a pie in the sky.

Source : The Namibian