‘O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.’
(A Hymn: O God of Earth and Altar
by Gilbert Keith Chesterton)
I am pleased and relieved to learn that at a time of economic stringency, housing is still on top of this government’s priority list and after years of inaction in the housing sector, the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance has recognised the need to address the housing crisis by allocating Rs. 12.7 billion for the construction of 6,800 new social housing units. According to recent press articles, 1,358 housing units have been built in the last 3 years whereas 20,778 people are on the waiting list of the National Housing Development Company (NHDC). The number of people waiting for a NHDC ‘decent dwelling’ has nearly doubled since December 2014, with now some 11,443 people earning between Rs 6,200 and Rs 10,000 registered as of March 2018. Are the hard working poor Mauritians getting poorer?
What is the meaning of ‘decent dwelling’?
Since the 1830s, many reformers in Britain wanted to combat filthy urban living conditions as sewage was flowing down the streets every day, causing health threats and spreading diseases such as cholera and typhus. It was in 1874 when the conservatives came in power, that Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli committed to bring social reform. One of the major steps forward for public health in Great Britain was Disraeli ensuring the passing of the Public Health Act 1875 despite various criticisms from the opposition. The 1875 Act gave local authorities the power to build and repair sewers, control water supplies, create laws to control new streets and buildings and regulate cellars and lodging houses. Furthermore, under the said Act, all new residential construction were required to include running water and internal drainage system which led the government to ban the construction of shoddy housing (poor quality housing) by building contractors. The meaning of a decent dwelling for Benjamin Disraeli is, ‘’sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas” (Health above Everything), a famous phrase, he retorted to the mockery of his opponents in parliament.
What are the measures to combat poor housing conditions?
In the budget speech 2018-19, Rs. 176 million has been allocated for the rehabilitation of 41 NHDC housing estates of more than 20 years old where some 6,200 people live (which includes waterproofing works, treatment of cracks and rehabilitation of water reticulation networks) compared to Rs 155 million for the fiscal year 2016-2017. If year after year, millions of rupees are allocated for concrete repair and waterproofing of single storey to ground plus three NHDC apartments, what are the measures to regulate the construction of housing estates? What are the measures to prevent cracks and water infiltration for new ground plus three apartments if using pre-stressed concrete slabs in order to avoid similar situations where successive governments have to commit to the repair of estates built more than 20 years ago? Furthermore, in the absence of appropriate legislation and standards related to housing in Mauritius, how do we define a ‘decent dwelling’ that one can call home?
I am pleased to hear the set of announcements made in the budget speech 2018-19 but the government can meet the scale of the challenge only if there is a greater focus across. The Prime Minister, Minister of Finance was right to recognise in the Budget Speech 2017-18 that social ills are rooted in inadequate and poor housing conditions by making the pledge to resolve the housing problems for thousands of poor and low income families. But if for 2018 -2019, the budget allocated for housing is nearly Rs. 14 billion compared to Rs. 6.8 billion for the financial year 2017-2018, could it be that politicians have not done enough to tackle the housing crisis?
It will be years before many of these initiatives lead to new homes being built so I urge the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance to reconsider some of my suggestions:
- Prepare a ‘Housing Needs Assessment’ to know exactly how many households are in housing need for allocation to the right people.
- Put more emphasis on ‘Good Quality’ in housing and meet the size of new housing according to occupancy.
Design and build new housing units to international minimum space standards.