“I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.” ― George Bernard Shaw

Rambassun (Sandeep) Sewpal
Chartered Architect, Principal at Sandeep Sewpal Architect

Building good quality and affordable housing units should be a matter of pride for our politicians rather than an electoral liability. There are so many problems to tackle in the housing sector which are complex but not irremediable. In November 2013, the Office of Public Sector Governance released a report on the restructuring of the National Housing Development Company (NHDC). How many recommendations have been implemented so far? In 2013, more than 50% of NHDC clients were in arrears. How many NHDC clients are in arrears now? The government intends to build 6,000 new houses over 16 sites over next 3 years. But if we continue to build at current rates, new houses will take at least 12 years. The eligibility criteria has been reviewed by offering households with income up to Rs. 30,000 to benefit from a subsidy in order to make houses more affordable for a larger number of families. But are NHDC houses really affordable? In my article, Transforming Social Housing published in Le Forum page of Le Mauricien of 22 January 2019, I explained that ‘’Affordable Housing can be defined as ‘market-quality accommodation that can be afforded by people of lower incomes, usually measured as a society’s bottom income quartile. Affordability is reached, according to Freeman, when households’ residual income, which is the amount of cash left in a household’s pocket after paying for housing and related expenditure, is sufficient to pay for a basic basket of non-housing goods and services.’’ Is the residual income of households with income less than Rs 20,000 sufficient to pay for a basic basket of non-housing goods and services in Mauritius based on the Household Budget Survey 2017 of Statistics Mauritius?
In general, the capital cost of a poorly designed and poorly built home is not considerably less than a well-designed and well-built home in Mauritius. The cost of construction of an NHDC house of 50m2 (or 538.20 ft2) including the infrastructure is approximately Rs 1,250,000 which comes to Rs 2,322.56 per ft2. The cost of a house of 232.25m2 (or 2500 ft2) on the open market is approximately Rs. 4,000,000 plus the cost of land in a morcellement with all appropriate infrastructure at Rs 2,000,000 comes to Rs 2,400.00 per ft2. When comparing the cost of construction of an NHDC house to a house on the open market, there is little difference which shows that quality is not intrinsically linked to cost. Therefore, an NHDC house is not a low cost house. The only way that NHDC house becomes affordable to its clients is through an object subsidy. In this case, the government pays 15% to 66.67% of the cost of the house all depending on the criteria set by the Ministry of Housing & Lands to make the house affordable. Should the government continue to give massive subsidy from public funds to support a housing programme which shows little result?
Even though defining quality is difficult, would building houses which are monotonously uniform be the solution to address the issue of quality as presented in the Budget 2019-2020? Are we storing problems for the future by continuing to under-perform now? Are all Mauritians convinced by the actual housing programme? If not, would building better, more varied, more distinctive housing units and appropriate infrastructure help to increase public support for new development? Nevertheless, producing beautiful and functional housing units should be part of the system by including an active input from an architect in order to add real value to the building. Good design is the work of good designers, not an accident. The skills required to generate good design ranges from inspiring concepts, engaging in surveys with residents and produce adaptable and flexible buildings that can meet technical standards and regulations and protect the end users and environment with the purpose to serve many generations. In the context of housing, reform is needed across the industry and all parties have a role to play. This government or the next needs to come with a proper reform in the housing sector in order to build houses for families in housing need instead of setting targets that cannot be met within a term of 5 years. And the key factor to the success of a housing reform is through strong and enlightened leadership with deep-seated cultural and ideological shift.