The Early Years: 1955-1991

Rambassun (Sandeep) Sewpal

Chartered Architect, Principal at Sandeep Sewpal Architect

 The Birth of Social Housing

The government contributed to some 92,250 houses which account for about 27% of the housing stock in the country over the last 60 years. The first housing estates were built in 1955 by the local government. 1000 houses were built for workers known as ‘Cité Ouvrière’ in the suburbs of the city of Port Louis and the towns of Quatre Bornes, Beau Bassin–Rose Hill and Curepipe. The following year, the Ministry of Housing & Lands started the process to formulate a housing programme. But in 1960, the country was hit by two successive cyclones, notably Alix and Carol which destroyed nearly 40% of the housing stock.

An old and abandoned house of Cité Ouvrière (Résidence) Candos of the 1950s

The housing issue was high priority on the government’s agenda as it turned into a national crisis. The same year, the government initiated its social housing programme by setting up the Central Housing Authority (CHA), a government corporation to build estates to re-house cyclone victims. It was the first time that the government engaged in the social housing sector to reduce the housing shortage caused by the cyclones.  At that time, most houses were built of either thatched roof or corrugated iron sheets on timber frames, which were vulnerable to high cyclonic winds. In response to the problem, the Central Housing Authority (CHA) proposed an alternative method of construction which was resistant to high winds and rapid to manufacture. They opted for the prefabricated house which was composed of asbestos panels and corrugated iron sheets roofing with steel bracing. Another technique of construction also used was in-situ concrete formwork to construct walls and roofs.  Between 1961 and 1970, some 14,000 houses were built at a highly subsidised rate. As most cyclone victims were not land owners, the state took the decision to build housing estates across the country.  6,000 houses were built on estates in urban areas and 3,000 houses on estates in rural areas. Some 4,000 houses were built on private sites while the rest of houses were smaller in size and built for small households. It was not long after the housing programme was completed in 1975 that cyclones hit the country again and destroyed some 13,000 houses. The government initiated a programme to build 10,000 houses over a period of 5 years starting in 1975. The responsibility to achieve the aim of the programme was attributed to three main stakeholders. The Central Housing Authority (CHA) was entrusted the construction of 7,000 units, the Mauritius Housing Corporation (MHC) with 2,000 units and the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWF) with 600 units. The government received the help of the European Development Fund to finance the construction of an additional of 600 housing units. Unfortunately, the programme faced many hurdles in its implementation. The government encountered delays in the land acquisition process, experienced poor infrastructure planning and was subdued by escalating costs of construction. Despite all the difficulties, the government maintained their programme. Compared to the former programme, the government increased the affordability of the dwellings for low income households. The costs of land and infrastructure were entirely subsidised and the repayment period of a very low interest loan was spread over 40 years.

A Longtill-type house built in 1966 in Rose-Hill

The Housing Crisis

By late 1970s, the government realised that the policy of high subsidy could not be prolonged and had to be reviewed. In 1979, 2,500 houses were damaged during cyclone Claudette. The government was not as responsive to the need of the cyclone victims as in the case of previous calamities. It is due to the fact that the World Bank, as main lending agency exerted pressure on the government to start an on-going programme for housing instead of considering the funds provided for their emergency action-based programme. The government hence moved towards the concept of affordability and adopted strategies to recover full cost of housing projects. In the early 1980s, surveys were conducted to test the social acceptability of core housing units, sites and services. The result was positive. The government received financial support from the European Development Fund to allocate funds for sites and services projects and building loan to some 500 beneficiaries. The World Bank financed the first phase of La Tour Koenig housing project which consisted of sites and services, and construction of housing units and in turn, allocated to some 600 households. Between 1984 and 1990, the role of the government in the social housing sector gradually phased out following the implementation of La Tour Koenig housing project. The CHA conducted only minor projects such as the re-housing of La Butte landslide victims whereas the government did not carry out any major housing development during that time.

Résidence Saphyr, Beau-Bois, inaugurated in 2017

Right-to-Buy

There was a gradual shift in housing policy as from 1986 focusing on three main issues. Firstly, quality of life became a matter of concern, secondly, the condition of sugar camp dwellers needed improvement and finally home ownership was promoted. Therefore, the government tackled the issue of quality of life by renovating the existing CHA estates and upgrading the infrastructure. Sugar estates were requested by the government to parcel out land into individual plots to be allocated to its workers. The cost of land servicing was publicly funded while land transfer was exempted from taxation. Moreover, the government provided a part grant and part soft loan mechanism to amortise the costs of construction of a dwelling. Home ownership was encouraged through exemption of stamp duty for first time buyers of a plot of residential land and a partial grant when applying for housing loan to the MHC. CHA and SILWF residents living in estates built before 1976 were allowed to purchase their houses against payment of a minimal final payment. Further to the acquisition of their houses, the people were entitled to a soft loan from the MHC for renovation purposes. Since 1960, it was noted that fewer houses were affected by successive cyclones. It was a clear indication that the housing stock has considerably improved and of better quality. The per capita income of Mauritius almost quadrupled from 1968 to 1993 which suggest that the ability to invest in a house has increased for wage earners over the last 25 years. Consequently, this indicates that better housing units could be designed and implemented for low income groups at an affordable rate compared to the housing schemes previously provided by the CHA. In 1989, the government decided to review its housing strategy by dealing with urban planning issues to eliminate the problems related to the scarcity of land resources and an on-going housing demand. The government was also faced with difficulties to implement an ambitious housing programme due to a shortage of skilled workers and materials in the construction industry at the same time. The government decided to channel its resources to stimulate the use of latest building technologies in the construction of mid-rise buildings in order to keep construction cost low. The aim was to encourage real estate investors and construction companies to provide flats for low and middle income earners. The mechanism introduced as incentive was a Housing Development Certificate delivered to investors and contractors. The certificate offered the beneficiary reduction in corporate tax, income tax exemption for a period of eight years, duty and levy exemption on the import of construction materials and equipment, part remission on stamp duty and land conversion tax for land acquisition and loans from Development Bank of Mauritius (DBM) and Mauritius Housing Corporation (MHC). Out of 59 applications received for a Housing Development Certificate, only 18 were granted in order to build 2,500 housing units. The Ministry of Housing & Lands issued a letter of intent to another 18 construction companies to provide an additional 1,000 housing units. At the end, despite the effort of the government to boost the housing sector, no construction company or investor applied for projects targeting low income groups. Most of the applications received targeted construction of dwellings for upper middle and middle income groups with little provision for lower middle income earners.

The government formulated a new policy entitled, ‘un toit pour chaque famille’ which can be literally translated as ‘a roof for every family’ and was presented in its 1990/1991 budget. The aim of the policy was to overcome the housing need of lower income groups who fell through the cracks in the previous scheme presented in 1989. The government started a highly ambitious programme in 1990 by setting up a Task Force to conduct a national survey on the social housing sector and to bring solution in housing development for low and middle income earners. In 1991, the Task Force published the National Housing Programme. It was a programme spread over 10 years and aimed at providing 73,000 housing units to low and middle income earners.  The Task Force recommended that allocation of 40% of the funds for housing projects should be dedicated to lower income groups. The programme emphasised on the idea of community development rather than housing estates to tackle the problem of social exclusion by planning new developments near established neighbourhoods and close to employment centres.

New Directions: From 1992 into a New Century

 From Social Housing to Affordable Housing

In 1992, the government created the National Housing Development Company Ltd (NHDC) to act as its implementation agency in the social housing sector. The NHDC received Rs. 200 million as seed capital to start its activities which involved the construction of housing units for low and middle income groups. In this venture, the government was accountable to the cost of land and infrastructure such as roads, drainage system, water supply, energy supply and sewerage. By 1994, the NHDC had already constructed several low rise flats in different areas totalling 2,030 units and had 1,360 housing units under construction. The government took further action to make housing accessible to low and middle income groups by lowering the down payment for the purchase of a housing unit to a minimal value of 5% for low income earners and 10% for middle income earners. In addition to the change brought in the down payment system, the government reviewed the loan repayment facilities by setting up a progressive repayment system for low income earners to alleviate their financial burden. The very low income households were not neglected by the government. Between 1984 and 1993, the state allocated some 1,340 building site leases to enable the people to build their own individual houses. The government also regularised some 1,298 squatters who illegally occupied state lands by 1991. In 1993, the CHA was closed down by the government shortly after the creation of the NHDC. The Housing Management Unit (HMU) of the Ministry of Housing & Lands (MHL) assumed the control of the management of the CHA housing estates. 6.2% of the national budget for 1994-1995 was allocated to the Housing Division of the Ministry of Housing & Lands. Out of the capital budget of the Housing Division, 2% of the funds were directed towards housing subsidy. In the implementation of the new low income housing programme, one of the major difficulties that the state encountered was the provision of infrastructure and amenities such as water, electricity and sewerage simultaneously with the construction of housing units. The cost of off-site works was very high and amounted to 30% of the housing project value. The other difficulty that the government faced was the renovation of existing housing estates and provision of basic facilities such as water and sewerage. The renovation works included the improvement of existing services where required and the construction of new systems where it was lacking. The state disbursed an average of Rs. 50 million for renovation works yearly from 1993 to 1995.

NHDC Fleury sur Mer, Trou-aux-Biches

From Social Equality to Personal Responsibility

In 1997, the government reviewed its strategies and decided to adopt new policies regarding housing matters. In this context, the objective of the government changed from social equality to personal responsibility and independence by introducing new schemes enhancing self-help and financial assistance. The government established a grant scheme targeting households who already owned of their land but were unable to pay for the construction of a concrete house. The grant scheme provided fund to eligible households for the casting of roof slab and purchase of building materials. In 2000, the government launched a new scheme in the view to help the very poor who cannot even afford the housing unit provided by the government at lowest cost or construct a house on a plot of land that they already own. This scheme was managed by a newly created organisation namely, the Trust Fund for the Social Integration of Vulnerable Groups (TFSIVG). The scheme involved the construction of a housing unit out of timber structure and corrugated iron sheets on the land owned by the beneficiary at no cost. In 2004, the government took new directions to tackle an ever growing problem which has been the proliferation of squatters on state lands. New policies were brought to regularise the situation of squatters and the Squatter Unit was reinforced to control the problem and prevent it to escalate. The government granted 13,450 building site leases for construction purposes and out of it, 2,700 squatters were allocated land formerly under illegal occupation. The year 2005 witnessed the creation of the National Empowerment Foundation (NEF) which took under its control the TFSIVG. The aim of the newly formed organisation went further than providing a dwelling to the very poor; it had for role to educate the people, provide them with training and assist them in getting a job so that they become independent and improve their own living condition and that of their family. The ‘right to buy’ policy made its reappearance in 2007 giving the opportunity to CHA housing estates occupiers to purchase the land on which their houses sit on. The land was sold to the occupiers at a nominal value of Rs. 2000 to allow them become full owner of their assets. In 2010, the Ministry of Social Integration and Economic Empowerment was created to take over the NEF and TFSIVG. In 2011, the government announced in its budget speech a new housing strategy under the title, ‘Housing with good living’. It had for goal to meet the needs of low and middle income groups by developing new communities with a mix of housing projects, serviced lots, social amenities and recreational facilities. The programme included an important aspect that dealt with sustainability by mentioning the construction of housing units based on the principles of green building. In order to better cater for the needs of households below poverty line, the government decided to set up the Social Register of Mauritius (SRM) in 2012 as a tool to guide the effectiveness of policies proposed for the social housing sector. Due to the problem of unpaid service charges and management fees commonly known as ‘syndic’ fees on NHDC housing estates, the government decided to contribute Rs 2,400 per annum for every household on all estates to maintain common areas. (MHL 2012) The ‘syndic’ subsidy scheme will be extended for the year 2013 according to the 2013 budget. In 2015, the government reviewed the size of core housing units from 39m2 to 50m2 following criticism from the Catholic Church.

 Bibliography

 ECOSOC, 1994. Mauritius: Periodic Report on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Geneva: UNHCHR, (E/1990/5/Add.21)