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27.02.2006 Feature Article

Letter From The President: Housing helps thinking

Letter From The President: Housing helps thinking
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Countrymen and women, loyalists and opponents it appears to me that our country has become very boring over the past three weeks or so. The radio talkshows are not exciting and 'fresh' anymore. People have been talking about the same issue for the past month: ROPAB. Well, I have had enough of that. We've passed it anyway and I will deal with that next week. For now, I think we need to move on and address other pressing national issues. That's exactly what I am going to do in this letter.

I heard MPs talking about housing a few days ago and it got me thinking seriously about the housing situation in Sikaman. I have conducted a very unscientific survey and the results are startling. Even though my survey was unscientific, I don't think that any book-long, scientific researcher will question my findings.

My research has revealed that an overwhelming majority of Sikaman citizens lack adequate housing. When I talk about adequate housing, I mean the most basic of requirements: a secured enclosure with a roof that protects the occupant from the vagaries of the weather and secures their privacy. Our citizens are sleeping rough in all sorts of places. In my research, I came across people who sleep in uncompleted structures, on pavements, walkways and even on streets. I have even been told about a family which shares space with goats. The situation in indeed very dire.

Who caused it? Well, in my opinion, I think it's a combination of factors – rapid population growth and urbanization have increased the demand for (and the cost of) housing. This has made it impossible for most citizens to rent suitable accommodation, much less think of buying or building their own houses. Governmental ineptitude at enforcing existing laws and lack of planning has compounded the problem.

In Sikaman today, homeowners will only rent out their properties at exorbitant rates, often quoted in US dollars. To add insult to injury, they will ask for three or more years' advance. For example, a simple chamber and hall accommodation in one of the suburbs in Accra will cost about two hundred thousand cedis per month. At three years' advance, the tenant should be paying 7.2 million cedis. That's a lot of money for most Sikaman citizens who do not earn that much in a year. It seems that no one is interested in enforcing the law which prohibits the charging of rent advances. As a result landlords are having a field day – sapping the lifeblood out of our citizens. You see, when you ask a man to pay more than he earns in a whole year on accommodation, you are essentially asking him to go and sleep in the gutter. And that's exactly what our desperate citizens are doing – sleeping in gutters and goat pens. It's no wonder that our minds are so warped in this country. If you sleep with goats and chicken (or in gutters) how well can you possibly think?

I have come to the conclusion that most Sikaman citizens think upside-down because they don't sleep well. This is not a verifiable scientific fact – it's common sense. The earlier we come to this realization, the better. I was very glad to hear the MPs talking about this issue. But then that's all we do in this country, isn't it? We are very good at talking but when it comes to actually doing what has been said we all become experts at feet-dragging. We need to act and one of the first things to do is to introduce a national housing scheme that will make it possible for every citizen to live and sleep in a dignified dwellings. The 'half-hearted', uncoordinated construction of housing units which recently started in part of the country is not good enough. In fact, these projects have exposed the lack of common sense in our country. Recently the works and housing minister laid the foundation stone for work to start on the construction of housing low-cost units at the outskirts of Accra. These are going to be semi-detached units, which will take up a lot of land and yet accommodate a few hundred households. Most of the people who are supposed to be staying in these houses are supposed to be working in Accra. Therefore, when the units are completed and they move, they will have to travel about two hours each day into Accra for work. That means that they will be spending about four hours each day transporting themselves to and from work. So I ask myself – wouldn't it have been wiser to acquire a piece of land somewhere closer to the centre of Accra to construct about 10 or 20 storey units to serve the same purpose and possibly accommodate more households? I am not a very wise person (and I know nothing about land economy or management) but I think that on this score, my wisdom seems superior to that of the so-called experts.

What I am saying, essentially, is that we need new housing models in our country. Real estate firms should stop building semi-detached houses (which take too much land) for the middle- to high-income earners. They should start building storey apartments (that take less space) for those who earn next to nothing to rent (without having to pay anything in advance, of course). If you charge the so-called average citizen 200 thousand cedis per month as rent and you don't demand any advance, even the truck pushers can afford adequate dwelling. I will like the Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) to take the lead in this regard. Instead of using our pension monies to build fancy hotels – and hostels – they should go into the provision of the most basic accommodation for our struggling masses. They would indeed be providing real 'social security'. I also expect the banks to introduce mortgage schemes that will enable people acquire their own homes. I have heard it being said that mortgage schemes will help stem the brain drain we suffer in Sikaman. I agree. We need a mortgage scheme now.

I suppose that from what I have said so far, I don't need to tell anyone to start arresting landlords who charge rent advances. If we arrest and prosecute about ten landlords in the next couple of weeks, they will all come to their senses and stop flouting the law. This will bring a lot of relief to our people and go a long way to support our efforts at reducing poverty in Sikaman. I have wisely drawn a very clever link between poverty eradication and (the lack of affordable) housing in Sikaman. In our country today, people borrow huge sums of money to pay rent advances – mostly from loan sharks. After paying the 'advance', the borrower is then forced into a situation where he has to overwork himself just to repay his loan. In most cases, the rent advance runs out even before the loan is repaid. So the man goes to borrow once again and the cycle continues. Before long, he is deeply buried in debt and his very existence is jeopardized. Let's make it possible for this man to borrow money but not for the payment of rent advance. What is borrowed should rather be used to capitalize his table-top business, profits from which will be used to pay rent on a monthly basis and repay his loan until such a time that he needs not go borrowing again – he has conquered poverty. Not only that! He will be sleeping well and thinking properly for himself and for his nation.

Excellently yours, J. A. Fukuor [email protected]

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