By ALICIA WALLACE
Home ownership is not easy. It is no walk in the park to look for, purchase, build, or maintain a house. Anyone who has gone through the process, or even attempted it, knows this and has anecdotes to share. There is nothing simple about it.
Questions about the Affordable Homes Programme
There have been conversations about the low qualification rate of applicants to the affordable homes programme. People want to know why applicants do not qualify. What are the requirements? How far off are the people who have been rejected? Is the government working with them to assess their applications and show them what needs to be changed? Is the response solution-based and does the government recognize this as a financial crisis?
We’re just not tough enough
Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar, speaking on the affordable homes programme, made ludicrous, sweeping statements about the Bahamian people. He said we need to “have skin in the game” and need to have more discipline. D’Aguilar compared Bahamians in the market for homes with our parents and grandparents who, apparently, were better than us and living a “much simpler and harder life”. Our desire for cellphones in a world that demands connectivity and air conditioning in 86 degree weather apparently means we have “lost [our] way”.
What a case D’Aguilar has built against, in particular, young Bahamians. We, the products of the perfect generations before us, are blamed for our struggles. There is no sign of a previous or impending review of the application process, programme requirements, or current economic environment. It is, indeed, far easier to blame the people who do not meet the mark. It could not possibly be a miscalculation on the part of the body that designed the programme with only 15 percent of applicants qualifying. When the Bahamians of the uniform branches do not qualify, something must be wrong. It is common knowledge that people seek government jobs with the knowledge they can easily qualify for loans. Even they are being turned away.
Few applications? Low interest
I spoke to a few civil servants about their experiences with lending institutions and trying to buy land or houses. While some agreed it is easy to get a loan, others pointed out there is a limit to what they can borrow from commercial banks. Their loan payments, they said, cannot exceed a predetermined percentage of their income, usually around 35 percent. Most of them disagreed with D’Aguilar’s assertion that the programme is not a deal, but a steal.
One person said: “It’s not even close to a deal. Look at the areas they in and the size of the property. I see better deals in better areas. It don’t make sense.”
Why don’t more people own homes?
People who do not own homes are not failures. Most of us simply do not meet the rigid, old school requirements laid out by lending institutions. D’Aguilar referenced one of them. He pointed out that two incomes are usually required and suggested people make up with their exes and get married. Maybe he missed the absurdity when the words fell out of his mouth. Marriage is almost a prerequisite for home ownership. Why does it take two people?
When are we buying homes?
D’Aguilar referred to us as the “now” generation. This is a popular opinion. People think we expect everything to fall into our laps - and quickly. Nothing could be further from reality. The cost of living is higher, higher levels of education are demanded, salaries are stagnant and bureaucracy ensures every step in every process takes far longer than anyone would expect. We are forced to be the “later” generation. We have to think, assess, plan, act, maybe assess again and then wait. The complicated process of purchasing land or a house, no matter how important to us, involves all of those steps. Sometimes, part of the way through it, we realize it is not the way to go.
I posed a few questions to friends, family members and acquaintances about home ownership. Unsurprisingly, most of the people under 30 who bought or built homes in the last 10 years did it with a partner. Most of the people who did it on their own by the age of 30 are now 45 or over. In speaking to people my parents’ age, I found a split between those who bought homes by 30 and those who took about 10 years longer. The difference between them, in most cases, was marital status at the age of 30. Some were more selective about the area and it delayed the process.
I found quite a few people in my age group who bought or built homes in their 20s. All of the Bahamians were married, except for one who was engaged. Many of my Canadian friends said debt has kept them from being homeowners. They would all like to own homes, but need to pay off student loans first. In some cases, they already have children and very little financial wiggle room, if any. One Canadian woman was able to buy a house on her own at 27. When asked about student loans, she said she lived with her parents all through university and stayed until she paid off her debt. Another Canadian friend said she was only able to buy a house because her husband had made it a priority from a young age and had planned for it.
Views of home ownership changing
While home ownership remains a popular goal — maybe even an expectation — attitudes toward it have been changing over the years. It is generally on the list of things to do as an adult, after marriage and before the last child.
Interestingly, a number of Bahamians in my age group expressed ambivalence about home ownership. From the desire to travel and uncertainty about which country to live in to concerns about the never-ending maintenance expenses. Some see the market as more favourable toward renters than buyers. Quite a few people said they had never considered home ownership, either because it did not appeal to them in general or it seemed too out of reach. People are also delaying marriage, choosing not to marry at all, or unable to legally marry. This significantly reduces the ability to purchase a home.
What to do, what to do?
It must be easy, as a millionaire, to judge people based on what they do or do not have. It is quite a simple task to pick and choose the products and services people of lower incomes should be able to access. Surely, it is a breeze to flip through applications to a programme that rejects the people it was supposedly meant to help. It is like nothing to look at the past and compare it with the present without consideration to the context. What is difficult — and necessary — is to look at the structural issues that have put us in our current position — cost of living, minimum wage, interest rates and the far-reaching effects of relationship decisions.
If no-one is looking at the environment we have created and the people slogging through it, there will be no change. Less than 70 people bothered to apply to the affordable housing programme. Priorities are shifting along with our perceptions of what is possible — from marriage and home ownership to being able to meet the most basic of our own needs now and retirement — within this space. Whether the government knows it or not, that is worth talking about.