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Give top priority to affordable homes

02 Apr 2021 / 14:50 H.

OF all the tasks any government undertakes in nation-building, I cannot think of a more crucial one than housing the people. Not just any kind of housing, but affordable homes.

And by the same token, affordable not merely on paper but within the means of particularly the low-income population, better known as the B40 group.

Readers of this column might get the impression that this is a problem that exists only in developing countries. It is not. The United States of America is touted as the world’s richest nation but when it comes to housing its people, there is no doubt that the US has failed its poor population miserably.

A few recent videos that went viral on social media show the dire conditions of homeless Americans that leave viewers even in poor countries to wonder how this could happen to a so-called great country that must have over the decades spent trillions of dollars launching military actions overseas but could not provide housing to the homeless.

I had the opportunity many years ago of participating in a month-long group study tour of the US and in several states that we visited. It was an eye-opener for us journalists from several developing countries to bump into so many homeless people sleeping on street pavements.

Here in our own backyard, all stakeholders, especially the government, must get cracking on making available affordable homes to the needy without any more polemics or politicking. And more importantly, to give the agenda on affordable homes the No. 1 priority.

In the 2018 Budget presented in Parliament, a RM2.2 billion shot in the arm was announced to build 248,000 more affordable houses under various schemes to meet the increasing demand.

Is the target being met? There is obviously a weak link in the eco-system of affordable homes that is being increasingly felt by market players and stakeholders. And this must be addressed quickly, moving forward. Some years ago, the chief economist of Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd, Manokaran Mottain, came up with a noble and brilliant proposal that a single authority be set up to govern the entire national affordable housing agenda.

The rationale is that in order to boost Malaysia’s home ownership level, a single agency is enough because having too many bodies in charge of the various housing schemes will only further dampen the national agenda.

Among other things, this will mean the single agency will oversee such projects and ensure that completion of the development is within the stipulated time-frame.

It can serve as a more powerful regulatory body, rather than having so many smaller ones operating under different management and schemes. Manokaran suggested the name of this entity as Malaysian Affordable Housing Agency. But till today, it has not been set up.

It’s rampant to see abandoned housing projects in Malaysia which B40 buyers had paid hard-earned deposits, thus losing their life savings, including becoming victims of bogus housing projects.

What we have instead is a myriad of agencies pursuing their own thing or grappling to deliver affordable homes, reflecting the bloated and duplicated way things are being managed.

There is the Syarikat Perumahan Negara Bhd, the Jabatan Perumahan Negara or National Housing Department, the 1Malaysia Housing Programme (PR1MA), PR1MA Awam for civil servants housing schemes as well as the various projects undertaken by various state economic development corporations. This only results in disorientation, and problems arise with no coordination and each agency not talking to each other.

I am a consistent advocate for Malaysians or Malaysian institutions to learn from Singapore, and nowhere is this more imperative than in the affordable housing sector. In Singapore, the provision of public housing is handled by just one body, the Housing Development Board or HDB.

HDB has become Singapore’s most famous brand besides being one the island nation’s success stories as well as being the world’s most successful home ownership authority that has made available affordable homes to over 90% of its population.

I really hope our officials could make study tours across the Causeway to speed up the formation of our own HDB. This is a challenge that with political will could now be made easier to implement because our Minister of Housing and Local Government Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin herself grew up in Singapore and personally knows and understands what it takes to boost our affordable home ownership. Bank Negara Malaysia, too, in its various reports, is particularly concerned about the serious mismatch between supply and demand of such houses and the prices which make them unaffordable to the needy, who are still longing to own one.

The then central bank governor, Tan Sri Muhammad Ibrahim, in 2017 gave the thumbs-up to the single authority idea, which he said was “critical” in spearheading the national affordable home agenda.

To cite one classic example of the critical supply-demand mismatch – when the Selangor government recently announced plans to build 1,000 affordable homes, guess how many people applied? It is 10,000 or 20,000? No. Over 60,000 scrambled to apply for just 1,000 homes. The latest to lend strong support to the affordable home bandwagon is Berjaya Corporation Bhd founder and executive chairman Tan Sri Vincent Tan.

The billionaire, who recently announced that he would give half of his wealth to charity, said he is doing so particularly to help the underprivileged to own affordable homes as housing is “the basic need of human beings and essential for a person’s sense of dignity, safety and inclusion”.

Very well said, indeed, and it is the first time I have read such passionate wisdom on affordable homes.

“I am also passionate about building affordable homes for Malaysians”, said Tan, who also revealed that Berjaya has successfully designed and built models of such spacious (900sq ft) homes for different cities and towns.

And he appeals to more wealthy Malaysians to do the same. Let’s get cracking on this national agenda.

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