This month the Government announced plans to launch a housing project in Colombo and its suburbs for low income families, the aim of which was to relocate families presently living in shanties and over the next 10 years permanently solve the country’s housing problem. According to the Prime Minister, the first phase will see 50,000 units built, with the funds to complete Phases Two and Three set to be secured over the next decade.
On paper this seems a win-win for all concerned, as those in low-income brackets are offered safe housing and the Government gets to use the repurposed land to follow through with ambitious construction projects. The reality of the situation though might not be so black and white.
The policy of universal housing remains a huge challenge, which has tested every administration. The housing policy has been tinkered with by successive governments, with different results over the decades and perhaps even centuries of Sri Lanka’s history.
While the prime objective of this latest avatar is to assist the housing needs of vulnerable groups, including those that will pop up in the future, the spectre of corruption, mismanagement and wastage looms large.
A comprehensive national housing policy must embrace the issues of land, infrastructure and finance as well as the capacity of the building materials, construction industry and the capability and aspirations of the people to house themselves.
In Sri Lanka each of these components of housing falls under a different administration, with different controls, traditions and values that have to be brought together in a single state policy for facilitating them and a new strategic approach to implement it.
If the Government actually manages to get these variables working together, it will be unprecedented. It will require a mammoth amount of resources, especially in the finance sector, as most houses will be targeted at vulnerable communities who are unable to fund their own homes. Such a huge program also needs to be sustainable over several decades to have any meaningful impact.
The challenge with large-scale housing drives is they can just be limited to numbers. For example, after the tsunami and the end of the war, many organisations, some with Government oversight, built thousands of houses around the country.
However, some of these were later abandoned as people swiftly de-invested from the projects. Finding better housing, bad construction, one person getting several houses and socioeconomic demands are among the reasons ‘ghost’ houses pop up around the country.
These are all important lessons for a Government which does not have spare cash to waste. It is extremely important for earmarked funds to be used as meaningfully as possible. This means less emphasis on numbers and more on making sure well-constructed houses are given to the most deserving people in society.
Such efforts should also come with follow-up reports that evaluate the success of these ventures to correct mistakes and direct future efforts. Focusing on numbers to get political mileage will mean more houses and not homes.