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Hoping for healthy housing

Public servants are among those whose Christmases will be brightened by collecting keys to their own State-supplied houses. Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal claimed on Wednesday to be handing out keys to houses at the rate of three a day in 2012, or 3,600 between 2011 and 2012, though he omitted to mention that many of these units would have been built by the previous administration.

This represents a substantial investment in public funds, all to the worthy end of raising living standards and sustaining family life and community life in respectable circumstances. While keeping down the costs of house provision, Dr Moonilal assured that "low-cost housing does not mean unattractive housing…(or) housing of a low or poor quality". Unfortunately, the history of public housing in Trinidad (if not Tobago) suggests that such edifices do not long remain attractive or of good quality.

In part, this is to be expected, given that most of the beneficiaries of State-subsidised housing are from a socio-economic strata for whom upkeep would prove financially challenging. Moreover, even when such individuals have the funds, the design of apartment complexes and even some of the housing settlements, creates the problem of free riders—i.e. anyone who spends money to maintain their unit or its immediate environs benefits neighbours who haven't put out even a helping hand. Indeed, sometimes there is even a perverse incentive for people to not maintain their residences, since doing so might draw unwelcome attention.

The vicious circle here is that unkempt environments can exacerbate anti-social tendencies, including criminal activity. This is part of the "Broken Windows" theory, although the obverse—that pleasant and well-kept surroundings discourage crime—has not been rigorously demonstrated. Nonetheless, the last PNM administration had started giving out home improvement grants in an attempt to mitigate the Broken Windows effect and protect the State's investment in this infrastructure.

But such State-sponsored initiatives can never have the desired effects unless the residents take responsibility for their own homes and neighbourhoods. New residents, who are the direct beneficiaries of such housing, owe it to themselves and to the country to take all necessary steps to keep their surroundings in acceptable order. Though general environmental upkeep remains the responsibility of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), residents should contribute by ensuring, for example, that drains are kept clear, and garbage properly stored and not dumped in watercourses, and put their best efforts toward maintaining safe and healthy neighbourhoods in which they can take justifiable pride.

Moral suasion alone, however, is hardly likely to change ingrained attitudes. Nonetheless, there are proven methods to motivate people to take positive action, and the HDC should try coming up with creative ways to do so.

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