UN-HABITAT Executive Director Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka made an impassioned plea on Wednesday for the private sector to invest in mortgage schemes targeting the poor.
Addressing the first West African conference on affordable housing in Accra, Ghana, Mrs. Tibaijuka said that Africa is home to the world’s poorest people with 60 per cent of its population living below the poverty line. She said 72 per cent of urban people in Africa live in the slums creating conditions of deprivation, exclusion, unemployment and other anti-social vices that curtail economic growth.
“How do we therefore provide adequate housing in Africa with 60 per cent of its population living below the poverty line?” she asked. She said it would be an illusion for any government to promise its citizens free housing. Instead, she said, what is needed is for governments to work together with the private sector to establish financing schemes that deliberately target low-income earners and the poor.
Mrs. Tibaijuka said that the modern world’s market economy demands a stable housing sector as a priority to creating stable cities and towns. She cited the United States as a perfect example of what economic benefits a stable housing sector can bring to a country.
“Seventy-two percent of America’s GDP is tied up in mortgage finance, which in economic terms means that without mortgage finance an average American would be living out in the streets,” said Mrs. Tibaijuka. She said it was America’s best practices in housing finance which attracted UN-HABITAT to seeking their expertise in finding workable solutions for Africa’s housing crisis.
The four-day conference brings together the Government of Ghana, the United States, UN-HABITAT, bankers, business, finance and private sector officials from the West Africa region to discuss how the private sector can help invest in affordable housing for poor people as part of a regional pilot project starting in Ghana. It is the second such regional gathering of its kind, following a similar East African meeting in 2005.
Mrs. Tibaijuka said the Ghana project and the regional meeting would not have been possible were it not for the US government and its key private sector sponsors: “I wish most sincerely to also thank our two sponsors, the Canada Mortage and Housing Coporation, and the Overseas Private Investment Coporation. They deserve a big hand from us all.”
President John Kufuor of Ghana said governments could not go it alone in housing their citizens, because they simply did not have the capacity to deal with the exploding populations and the demand for housing.
“As a first measure my government is putting together a land bank which already possesses 50,000 acres throughout the country to support commercial estate developers,” said Mr. Kufuor.
He said Ghana has identified urban slum upgrading as a priority intervention to improve the lives of the urban poor in line with the Millennium Development Goals.
Mr. Kufuor said among the reforms proposed by his government in the housing finance sector is the provision of long-term mortgage and landownership policy to encourage title deed holding. He said title deeds would ensure investors’ security for their investments. He thanked UN-HABITAT for choosing Ghana to be among the four countries chosen for the agency’s Slum Upgrading Facility. The Facility is meant to mobilize domestic capital for slum upgrading.
Taking up the theme, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Mr. Alphonso Jackson said home ownership was a pillar of economic progress. Citing the U.S. experience in the housing finance sector, Mr. Alphonso said 70 years ago, America was a country of renters where one in every seven families did not own a house.
However, he said, this situation was turned around when his government enabled long-term mortgage schemes thus expanding the number of homeowners. He said housing is a major protion of the country’s gross national product.
“Government laws have to be dependable and transparent in order to achieve stability in the housing sector,” said Mr. Alphonso adding that the process is not easy as it requires strict adherence to the rule of law.
The theme of the conference, Government enablement of private sector lending for affordable housing, will discuss ways of showing the private sector how beneficial it can be to help the poor invest in themselves.
In a parallel event, Mrs. Tibaijuka launched UN-Habitat’s latest training publication. Aimed at officials in the West African housing and municipal sphere, it is entitled, “Financial Management for Local Government”.
The publication, in development for over two years in consultation with over 20 internationally renowned public finance experts the series is an important addition to UN-HABITAT’s array of tools targeting local government and their stakeholders
Already the series has generated considerable interest with countries from Africa and the Pacific. The series will be disseminated through a variety of partnerships, including UN- HABITAT’s Slum Upgrading Facility, and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum Pacific Regional Office in Fiji. Published by Earthscan, it will be available for purchase early 2007.