SMHDF Technical Director Telson Bell (left) consulting with SMHDF Director Helen Salomons on the foundation’s strategy for 2020.
BELVEDERE–“Beware prophets who bring false hope of house and land to gullible and desperate voters,” said the St. Maarten Housing Development Foundation (SMHDF) in a warning issued to its tenants and the public.
According to SMHDF’s Managing Board, the foundation has been “unfairly used as a political football for a number of years, but no more so than in the last two years following the passage of Hurricane Irma, and certainly during the past weeks, with at least three prominent politicians targeting the foundation and creating negative and even dangerous situations.”
SMHDF Director Helen Salomons said she took exception to the comments of one politician who has been campaigning on a platform of ensuring that persons will be able to own their own land and home presently owned by the foundation.
“Nothing is further from the truth, since SMHDF is a private entity in its own right which, even though 318 units are eligible for rental allowance by government, is responsible for its own operation without any operational or financial input from government.
“It is very sad that there are individuals who are trying to sell politically expedient rhetoric to everyone and creating a false hope of home ownership in the community and at the same time creating a dangerous working environment for the personnel of SMHDF.
“Even if that is not their objective, the fact is that persons hear these promises and they come to us in an aggressive manner, making demands and accusing us of holding out on them. When we tell them the truth of the situation and why any home-ownership plan is not as easy as is being made out, they become even more aggressive and dangerous and take out their frustration on our staff,” she said.
Salomons said the comments of political aspirants would be “much more usefully directed” at SMHDF’s past efforts to have government sign off on a US $45 million grant from the Dutch-sponsored World Bank-administered Trust Fund to provide new affordable housing, set up a comprehensive housing repair programme, and put the foundation back on “the road to long-term sustainability.”
“The funds are there, the letters of request are written. All that’s required is for government to sign off on the request and allow us to do what we have to do with the knowledge and assurance that we will be not be handling a cent of the grant funding, only ensuring that what is promised is delivered.
“… To me it is mind-boggling that this easy path towards securing low-cost and affordable homes for our people is not being jumped at by government, who instead would rather make false promises and give false hope that they know they cannot deliver on,” said Salomons.
“This year, SMHDF intends to take its case directly to the new government in power. But unlike past years when the foundation sat passively by in the hope that the ministers of government would get the message and act accordingly, this time around the foundation will be going on the offensive, bringing home to all who will listen the plight of the foundation and the unappreciated role it plays in keeping house rentals at affordable rates,” said SMHDF in a press release on Wednesday.
“Far too few people recognise the role played by SMHDF in maintaining affordable rents. It is clear that if our housing stock were sold off and we did not provide the service we are currently providing, that rents across the island would increase dramatically,” said SMHDF Technical Director Telson Bell.
Bell said he is also advocating a new internal focus on SMHDF’s long-term sustainability to ensure its survival and growth in the coming years. “This will mean looking again at the business model and follow-up on several high-level studies and recommendations that have been commissioned by the foundation in past years aimed at developing social housing for St. Maarten. It also includes making good on the last Ombudsman report to step up the home repairs programme on the island.
“We have a lot of work to do this year, and it is our first and foremost wish to do this work with the full support of government as an inclusive and supportive partner. If this is not possible, then we will go at it alone if we have to, starting with an increase in rents, which have been kept disproportionately low for more than 22 years, for no other reason than political ones,” said Bell.
He said it would be a win-win for all should the foundation’s ambitious plans materialise. “We can really begin talking about home ownership in the right context and for the right reasons once things are standardised and running as they should, with the introduction of programmes, such as rent-to-buy and purchase agreements for sale of housing stock in the future,” said Bell.
“This year we will be reaching out more to our tenants, only 10 per cent of whom have one issue or another with us. And hopefully, before the end of the year, even that percentage will have dropped dramatically,” said Salomons.
She said she is anxiously awaiting the outcome of today’s Parliamentary election and is making space in her agenda to meet with government officials to plead the foundation’s case.
“We are sounding a warning – not a threat – that we will be making ourselves heard loudly this year. We have much to offer St. Maarten in terms of social housing and all we want is a fair chance and the honest support of government, without the rhetoric, to show what we can do.
“We intend to be completely transparent and open and, in the process, the public can see for themselves not only how persons are benefiting from our social housing programme but how some persons are abusing the programme to their own end.
“St. Maarten is a small island with relatively few professionals working in the housing sector. … Furthermore, the island has a bifurcated housing market, which, like most of the island’s economy, serves two very distinct markets: the affordable low-income segment and the high-end mostly expatriate and tourist-based market.
“… Moreover, the island is still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which hit St. Maarten on September 6, 2017. Within the context of several financial and operational audits and/or evaluations of SMHDF during 2019 and the proposals we make for its future, we have tried to tailor these to this challenging context,” concluded Salomons.