In the early days, post- colonialism, one of the attractions of the Civil service, especially at the federal level, was the provision of furnished apartments in Government Reserved Areas (GRAs) for new entrants. That was replaced with the monetisation policy or what is otherwise known as owner- occupier system. That the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HoS), Mrs Winifred Ekanem Oyo-Ita, is promoting what she calls a Federal Integrated Staff Housing Programme (FISH-P), is also an admission that past policies on housing for government workers failed to serve their purpose. This policy failure, in our shared view, impacted adversely on the officers’ welfare and hence productivity. Most civil servants found themselves in situations where decent housing is unaffordable. This development contributed in no small measure to corruption, absenteeism, and other negative behaviours that made the thought of retirement a nightmare.
FISH-P, according to the promoters, is designed to eliminate the shortcomings of previous policies because it is essentially private sector driven. It is believed to have the potential to alleviate the housing challenges faced by civil servants in obtaining affordable and decent housing accommodation in and around the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and States. Experts have described it as an innovative strategy that will guarantee affordable housing delivery through sustainable sources of funds.
Without doubt, FISH-Programme, even with the input by the private sector, is still part of the federal government mass-housing scheme aimed at providing an impetus for the upliftment of the welfare of the federal civil servants. This is argued as an extension of the goal of the government to improve the welfare and benefit packages for civil servants with the objective of having a civil service that has housing support-base built on stakeholder collaboration, pooling of resources and access to financing.
As articulated by the policy makers, FISH-P is a special purpose vehicle for housing delivery for federal civil servants which is a strategic initiative designed purposely as a good cause intervention for massive housing delivery to federal public servants. It is strategically anchored on soliciting for group land allocation with title deeds and relevant documents from the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) and States. The aim is to reduce the bottleneck usually encountered in securing land and, most importantly, to eliminate middlemen and land speculators.
These lofty ideals are anchored on the understanding that the first major requirement for successful delivery of affordable housing to civil servants is land which represents about 30 per cent of the cost of houses. The second key requirement is the technology for construction. To overcome this second factor, it became expedient for the government to enter into partnership arrangements with expert developers for the construction of FISH-P houses and on their technology for timely delivery of quality and affordable houses and related infrastructure.
Furthermore, a third critical requirement for the delivery of affordable FISH is finance for construction and mortgage. It is a known fact that the cost of capital in the Nigerian market is very high and outside the reach of affordable housing programmes such as the one currently being envisaged. In the search for single digit interest rate facilities, the Federal Mortgage Bank (FMBN) at six percent and the Federal Government Staff Housing Loans Board (FGSHLB), offering housing loan at three per cent became good starting points. But they have their own handicaps owing to limited resource base.
To bridge the shortfall between financial requirements and what is obtainable from traditional sources of finance, the FISH programme looked at other sources such as Shelter Afrique, Family Homes Fund, Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Company, equity finance or venture capital. The challenge in these cases is exposure of the financing sources to the current foreign exchange fluctuations and uncertainties. Notwithstanding, the programme has signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Family Homes Fund and Nigeria Mortgage Refinancing Scheme in the quest to attract adequate funding for the FISH Programme.
The HoS, however, made a salient point in a recent outing on the issue that is very pertinent to the sustainability of this programme: the ability of the off-takers, that is the beneficiaries, to afford the houses to enable real estate developers to recoup their investment.
In our opinion, that has always been the problem with past efforts to provide affordable housing for workers and other low income earners. Often the houses are priced out of the reach of the target group. This, invariably, makes an otherwise excellent policy look anti- people. It is our hope that this time round the Civil Service, as an institution, has worked out strategies to actually practicalise the affordability of these houses by the off-takers. If not, this may yet end up like other housing policies. We hope not.
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