PHILIPSBURG – Young professionals on St. Maarten find it extremely difficult to find a house for themselves. “The housing system on St. Maarten does not support single income households”, says Charlesea Emilia, a 24-year-old young professional. “Most of my friends live with their parents.”
In 1996, the St. Maarten Housing Development Foundation (SMHDF) was established to help the group of citizens in need of affordable housing. Since then the foundation has constructed around 800 units. But there are still over 1500 people on the waiting list, of which 327 are aged 24 to 34. SMHDF General Director Helen Salomons-Brown calls this group the ‘hidden homeless’.
‘Never returning home’
The lack of affordable housing isn’t just a problem that residents have to deal with. Graduates who want to move back to the island, have a hard time finding jobs and affordable housing. Alissa Hoogenboezem, a young graduate, says that she will “likely never return home” for the same reasons.
Increased wages, social housing, subsidized housing and rent control are some of the possible solutions. But for St. Maarten, how realistic are these?
Affordable housing is normally defined as paying no more than 30 percent of gross income for housing, including utilities. Minimum wage on the island is 1530.53 guilders, or 850.30 dollar per month for a full time, 40 hours a week job. This means that a person with minimum wage should be paying a rent of around 255 dollar a month.
Social and subsidized housing
In certain areas on the island, many recently built apartments are empty due to a miscalculation of supply and demand. A solution for investors and home-seekers alike might be tax incentives and rent-subsidies. For Salomons-Brown of SMHDF social or subsidized housing for the hidden homeless are a priority. “But we need serious funding to create and upkeep that amount of accommodation.”
Another proposed solution is rent control, which is the government control and regulation of the amounts charged for rented housing. Leyton James currently is the only member of the Rent Committee.
If one landlord has to lower his rent, other should follow, but this is a ‘domino effect’ not many are happy about. During his many years of working with the Rent Committee, James has faced violent intimidation. Still, he says: “The market will balance itself out.” Arun Jagtiani, a well-known real estate agent, agrees: “It is not fair to landlords to have the government dictate the market. There is no easy solution as there is a large income inequality on St.Maarten.”
Others, such as young professional Melissa Gumbs, disagree: “The rent committee has been claiming for decades that the market will balance itself. It hasn’t and it won’t.”