The reason is in the numbers. Venezuela’s population grows by 450,000 people each and every year, and the country faces a massive challenge housing them all. Figure you have five people per household, and you’d have to build 90,000 new homes each year just to keep up with population growth. But, since most new households start with fewer than 5 people in them, the figure typically given for the "break-even rate" of new housing construction is more like 120,000 each year.
So, how are we doing? Today, the Real Estate chamber estimates new housing starts in the first quarter of 2010 at 16,000. That’s an annualized rate of 64,000 new homes – barely half what it would take just to keep up with population growth.
But keeping up with population growth is only part of the story, because there’s also a massive backlog of people already living in overcrowded homes. The government itself estimates it would take a head-spinning 1.8 to 2 million homes to clear it. If, on top of that, you consider the need to replace some 700,000 homes – 1 in 8 of the current stock – built on dangerously unstable ground, you’re up to about 2.5 million new homes needed. Some private sources put the number nearer 2.9 million. To get some perspective on those numbers, consider that the 2001 census found 5.1 million occupied homes in total in Venezuela.
And, remember, the backlog keeps growing. It has grown every year since Chávez came to power.
So even if you were building 100,000 homes a year over and above what you’d need to keep up with population growth (which would imply building homes at twice the rate reached in 2009 and roughly four times the rate of the first quarter this year) you’d still be looking at 20 years or more before you catch-up with the backlog. But instead of catching up, we’re falling ever further behind.
This all shows up as higher prices. In Maracaibo, a square meter’s worth of housing costs as much as 9 times the monthly minimum wage. A 100 square meter apartment in downtown Caracas (El Centro, which is comparatively cheap) costs over 600 months’ worth of the minimum wage. To get a sense of that number, consider that the median house price in the US last year was 140 times the monthly federal minimum wage.
Back when he had his Man-Crush on Hugo Chávez, OilWarrior Dan Burnett used to wax poetic about the high quality of government built-housing. And he’s right, what houses the revolution has build have tended to be really nice.
The dirty little secret, though, is that since Chávez came to power new housing has never been built in the kinds of numbers it would take to match population growth…meaning that with each year that Chávez build those nice houses, the backlog only grew. Each year of the Chávez era, more and more young people found themselves forced to stay on in their parents’ (or even grandparents’) houses after they’ve started their own families. The results – in terms of overcrowding, stress, violence, and disease – are all around.
In fact, if you’re not plugging away at that backlog, each "nice" new house you build only deepens the inequalities between the relatively privileged (with access to those scarce nice new houses) and everyone else (without.)
Needless to say, in a political system where the ultimate "access good" is Political Loyalty, only the politically loyal get to transact their orthodoxy for a nice house. In those circumstances, building nice houses becomes just the Nth mechanism in the government’s strategy of social control, a strategy that systematically denies a decent standard of living to anyone who displays signs of ideological non-conformity.
In the end, though, housing is just one of a number of massive social problems that ought to be at the center of our public sphere, but aren’t, because any serious debate is drowned out by the Tsunami of Ideological Bullshit. Rampant domestic violence, the hemisphere’s laxest air quality standards, the unsustainable exploitation of our water resources, the chronic nationwide shortage of high school math and science teachers…nobody talks about these things. But when Chávez tweets, everybody hears about it.
In Venezuela, the list of Hidden Crises grows longer each day.
And yet, where are the opposition’s messages on this stuff? Where are their proposals? The detailed, costed, calculated strategy to face up to all this? Anyone? Anyone? Buller? Anyone?