Trinidad and Tobago to tackle affordable housing deficit and expand commercial real estate

Trinidad and Tobago’s housing market has fluctuated over recent decades in line with international oil prices and the overall health of the global economy. The sector grew rapidly between 1991 and 2006, with the most notable development occurring in the capital, Port of Spain, and the areas close to Point Lisas, the centre of the country’s petrochemicals industry. However, since the 2007/08 global financial crisis the market has posted uneven growth. Although it recovered towards the end of 2014 and grew in 2015, the market shrank in 2016 as a result of weaker oil prices and falling demand from expatriate residents, and some segments have yet to recover.

Structure & Oversight

The Ministry of Planning and Development (MPD) is the principal government entity charged with overseeing the real estate sector. Alongside the MPD, the Ministry of Works and Transport manages government properties, while the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), part of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, is responsible for public sector housing initiatives. The T&T Mortgage Finance Company (TTMF) is the main source of mortgage financing for lower-income segments of the population. The company is 51% owned by the National Insurance Board of T&T and the remaining 49% share is held by the government.

Performance & Size

In 2018 the real estate sector contributed 2% to GDP, down slightly from 2.1% in the previous year. There is a deficit of affordable housing and an excess of properties at the higher end of the market. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the median house price is $192,000, while the average monthly income is approximately $1600. However, those who earn less than $615 per month account for more than half of the country’s total housing demand.

In the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2020” report, T&T ranked 158th out of 190 countries for registering property, with a nominal score of 46.1 out of 100. This puts the country far behind most other Caribbean nations and below the regional average of 54.9 for Latin America and the Caribbean.

This is largely a result of two factors: first, the large amount of bureaucracy involved in registering a property in T&T, which requires nine separate procedures, compared to the regional average of 7.4; and second, the country’s land administration, which often faces difficulties due to a lack of transparency, unequal access to property rights, unreliable infrastructure and issues resolving land disputes.

Residential

In October 2019 Colm Imbert, the minister of finance, announced that TT$1bn ($147.7m) would be allocated to the real estate sector. Much of this funding is dedicated to the provision of affordable housing. As of the end of 2019 there were around 175,000 people on the waiting list for affordable housing from the HDC, although this deficit should narrow in the coming years with the construction of new units. The government’s Accelerated Housing Programme plans to construct 6000 homes by the end of 2020 and 3000 in the subsequent years in order to address the current shortage. However, building costs remain high; while it costs around TT$1m ($148,000) for the HDC to build an affordable house, beneficiaries expect this to be sold for around TT$500m ($73.9m), thereby creating a large gap in the state-run company’s finances.

Conversely, the high-end residential housing market has been affected by lower demand from expatriate renters, particularly due to a fall in the number of international workers in the country’s energy sector. Many homes in this price range are now unoccupied and are generally purchased by people looking to live in the property rather than on a buy-to-let basis. However, there may be a potential new market for the abundance of high-quality residential properties in T&T. Given the lack of such housing in Guyana, it could transpire that expatriates sent to work in the country’s newly burgeoning energy sector could look to T&T for their housing needs.

Rentals

As a result of lower demand, rental prices have fallen at the higher end of the market. Previously, these properties were traditionally rented in US dollars and occupied by expatriates working in the energy sector. Due to a shortage of foreign currency and a decline in demand for international workers, their share of the rental market has been dented. According to real estate firm Terra Caribbean, properties with a rental value of between TT$30,000 ($4430) and TT$40,000 ($5910) per month accounted for 19% of the market in 2014, whereas by 2018 these properties represented 2% of the total. At the lower end of the market, meanwhile, demand has increased for properties with a rental value under TT$10,000 ($1480), which made up 20% of the market in 2014 and 60% in 2018.

Commercial Space

Prior to the 2007/08 global financial crisis, the country experienced a boom in office construction activity, particularly in the energy sector. However, since 2014 energy companies across the world have downsized operations, and T&T was no exception. As a result, demand for high-quality office space has declined, causing rental prices to fall. According to Terra Caribbean, the average cost of Class A office space – the newest and highest-quality buildings on the market – in Port of Spain decreased from $18 per sq feet in 2014 to roughly $15 per sq feet in 2018. At the same time, businesses are increasingly moving outside of the centre in favour of more affordable locations on the outskirts of the capital, such as Aranguez, Trincity and Chaguanas.

Industrial Parks

While the residential and commercial segments are the mainstay of T&T’s real estate market, there are several new industrial parks currently under construction. The most notable development is the Phoenix Park Industrial Estate in Point Lisas, which has a scheduled commissioning date of September 2020 and is being financed as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. According to local media in March 2019 a number of firms have already signed up to the park, with 60 Chinese companies expected to be involved in the long term, in addition to industrial firms from Central and South America.

Another major project in the pipeline is the Moruga Agro-Processing and Light Industrial Estate, the first of its kind in T&T. The cluster aims to increase the value of agro-products such as fruit and vegetables. The park will contain five purpose-built factory shells and six sites available for leasing. In October 2019 the Ministry of Finance stated that the project would be commissioned by the end of 2019, but there have been no updates on its progress as of January 2020.

Mortgage Market

The fall in global oil prices and the resultant decline in the value of property has affected T&T’s mortgage market, which had previously experienced strong growth. Nevertheless, the mortgage market accounted for 14.2% of GDP in 2018, up from 0.8% in 2004, representing a compound annual growth rate of 37.2%. As a result of weakening domestic demand, the mortgage lending environment has become increasingly competitive. The weighted average rate for new residential mortgages between September 2018 and June 2019 decreased for both outstanding and new plans, from 6.12% to 5.94% and from 5.74% and 5.37%, respectively, providing light relief to borrowers.

In an effort to bolster the local mortgage market, international actors have stepped in to provide liquidity. In December 2018 the IDB’s commercial arm, IDB Invest, gave a partial credit guarantee of $17.6m to the TTMF, and in April 2019 the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) provided a $75m loan to Republic Bank to encourage it to improve financing options designed to reduce the housing deficit. The loan will help Republic Bank improve its exposure to residential mortgages from 20% to 25% of its loan portfolio. In a statement issued in April 2019, the IFC described the country’s low mortgage penetration as “one of the most critical factors contributing to the housing gap”.

Foreign Buyers

Although expatriates have typically rented property, foreigners are permitted to purchase up to 43,560 sq feet of real estate in Trinidad without the need for a permit. In Tobago, however, purchase licences were introduced in October 2007 and have never been granted to foreign buyers. A licence for property or land in designated tourist areas should take up to 40 working days to process, but in practice can take up to six months.

Property Tax

The Property Tax Act of 2009, which repealed the Land and Building Taxes Act No. 14 of 1920, aimed to reform and update property tax collection in T&T. However, the law’s implementation was suspended in 2010 by the then-administration, although it was brought back onto the legislative agenda in the FY 2014 budget speech. The delay passing the law meant that property owners had largely escaped these taxes for much of the previous decade. According to the Ministry of Finance’s “Review of the Economy 2019” report, TT$46.9m ($6.9m) was collected in property tax in 2019, TT$205.6m ($30.4m) lower than originally budgeted. This was a result of delays to the re-introduction of the property tax, yet it was substantially more than the tax collected on property in the previous five years, which fluctuated between TT$3m ($443,220) and 4m ($590,960) per year from 2013 to 2018.

Tobago

Tobago’s real estate sector can be divided into two broad markets: local and expatriate. The latter is, unlike its counterpart market in Trinidad, largely driven by tourists rather than foreigners working for multinational companies. Prior to the global financial crisis, it was common for Trinidadians to purchase luxury villas in Tobago in order to lease them to holidaymakers. However, since 2008 the market has been subdued, compounded by the introduction of licence requirements for foreign buyers. Conversely, the local market is characterised by a short supply of affordable housing. Recognising this challenge, the Tobago House of Assembly launched the Tobago Housing Development Programme aimed at helping first-time buyers to purchase a house at cost price. Under the scheme buyers are required to be both a T&T citizen and resident in Tobago.

Sustainability

The first building in T&T to be awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification was the Savannah East office building in 2007. In 2009 T&T became the first among the English-speaking Caribbean countries to receive LEED core and shell certification, which refers to the design and construction of the base building. Although T&T has made progress in developing sustainable real estate, with a second LEED-certified building in 2019, innovation has been largely confined to the commercial segment.

Nevertheless, across the real estate sector there has been a shift away from bricks and mortar towards more efficient building materials such as styrofoam. However, these changes are widely considered to be cost driven rather than based on environmental factors. Sector players have also noted that developments can follow environmental guidelines without receiving certification. “There are numerous LEED initiatives under way in T&T, but building sustainable real estate does not always equate to being LEED certified,” Nyal Khan, executive director of local developer Edan K Properties, told OBG. “More can be done by installing double glazing, sourcing local materials and using LED lighting rather than traditional bulbs,” he added.

Sustainability initiatives are not only confined to the private sector. In both Trinidad and Tobago there have been efforts to boost efficiency in residential real estate. “We are transitioning to more energy efficient vehicles, installing solar-powered water heaters on all new housing developments under the Accelerated Housing Programme, converting major city centres into smart cities, and supporting energy conservation programmes and initiatives in Tobago,” Imbert announced in October 2019 at the Ministry of Finance’s budget launch.

Outlook

The intrinsic link between economic growth and the real estate market has impacted the sector since the fall in global oil prices but there are signs of a recovery, particularly as the need for long-term, affordable housing continues to drive the lower end of the property market. In order for the residential segment to see healthy growth in the years ahead, both the public and private sector will need to ensure that this demand is adequately met. Although it may take more time for the sector to make a full recovery as the higher-end segment continues to struggle due to a decline in the expatriate workforce, strong economic growth in neighbouring Guyana is likely to boost demand for luxury housing. In the commercial segment, meanwhile, the suburbanisation of demand for higher-grade office space is likely to continue, as companies downsize and look for more affordable rentals outside the capital.

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