Responding swiftly and strongly to the statement made by Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy, with regard to the apartment development industry, the stalwarts of the industry have stated that it was irresponsible and damaging.
“I know we are living in a post-truth world but some of the broad generalizations made by the governor are excessive, precipitous and don’t seem to be grounded in established facts,” said Fairway Holdings Chairman Hemaka de Alwis.
He was reacting to Coomaraswamy’s claims that the apartment construction industry appeared to be overheating, was using credit lines meant for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and provided a safe haven for black money.
The apartment construction sector, despite the recent removals of tax concessions, has been one of the few robust segments of an otherwise lethargic domestic economy. The growth in the industry is driven by several factors.
Despite two-thirds of the population living on one-third of the land area around the Western Province, Sri Lanka is one of the least urbanised countries in the world. In fact, Sri Lanka’s urbanization rate of 20 percent is well behind the average for South Asia and half that of the global average. The UN World Urbanization Index of 2011 puts Sri Lanka at 199 out of 203 countries.
In recent years however the natural drift towards urbanization has been intensified by a high degree of centralization, particularly of educational institutions, around Colombo. This combined with weak traffic management, inefficient arterial roadways and lack of an effective mass transport system has created a strong demand for vertical urban housing around Colombo.
While agreeing that there is a possible bubble in the segment identified as ‘luxury’ by the governor, de Alwis explained, “The mid-range market is driven by solid fundamentals, underlying a gradual move towards modern city life. Sri Lanka is not an isolated case but part of a global trend towards urbanized vertical living - there is clearly no bubble, as there is no unrealistic pricing but a strong trend of demand-driven growth.
Surely when the highest segment sells at double the price per square foot of the mid-range, there is every possibility of an unrealistic element in the pricing because the cost/quality base is the same – but the point is the whole industry can’t all be tarred with the same brush.”
Given the robust market fundamentals and short project cycle times of two to three years, banks might be disposed to favour the industry. However, in contrast to the governor’s claims, the trend depicted in the purchases of Fairway apartments show that only 10 percent of Fairway’s customers use bank loans to finance their purchases and 75 percent of the customers ‘buy to live in’. Both indicators suggest that people are converting the existing assets into apartments to support an urban lifestyle change.
Meanwhile, the World Bank has highlighted the fact that urbanization is a vital driver of economic growth, job creation and prosperity and it goes on to warn that a failure to address urban housing, public service and infrastructure will retard such benefits.
de Alwis went on to say, “The banks not offering SMEs sufficient credit and the existence of black money are clearly financial regulatory issues. Conflating them into an apartment development issue is irresponsible and damaging.”