STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY

Panama 2016 | CONSTRUCTION & REAL ESTATE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Mario Etchelecu, Minister for Housing and Land Management, on tackling poverty, integrating the city with public transit, and expectations for the year.

Mario Etchelecu
BIOGRAPHY
A graduate of ULACIT, Mario Etchelecu has a strong professional background in real estate and construction. Since 1999, he has been the General Manager and President of Bienes Raices COT. He has managed more that 28 residential and eight commercial projects in Panama, realizing over 5,500 housing units and 400 commercial units.

The government announced the delivery of 92 homes under “Techos de Esperanza.” How many people will this benefit and what are the wider implications of the program?

This project is focused on people that own their land but do not have adequate housing conditions, like a lack of basic sanitation. We initiated the program with government resources and have recently strengthened the project by tendering it out to the private sector. A total of 15,000 houses are currently being constructed by the private sector. From May 2016, we will have put to tender a further 20,000, specifically in those areas that are most in need, such as those that have the highest rates of poverty.

How will the renovation of Colón attract private sector investment into the construction of new low- and middle-income housing?

There is an important investment on the part of the government to renovate urban areas in order to improve infrastructure and the availability of housing. We are in the process of approving the Colón Puerto Libre Law, which will stimulate the private sector to drive the country's economic growth. Whilst the ministry carries out a program of renovation, construction, and improvement of infrastructure as well as living and housing conditions, this law will propel private sector investment in Colón, incentivizing the construction of more retail and residential projects, casinos, and hotels. The government is also working hard to promote the tourism sector to make Panama not only a port for cruise ships passing by but a destination to visit in itself. The Colón Puerto Libre is an important part of this strategy.

What is the Ministry of Housing and Land Management's role in creating new centers of economic activity outside of the capital to tackle the issue of mobility?

Right now the plan we are executing is for the construction of 31,000 homes; our aspiration is to reach 100,000 and before the end of the year we have to begin the construction of the first 50,000. Around 99.9% of these are in the interior of the country, such as in rural areas. This is not just helping Panama City in terms of reducing urban migration, but it also is helping cities like Santiago, David, and Colón, where people are moving in search of opportunities. The government has a large-scale plan to bring not only new housing to these regions, but also health centers, schools, and basic sanitation. All this is being carried out by local labor force, further incentivizing staying there, taking advantage of the new opportunities that are being created.

How will the new Metro lines influence the location of urban development projects, and how can the ministry better integrate the city with public transport?

There was already a plan in place from the previous administration, which we have since strengthened. Now, not only do we have Line 1 up and running, but also the construction of Line 2 is under way. Before the end of the current administration, Line 3 will also be awarded. This, coupled with the fact that the Ministry of Metro now handles the Metrobus, means that the two are viewed in a parallel manner, whereas before they were in competition. We are of the opinion that we need to increase the density around the Metro, but we are also demanding that developers create more parking spaces in residential apartments and shopping centers.

What are your goals between now and 2019, and what are your expectations for the year ahead?

I would like to achieve our goal of building 100,000 houses within five years. We have managed to gain the confidence of the private sector, and it is participating in this and subsequently bringing many of these projects to tender. By the end of 2016, we will hopefully have tendered, awarded, and given the green light for the construction of more than 50,000 homes; over half our goal. If we achieve this, we are on the right track to achieve our 2019 goals.