Property Matters – St Augustine Nurseries, part three

northgrove-planIn writing these articles on St Augustine Nurseries — Part 1 and Part 2 — I found my thoughts returning to those poorest of HDC’s applicants who simply cannot afford to buy. I reflected on the fact that many of our leading citizens emerged from very humble backgrounds which ought to have entitled their families to the benefits of subsidised housing. This is the final article in that mini-series, so I will be locating St Augustine Nurseries within the wider context.

rowley-bookFrom my reading of Dr Rowley’s autobiography ‘From Mason Hall to White Hall‘ it is clear that similar situations prevailed in his own early life. Between pages 32 and 33, Dr Rowley recalls his first visit to Trinidad to stay with his late mother, ‘Vassie’, at her rented home in John John – he was an eight-year-old, so this would have been 1957 or so. The crowded and unhygenic conditions he describes make it clear to me that Ms Rowley’s case was one which would have surely been worthy of public housing subsidy to obtain a better quality of affordable rented housing. Here was a decent, hardworking woman unable to do better, but having to make do, until she was able to move to an NHA home at Coconut Drive in Morvant as described later in the book. At page 35, we are told that Dr Rowley lived there in 1970, so those homes were conceived and built before the 1974 oil boom.

The question arising for me is what are the odds, with all our far greater wealth and supposed enlightenment, for the poor applicant within today’s HDC system. You see?

I am not saying this to personalise a serious public policy issue but rather to fortify the point that all families deserve the opportunity for betterment. Where do we expect our future leaders and doers and thinkers to emerge from?

Our neediest citizens deserve the support of the State, especially in providing a decent quality of affordable shelter. That is an investment in the sustainable future of our society. We must be vigilant to ensure that our common-wealth is not diverted away from its intended beneficiaries. In the case of public housing it is clear to me that the majority of the Public Money invested in the current housing program has in fact been diverted away from the neediest applicants. To be perfectly clear, I am estimating that over 75% of the Public Money spent since the 2002 Housing Policy was published was diverted away from the neediest applicants.

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Former Minister of Housing Randal Mitchell, MP (in suit) at Key ceremony at Hilltop Villas, Malick. Photo: HDC

Exactly one year ago, May 23rd 2017, the then Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Randall Mitchell made an important series of statements at an HDC event to distribute keys for rented housing in Malick –

“…Mitchell said the majority of applicants at the HDC were people earning below $6,000, “those who cannot, even through the affordable rent to own homes programme, cannot qualify to purchase units. So we are now looking to shift policy and concentrate on scarce resources (referring to money) to the construction of rental units.”

He also said Government now has to decide what is the best way to offer subsidised housing.

“The HDC was instructed to look at the policy, where now we can move towards a better, more efficient and a more effective use of the subsidy that Government provides,” he added…”

I could scarcely believe that a Housing Minister seemed to have, finally, gotten the decisive point. In my subsequent dialogue with Mitchell it was clear that he had been properly briefed and was intent on pursuing that direction. Minister Mitchell was recently re-assigned to the Tourism portfolio and of course, I wish him well in dealing with those new challenges.

So what is Housing Subsidy?

That is the amount of money the State spends to provide cheaper housing to applicants in its various programs, be it HDC, Land Settlement Agency or Home Repair Grants, cheaper mortgage rates and so on.

If we take an example of Fidelis Heights at Gordon Street in St Augustine, those were new HDC homes which could sell on the open market for say $1.7M, but were sold to the lucky applicants at prices under $875,000. At the time, the then HDC General Manager, Noel Garcia, made these surprising claims on the issue in relation to Fidelis Heights –

“……the Government had taken a decision not to subsidise this particular development. It is being sold at market rates in HDC’s thrust to expand and attract an open market clientele…”

Of course, there was a massive subsidy allocated to each of those purchasers, but hidden subsidy is one of the features of these situations in which the really egregious examples of benefiting from the public purse are never identified as such, at least not officially. In these class-biased policy environments, the dominant expression is about having to cut the provisions to those who take advantage of the system and so on.

The point in relation to housing subsidy is that the largest subsidies are going to persons who are fortunate to be selected for the most expensive HDC homes. A mere fraction of those sums are allocated to the few modest homes which are built by HDC for rent. The allocation of subsidy needs to be mapped so that we can decide a new and equitable basis for distribution of our country’s limited resources to areas in which it can deliver the greatest benefits.

Of course, this shifts the focus to exactly what is HDC building and for whom. At this time the HDC’s limit on monthly household income for its applicants is $25,000. Affordable housing must, by definition, be affordable to persons earning less than the average wage. The official figures from the Central Statistical Office (CSO) for 2014 state that 60% of the country’s households have a monthly income below $9,000. It therefore stands to reason that the average monthly household income is less than $9,000. So affordable housing could only be intended for persons at that income level.

Given that the HDC’s legal mandate is to provide affordable shelter for low- and middle-income persons, it is clear that HDC must revise its monthly household income limit for applicants, which cannot reasonably exceed $10,000.

The HDC was established in 2005 to replace the older National Housing Authority (NHA) and operates under the provisions of Act No. 24 of 2005. The Corporation is mandated by the Act to:

  • Provide affordable shelter and associated community facilities for low and middle income persons.
  • Carry out the broad policy of the Government in relation to housing.

—Cited from the HDC website About Us page.

That shift would be fundamental and there will be serious institutional resistance, but the facts are stubborn things and our critical public policies must be fact-based. New designs would be required for new homes affordable to persons at that income level and of course and imperative is to repopulate our capital city and use the East POS land already bought by HDC at great expense over a decade ago. But that is for another series.

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Property Matters – St Augustine Nurseries part two

Property Matters – St Augustine Nurseries part two

The previous column detailed the ways in which this HDC project was being pursued in breach of existing land and housing policy. In this article I will go further, to specify the HDC’s statutory responsibilities, which it is legally bound to discharge. I will also examine the potential for a judicial review of the prospective decision to approve this project.

In addition to the land-use policy points made last week, the HDC is a statutory agency of the State, created by the HDC Act 2005. The HDC’s functions and duties are specified at S.13 (1) –

“…13. (1) Subject to this Act, it shall be the function and duty of the Corporation to—
(a) do all things necessary and convenient for or in connection with the provision of affordable shelter and associated community facilities for low- and middle-income persons…”

The law lists the low-income persons ahead of the middle income persons, which would conventionally denote a priority. The first item in a list taking precedence over the second and so on, but that is straight-line thinking and that is not where we are. Not at all.

HDC’s official responses to my queries stated that less than 22% of the 13,484 new homes allocated between 2003 and 2015 were given for rent. That is a scandalous misallocation of Public Money, given that 95% of the waiting-list comprises persons who cannot afford to buy a home, even on the most generous terms.

Last week, the PM announced plans for a $9 Billion investment in 10,000 new homes to be built in the coming months. That is a virtually unattainable target. Just remember that the original target in the 2002 housing policy was for 100,000 new homes in a decade, but in the 13-year period 2003-2015 only 11,788 new homes were completed. Yes, that’s right, the numbers do not match. HDC allocated 1,696 more homes than were completed in that period, but that is for another article. Continue reading “Property Matters – St Augustine Nurseries part two”

Property Matters – St. Augustine Nurseries

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The previous article dealt with the Eden Gardens scandal, now before the Courts, which I termed ‘a most grievous case of Grand Corruption‘. I provided a list of ten questions for media colleagues to put to the accused and their spokespersons on this complex fraud.

Senior former Public Officials preferred the valuation advice of a civil servant, who was not professionally qualified, over that of a seasoned professional of 28 years’ post-qualification experience. I don’t think any reasonable person would adopt that approach if the health of their relatives or the wealth of their family was at stake, but some persons seem comfortable to defend that kind of decision. As David Rudder would say – ‘with a straight-straight face‘. I expect we will be subjected to less and less appearances from those persons.

This article will attempt to put the controversial “St. Augustine Nurseries project (North Grove Housing Development) into context with existing land and housing policy. This project is emblematic of what has gone so badly wrong in our state housing policy. To be entirely clear, in this case I am making no allegations of financial corruption or voter-padding. This case is one of ‘Phantom Policy‘ in which intentionally-suppressed policies, developed to advance the public interest, are either ignored or selectively invoked. As we say, is according. Continue reading “Property Matters – St. Augustine Nurseries”

VIDEO: World Press Freedom Day Mid-Day lecture

gpa-wpfd-posterAfra Raymond was the guest speaker of the Guyana Press Association at its Mid-Day Lecture on Thursday 3 May 2018, at Moray House in Georgetown, Guyana on World Press Freedom Day. He spoke on the theme, “Keeping Power in Check: Media Justice and the Rule of Law.” Video courtesy Guyana Press Association.

Programme Date: 3 May 2018
Programme length: 00:40:00 and 00:19:53

Property Matters – Eden Gardens case

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In November 2016, the State filed its lawsuit against certain former Public Officials and their presumed collaborators for alleged fraud in the HDC’s 2012 purchase of 50.5 acres at Eden Gardens in Freeport. The defendants named in that lawsuit were – Jearlean John (former HDC Managing Director), Henckle Lall (former HDC chairman), Greg Davis (former deputy HDC chairman), Peter Forde, Project Specialist Ltd, former commissioner of valuations Ronald Heeralal, Point Lisas Park Ltd, Anthony Sampath, Patrick Soon Ting and lastly, Everil Ross, who was formerly attached to the Valuation Division.

On 17th April 2018, the High Court dismissed the State’s lawsuit when it refused to grant the State further extensions of time to file its full case. That has been claimed by the defendants as a form of exoneration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing.
Continue reading “Property Matters – Eden Gardens case”

CL Financial bailout – the Integrity Query

ic-logoYet another worrying aspect of the CL Financial (CLF) bailout fiasco is the role of the Integrity Commission (IC) in these turbid dealings. I am referring to the apparent failure or refusal of The Commission to carry out its duties in relation to CLF as required by the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA).

I first raised the prospect that CLF might well be under the IC’s oversight on 28th May 2009, in an article entitled – Judgment Time – Moral Hazard part 3. I have been pursuing that concern steadily since September 2012 and yet the position of the IC is no clearer. On 9th September 2015, I again put the question – Is the integrity Commission being willfully blind towards CL Financial? Indeed, in my March 28th 2018 interview with the Trinidad Express, I stated, in relation to the governance aspects unearthed by my campaign –

“…What is more, our Integrity Commission also seems to have lost its way in failing to recognise that CL Financial is a company under State control. As a result, the Commission has sought no Directors’ declarations from the largest of the State controlled companies. I tell you…”

Given that these are very serious allegations to level against one of our nation’s Public Institutions, I will give the supporting details.
Continue reading “CL Financial bailout – the Integrity Query”

CL Financial bailout – the EFPA details part two

CL Financial bailout – the EFPA details part two

One of the more interesting issues emerging from these EFPA details is the extent to which companies invested in what was approved as an individual investment instrument.

In the previous article, I detailed the significant investments made by State Enterprises, which prompted questions on the governance arrangements applicable to those companies. We know that companies made the investments in the names of individuals, that much was clear from the JSC’s 5th June 2015 Report on the EMBD. Continue reading “CL Financial bailout – the EFPA details part two”