VIDEO: “The Cole Truth” interview – 21 Feb 2018

cole truthThis is an interview I did on the show, ‘The Cole Truth with Kimm’, on State Housing Policy & Program with host Kimmie Cole. Video courtesy Synergy TV.

Programme Length: 01:04:35
Programme Date: Wednesday 21st February 2018

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Property Matters – State Housing Facts

hdc-logoThis is a continuation of my examination of the National Housing Policy (2002), its implementation and the associated implications.

Over the last year I engaged with HDC’s management who cooperated with me, much like the previous team. I asked about new homes produced by the National Housing Authority (NHA) and the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) in the period January 1st 2003 to December 31st 2015 to establish a) the output of completed homes; b) numbers of new homes distributed; c) the tenures of those homes and finally, d) compliance with the allocation criteria established by the 2002 policy.

Showing Trinidad and Tobago A New Way HomeThe 2002 policy is “Showing Trinidad and Tobago a New Way HOME” and it seems to have met the sorry fate of the 1992 national land policy, in that those important policies have both vanished from official websites. The headline of that Policy was the target of 100,000 new homes in ten years. That target was over-ambitious, given the bottlenecks in our system of planning and construction, even if, at that time, ‘money was no problem’. Continue reading “Property Matters – State Housing Facts”

Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 6

hdc-logoOn Thursday 17th March 2016, the Office of the Prime Minster confirmed that the appointment of Housing & Urban Development Minister, Marlene McDonald, had been revoked. On Tuesday 22nd March 2016, the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) Board issued a Press Release to confirm that its Managing Director, Jearlean John, had been dismissed.

In less than one week, the two top public officials in our country’s housing program had been removed from office. It does not seem decisive that both those dismissed officials were female, but it is more likely that there is another connection between these events.

We have lacked proper standards of governance in our country for so many decades that some people are seeing these dismissals as a ‘breath of fresh air’ in which those new standards are being set. An apparent case of actions speaking louder than words. Continue reading “Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 6”

VIDEO: TTTI Couch session with Reginald Armour, SC.

transparency-logoThis is the ‘On the Couch’ session at the T&T Transparency Institute’s 2016 Anti-Corruption Conference held on Tuesday 8th March 2016. The moderator was Reginald Armour SC, President of the Law Association; Michael Harris, Tapia Member and Express columnist; Mark Regis of Shell Trinidad; and Afra Raymond, managing director of Raymond & Pierre Ltd and Immediate past-President of the JCC

Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 3

hdc-logo

SIDEBAR

  • We all know of single persons who get new three-bedroom HDC homes, while entire needy families remain trapped on the waiting-list.
  • We have all seen nifty HDC developments and known that ‘That development is way too nice for any poor person to live in there’.
  • The actual distribution of new HDC homes shows the actual targets. HDC figures on distribution of new homes as at September 4th 2013 show 22% for rent and 78% sold (approx).
  • In 2014 the monthly income limit to apply for a new HDC home was increased to $45,000. According to the Salaries Review Commission’s 2013 Report, that figure exceeds the salaries paid to Ministers in our Cabinet, Appeal Court Judges, The Ombudsman, The Auditor General and the Head of the Public Service/PS to the OPM. That is how far astray our housing policy has gone.
  • The Housing policy is being implemented so as to promote home-ownership. This approach does not benefit the poorer applicants who cannot afford mortgages.

This week I will be examining the allocation policy in greater detail.

The PP administration took issue with the housing policy, very late in their term of office and only in reference to disabled persons and persons whose life had been threatened –

Moonilal plans to review housing policy” in Newsday of Sunday, July 26 2015

“…Moonilal said Government has been satisfying the Cabinet-approved National Housing Allocation Policy 2008, which allows for 60 percent of housing to be distributed by random draw, 25 percent by ministerial discretion, ten percent by protective services, and five percent for senior citizens and the physically challenged….”

Those intentions to review housing policy were limited and in any case, the PP lost the September 2015 general election.

It was staggering to learn that the monthly income limit for HDC housing had been increased to $45,000 at some point in 2014. That significant and detrimental policy shift must have been done very quietly.

One of the early policy announcements of the new PNM administration was that the monthly income limit would revert to the previous level of $25,000. That policy change caused some controversy and even sparked some baseless talk of lawsuits. One of the concerns was as to the status of those persons who had qualified under the $45,000 limit – Would they lose their place in the queue? The decision was made to preserve the entitlements of those who had qualified under the $45,000 income ceiling.

All of that concern was in my view misplaced, since it did not address the needs of the poorest applicants. Continue reading “Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 3”

Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 2

The previous column outlined the provisions of the current housing policy and some of the implications arising from those. I provided data on housing distribution by tenure and also stated a preliminary view, dismissing the major allegations made against Marlene McDonald – the current Housing & Urban Development Minister.

To understand just how a supposedly-redistributive policy could be used in this fashion, it is necessary to examine how it was changed and how those changes work with the provisions of the Housing Development Corporation Act 2005.

What is the Housing Policy?

Showing Trinidad and Tobago A New Way HomeShowing Trinidad & Tobago a new way home‘ was launched on 18th September 2002 by then Housing minister, Senator Danny Montano. At that stage, the policy for allocation of the new homes produced by HDC were –

…How is housing allocated?
All housing that becomes available is allocated in the following way:

  • 75% is reserved for public applicants through a random selection system.
  • 10% is reserved for the Joint Protective Services – Police, Army, Prisons and Fire Services.
  • 15% is assigned to deal with special emergency cases, senior citizens and physically challenged persons…

The rules to qualify for these homes were –

…Do I qualify?
To qualify for a new home, applicants must be:

  • A resident citizen of Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Twenty-one years of age or over.
  • Neither owner nor part owner of a house or land.
  • In possession of a Board of Inland Revenue tax file number…

These details are from ‘Applying to Buy a Government House‘ on the TTConnect website, but they are outdated, as they refer to the 2002 position. I was very critical of this ambitious new housing policy, since it was located within this context –

“…The Housing Policy of the Government of Trinidad & Tobago is based on the understanding that every citizen should be able to access adequate and affordable housing regardless of gender, race religion or political affiliation”

Those are important policy guidelines, but they are inadequate to the task, given that they are silent on the single common cause of housing need or homelessness. The point is that all homeless persons, or those with serious housing needs have one thing in common, poverty. Yet the policy is silent on that. That silence was a fatal one since the allocations were being made in accordance with a lottery amongst those who fit the four criteria set out above. I recall attending the 2007 conference of the Caribbean Association of Housing Finance Institutions (CASHFI) and the PS of the Housing Ministry stating that about 95% of the applicants in the system did not qualify for a mortgage.

With no specific allocation numbers for rental units and no weight given to poverty or housing need in the process, the results were predictable. The poorest applicants, the ones who could only afford to rent, were sidelined, as shown in the distribution figures shown.

As I wrote in August 2007 –
“…This is a flawed policy which gives you a ticket in the lottery for a new home, only if you can afford one. But, as the old National Lottery slogan used to say ‘if you haven’t got a ticket, you haven’t got a chance‘…”

In January 2008, the new Housing Minister, Dr Emily Gaynor-Dick-Forde, announced a housing policy review with the specific aim of making housing need a part of the assessment criteria. Despite this encouraging news, it was a case of ‘giving with one hand and taking away with the other’, since the category for ministerial discretion was increased to 25%.

The outcomes are shown in these diagrams, with the greater number of units going to those who could afford to purchase. The perverse policy reached its nadir with the recent revelations that the maximum qualifying monthly income for HDC new homes had been increased to $45,000 at some point in 2014. This was obviously done to cater for persons who were in no housing need whatsoever. I tell you. At least the monthly income limit has now been returned to $25,000 – still way too high for a program which ought to be serving the needy persons in our society, but a step in the right direction.

These charts show just how the housing has been distributed, in terms of tenure.

propmatters graph1

propmatters graph2

The table of data from which those charts were derived is here –

HDC ALLOCATION of New Homes

Tenure Type August 8th 2011 Percentages September 4th 2013 Percentages
Rental 256 3.3% 1,962 21.7%
Rent to Own 111 1.4% 66 0.7%
Purchased 7,290 95.2% 7,029 77.6%
Totals 7,657 100 9,057 100

The Minister’s powers

A Statutory Corporation is a public body established under a special law to perform specified functions. The HDC is a statutory corporation and under the HDC Act – The powers of the Minister are specified at S.12 as –

“…12. The Minister may give to the Board directions in writing of a specific or general nature to be followed in the performance of its functions or the exercise of its powers under this Act, with which the Board shall comply…”

That means that the Minister has the power to order the HDC to perform specific tasks and the HDC has to comply with those directions. As such, the HDC would be required by law to follow a direction from the Housing Minister, as seems to have been the case in the Marlene McDonald episode.

Policy monitoring

SIDEBAR: Secret Policy in Public Bodies

The housing policy is not available online. The allocation policy which is shown online is 14 years out-of-date. The HDC does not issue annual reports as it is required to do by law, but that is for later in the series.

I had enquiries made at HDC last week, but when my staff requested the housing allocation policy, the reply was ‘we don’t know what you are asking us for’. Take that, it is almost like an echo of the widespread official denial of the existence of the 1992 National Land Policy, which became evident in my 2015 ‘Land for Everybody‘ series. I also personally contacted the top person at HDC to request the allocation policy, but got no reply.

All of this points to the question of how well can public policy be monitored in the current situation of a ‘virtual vacuum’ in terms of any details as to actual decisions taken. As demonstrated in the distribution figures shown last week, the outcome can be strikingly different from what one might think from reading the declared policy.In the absence of readily available data, it is possible for applicants who already own property to sign false declarations and obtain houses to which they are not entitled, further depriving the needier citizens. Applicants to the protective services have their names and photos published in the newspapers, as a safety-check against any unsuitable persons being admitted. Despite that safeguard, we all know that unsuitable persons do get admitted to the protective services, so just imagine for a moment what has taken place within the secretive arena of public housing.

Open data is a useful approach which would require all the critical data to be easily available in relation to our public housing program. That approach would enable anyone to get these details –

  • Identity of Applicants, together with the details of the category of their applications – i.e. is the person applying as a member of the protective services, a disabled person or a person in housing need.
  • Identity of those persons to whom housing has been allocated, together with the category of their applications, as outlined above.
  • Numbers of new homes built by HDC.
  • Numbers of new homes distributed by HDC.
  • Analysis of distribution of new homes by tenure, category of application and development.

The advantages of a system which promoted the routine online release of this information are obvious. Equally obvious are the kinds of strong objections which would be raised by such a proposal, after all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.The key questions which arise on the issue of the Ministerial discretion are –

  • Rationale – what is the rationale for allowing a politician to have direct control over such important and scarce resources? Is that an acceptable arrangement?
  • Proportion – If one assumes that there is a case for some Ministerial discretion, what part of the output of new homes should be subject to that? Is 25% too high a proportion?
  • Monitoring – In the current secretive arrangements, how can we really know just how many new homes have been distributed by Ministerial discretion? Is that complete secrecy an acceptable way to proceed?

Conclusion

Next, the land use implications of the HDC program will be addressed together with the potent estate management issues.

Our Land – Land for Everybody?

A detrimental ‘land grab’ is almost upon our country and we all need to be alert to prevent the destruction of our patrimony and prospects.

Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources
Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources

The State owns most of the land in the country – recent estimates by Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, place the proportion of State-owned land in the 63% range – and as such those lands are critical national assets with which a progressive government could seek to address issues of poverty in a sustainable fashion. Those policies would have to be redistributive in nature if they are to effectively address the serious poverty faced by some of our citizens. That means the State using our resources to provide affordable land and housing to those who are unable to do so in the open market. It is critical to ensure that these redistributive programs operate properly so that the benefits will go to the needy persons for whom they are intended. Those are objectives which I fully support.

I quipped that the ‘Land for the Landless’ program should be re-named ‘Land for Everybody’, but recent developments have turned that quip into a growing reality.

There have been three big changes which have effectively undermined the very meaning of these important redistributive programs –

  1. THE CARONI AGRICULTURAL LANDS

    The Trinidad Express reported that the Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, announced a significant change in the original policy in the 2015 budget, in that the ex-workers receiving agricultural leases were now free to sell these lands. Those lands which are sold will likely leave the agricultural use for which they were allocated, representing a significant and detrimental ‘alienation’ of those limited lands.

  2. THE NEW ‘LAND FOR THE LANDLESS’ PROGRAM

    This important program has been revised to now provide for an annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. Even if one makes the most optimistic assumptions that the upper target of 4,000 lots is achieved at the estimated cost of $1.0 Billion, the cost per lot is $250,000. I do not know if the cost of the land is included in those estimates, but experience suggests that it would have been excluded, which would be a serious gap in the planning for the development of these important public assets.Most alarmingly, the income limits have now been increased in a manner which suggests that this program is no longer intended for the benefit of the disadvantaged in our society. The original ‘Land for the Landless’ program set an upper limit of $8,000 on the family’s monthly income, but that has now been increased to $30,000. A family with a monthly income of $30,000 can readily afford to buy a home with private mortgage financing. Apart from that, there are serious questions as to whether the inclusion of those upper-income applicants would force-out the poorer people this program is intended to assist.

    It is just impossible to reconcile the new family income limit of $30,000 for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is only for residential lots, with the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) $25,000 limit on the monthly family income of applicants for homes.

  3. THE NEW LAND REFORMS

    The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and those proposed amendments were passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3 June 2015.

    The main points of this proposed new law, which still has to be approved by the Senate, are –

    • Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
    • The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to be allocated in this new process.
    • Who is ‘Landless’? – In the original 1998 Act, a ‘landless’ person is defined at S.2 (1) as –

      “…“landless” refers to a person who falls within a category designated as disadvantage (sic) by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and who has no legal or equitable interest or any other interest or claim to such an interest, in a dwelling house, residential land, or agricultural land upon which a dwelling house is permitted to be built…”

      Obviously, the original law was intended to assist the most needy persons in our society.In the proposed amendment, just approved by the House of Representatives, ‘landless’ has been redefined as follows –

      “…(c) in the definition of “landless”, by deleting the words “who falls within a category designated as disadvantage by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and…” (the emphases are mine)

      The landless class has now been expanded by our Parliament to eliminate any mention of disadvantage. I tell you.

    • Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected, from Charlotteville to Los Iros.
    • The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys from 2014 and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted? These critical policy changes must be underpinned by substantial research and consultation which can earn the required degree of public confidence.
    • Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or any property at all. These records must be open and searchable so that the potential for serious improper behaviour amounting to a ‘land grab’ is minimised. In the present opaque arrangement the real beneficiaries could remain unknown for too long. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.

When one considers the numbers involved, there is a clear sense that these programs, which were intended to benefit the poorer class of citizen, are being systematically ‘gamed’. It is even possible that officials are assisting those elements for the advancement of their own political agendas. The numbers wrangle is beyond the scope of this column, but I will be exploring it in the near future to explain how they relate a particular story.

The degree of confusion is immense, with LSA officers denying the existence of the national Land Policy. If we are to go by his evasive response to simple questions on the SIS occupation of State lands at Couva in disputed circumstances, the very Minister Seemungal can be seen as hostile to providing essential facts. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements.

We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.