raffique shah

IN the wake of the cancellation of a lopsided, scandalous multi-billion-dollar contract between the Housing Development Corporation and China Gezhouba Group International Engineering Company (CGGC) for the construction of 5,000 housing units, it is alarming that no public official has been called to account for the many concessions the Chinese almost got but for the vigilance of the much-maligned mass media.

It is incomprehensible that many members of the Cabinet were duped into crowing over unacceptable terms, and ministers did not seem to have read or understood the details of the document they presented to the public last May with much fanfare.

In fact, CGGC was about to start construction of 439 two- and three-bedroom apartments in Port of Spain and San Fernando, intended to be the first phase of a 5,000-unit massive housing programme when “de mark buss” and the contract was cancelled, whatever the implications of that unilateral decision may be.

Some informed observers have commented that the HDC has “lost its moorings”. Frankly, I don’t know that the HDC in any incarnation ever had “moorings”, far less vision or proper planning for the State’s role in the provision of shelter for citizens who needed such assistance.

If the term “moorings” can be loosely interpreted as the provision or facilitation of affordable housing for citizens who, because of their meagre incomes on the one hand, and the harsh terms of mortgage loans on the other, may never be, or have been, in a position build or buy modest-to-comfortable apartments or homes, then the State agency has had limited success.

To the extent that when it started back in the 1960s it provided apartment complexes in what are today dubbed inner-city or urban districts (East Dry River, Laventille, Morvant, Cocorite, Mon Repos, etc), the National Housing Authority (as it was then named) did target the poor who would otherwise live in squalor. But even as it sought to fulfil the need for low-cost housing, which it could never fully satiate, new “shanty towns” sprung up or expanded, as did the demand for housing elsewhere in the country.

Government’s intervention in low-cost housing opened a network of arteries for the free flow of State funds, which logically led to rampant corruption. From preliminary works to construction and the distribution of units, corruption spread like a virulent cancer. Officials with influence, contractors big and small, suppliers of goods and services, and from early o’clock the lawless and the violent, they all wallowed in the feeding trough, gorging on taxpayers’ dollars.

There was little or no vision or planning in the multi-million-dollar projects that gave birth completely new mega-communities such as La Horquetta, Maloney, Pleasantville and other similar concrete jungles.

Let me share with readers a story that reflects the absence of vision and planning in our governments’ housing projects.

In the late 1970s I was invited by architects Clive “Zanda” Alexander and Clyde Bacchus to view a model of urban renaissance they had conceptualised. This was before computers, so I was looking at a hand-crafted, miniature multi-story apartment complex. The ground floor, they told me, would house older residents, a few small shops, a police post, daycare centre and gym with a small play-park and ball court to the front and back, respectively.

I can visualise that model as I write 50 years on, so impressed was I. “Have you shown this to anyone in government?” I asked. Yes, but they have no interest. So I undertook to discuss it with ministers I knew. Their response was chilly. The dream, I suppose, died for lack of interest, or maybe because the architects were incorruptible. Decades later, the East Dry River they had dreamt of transforming into functional, peaceful communities, and the surrounding districts that might have followed suit, are putrid hell-holes, war zones where blood flows and death calls daily.

The HDC, under successive governments, has presided over the construction of shelter as required by convention, not the establishment of homes and communities, which it will argue is outside its remit. I suppose the agency has a point. It delivers houses. It’s up to the recipients to transform them into homes, to carve communities with their neighbours.

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But the indefatigable Afra Raymond, who pursues transparency in public affairs with unmatched fervour, will ask of the HDC: where is your mandate to spend public funds on housing units that cost more than $1 million each to construct, which you will award to lucky applicants at below cost? In fact, he might cite the expensive Victoria Keyes, Diego Martin townhouses that one PNM government constructed at well over $1 million per unit, which were stripped and upgraded at a cost of up to $4 million per unit by the former PP government, and eventually completed by the incumbent PNM regime.

When the public last heard anything about the Victoria Keyes orgy funded by other people’s money (read taxpayers), the Prime Minister said the units will be sold at open market prices.

There are other, similar HDC projects, not quite so pricey, but also not cheap. And invariably they end up being sold at subsidised prices, mostly to people who have “connections”, and often not first time home owners—which is a violation of HDC’s mandate.

In a recent interview on a morning television programme, Afra Raymond told the seemingly shocked hostess/presenter that decent, modest houses can and are being constructed in this country at between $250,000 and $400,000. She did not believe him, saying the cheapest units on the market are priced at $1.5 million.

I can affirm what Afra said, as can many others who avoided price-gouging housing developers and their “gardens” and “villas”, project-managed our construction, and built ourselves homes we live comfortably in.

If we can do it, why can’t HDC deliver affordable housing?

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