Seventy-nine per cent of the mortgage/rental portfolio of the Housing Development Corporation is in arrears, HDC's divisional manager, finance, Inskip Pollanais, told the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee yesterday at the Port of Spain Waterfront Centre.
The total arrears owed to the corporation is $106.7 million and involves 3,155 delinquent customers Pollanais acknowledged this was unacceptable and said the HDC was “reaching out to customers” by “writing them, calling them, coercing them” to bring their accounts up to date. But as a last resort, it employed collection agencies. For the last eight months, HDC collected from DRSL (one of the collection agencies) $2.4 million in arrears owed by customers; and from AV Knowles, $3.3 million in the last five months. The agencies get 15 per cent of what is collected. HDC's managing director, Brent Lyons, explained going to the court to get a judgment was a slow process.
Fraud in HDC
Lyons also told the committee, in response to questions from member Wade Mark, that “unfortunately it was quite common” for people purporting to represent the HDC telling people desperately wanting a house that if they paid money to them they would secure one. “As recent as this week, information came to me and I have had to report a matter to the Fraud Squad,” he said.
Lyons said he wanted to stress to members of the public “that the only legitimate place to do business in respect of obtaining a house, particularly payment of any kind, was at the HDC's head office at its cashiers”.
“If you don't do it there, you are committing a crime, you are being fooled, hoodwinked, it is wrong, illegal,” he said.
He said the HDC was embarking on an education campaign so that people would know that they cannot “meet people on the street corner (to get a house). It doesn't work like that,” he said.
In response to questions about nepotism, he said there was a Cabinet-approved allocation policy. At the meeting it was revealed there were 180,000 applicants in the database but there were currently 1,000 houses available for distribution.
1,000 abandoned HDC units
Committee member Maxie Cuffie asked what measures were in place to address the issue of abandoned houses, some of which were occupied by people.
Lyons said the HDC had identified 1,000 abandoned units. He said half of these involved the units being abandoned by people who are still paying for them and therefore the account is still “live”.
He said the other half of abandoned units were occupied by either illegal occupants or second, third and fourth generation family members and these accounts were in arrears.
He said the HDC was now formulating a programme to treat with these abandoned houses, but it was not simply a case of “ just going and taking the house”.
Keys but no application
Cuffie told Lyons of a gentleman he knew who was never on the HDC's database, but who was presented with keys to an HDC unit, moved in and has been living in the unit for some time “with no arrangement with the HDC”.
“How could that be?” Cuffie said, adding he was informed there were several cases like that.
Lyons asked whether the keys were legitimately given by the HDC. “It could be somebody pretending to be a legitimate member of the HDC family saying 'I can get you a house for a fee' and the person pays and gets a key. And that has happened and we have dealt with cases like that,” Lyons said.
Cuffie said the man had stated he had been presented with the keys in an MP's office.
Cuffie asked whether the slowness of the allocation process contributed to some of the illegal activity. He added there was also uncertainty in the process because people did not know at what stage their application had reached in the allocation process.
Lyons pointed out people applied for a house, not to the HDC, but to the Ministry of Housing, where the database was. He said while the HDC had access to that database, it was owned by the Ministry of Housing.
Cuffie said he and many others did not know this. He pointed out that given the fact that the HDC and the ministry were in the same building, whether there was a “Chinese wall” between the two institutions.
Asked by Mark for a status report on the two abandoned towers in Edinburgh 500 which were built in 2008-9 at a cost of $140 million, but which had design defects and were unoccupied, Lyons said HDC had new designs for the towers and it would cost $140 million to complete.
He said there were several other projects like this, such as the View Fort project in St James.
The HDC is currently building units in 16 sites—a total of about 5,580, of which 2,950 were completed and 2,650 would be completed over the next 20 months.