Mon | Oct 23, 2017

Outameni: No houses from NHT

Published:Sunday | November 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Weak from being whipped, Philemon Wynter, depicting Cudjoe just after arrival from the Middle Passage, writhes in pain during a skit at Outameni in Coopers Pen, Trelawny. Kinda looks like the face of the Jamaican NHT contributor who still can't afford a house as the Trust engages in buying a tourism venture that will cost more than $300 million, including the first year's operational budget as well as renovation.-FILE

Orville Taylor

E Pluribus Unum. This is the Latin representation of the national motto of the United States, which in English is, 'Out of Many, One'. Uncannily, it is virtually the same as the Jamaican - which only adds people - quite appropriately, at the end. If we extend it to a 'bastardised' caricature of Jamaica language, it is Outameni and from all appearances, the interests of the Jamaican people who have been left out of not only the name, but out of a recent deal.

Similarly, American President Barack Obama seems to have turned the tide against himself, by being out of touch with the people he represents, making him a lame-duck president who now has to be increasingly swayed by his opposition.

In Jamaica, an undervisited and perhaps underearning attraction in Trelawny was acquired by the National Housing Trust (NHT), the national milch cow, which seems destined to bail out everything and everyone, except the majority of the contributors whose decades of labour have financed it. For a whopping $180 million, coincidentally, the same amount that was being initially asked to settle a defamation suit, the principals of the NHT, said, "Out of many, only one opinion matters."

Now let me make it clear: I spent my own money and had the Outameni Experience a little after it opened, a few years ago. It was a decent piece of change to spend, but it was an experience worth having. A voyage through the Jamaican historical landscape, it takes the visitor from the early arrivals, to slavery and the plantation experience and beyond. This journey, filled with montages of the bodies of enslaved Africans and other grisly reminders of the coloured history and dramatisations, truly brings to life much of our past, and quickly fills the gap in knowledge to the unknowing.

Nevertheless, when confronted by the echoes, which first I thought were ghosts, it occurred to me that they were caused by the paucity of patrons. Outameni was for me a good idea, but the question arose and lingered: Was this great idea making-money, and how?

risk-taker

Of course, I'm not a financial expert or prudent investor. Well, as it turns out, it looks like film-maker Lennie Little-White isn't one either. But that is the nature of business. The word 'entrepreneur' means 'risk-taker'; not 'businessman'. It means, therefore, that when one sticks out his neck to try to make a profit, he must also be prepared to stand on his own feet and suck up the loss.

In some quarters, it is suggested that the investment by the Government is a good one, because it was sold well below its true market value. Well, board chairman Easton Douglas is a man who made a career in the construction industry. Therefore, he must have surveyed and done the market evaluations and valuations.

However, from my uninformed perspective, the only way that Outameni could be worth such an amount is if it had unrestricted roaming charges attached to it and its principal's bite of the week was "no hanky-panky". Somebody help me here; but isn't it usually the private sector that buys government entities that are not gleaning a profit? How many success stories are there of Government buying a private corporation and turning a profit?

Very early in 2013, when the Government was about to raid the coffers of the Trust for a historic, non-reimbursable $45 billion for budgetary support, it was revealed that far from fulfilling its mandate, it had a shortfall in housing solutions of some 400,000 units. Then, Douglas assured the public that the Trust was building a cadre of small and medium-size contractors to push the process forward.

Horror stories have arisen over recent attempts to purchase housing units from the NHT's partner, the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ). The HAJ owes its principal backer, the fist-pumping NHT, close to $3 billion in unpaid loans and other debts. Right now, it is seeking to get forgiveness of its debt of around $700 million owed to the Government in an incestuous massaging of public finance. Apart from that, it owes commercial banks around $130 million, and other liabilities well over $600 million.

All this time, the housing ministry, under which the Trust falls, is promising to bring 1,000-plus housing solutions to market during fiscal year 2014-15. This is such a small drop in the bucket, which not even a teenager cockroach could drown in it.

little action from government

For all the dreams of Michael 'Joshua' Manley, the people's Government has done pure chatting and little doing on the housing issue. Just last month, the Trust revealed that although it pumped more than $11 billion into the Government's kitty, some five months into this fiscal year, "... NHT's housing expenditure was $1.3 billion less than projected." Why? The Jamaican workers have not reduced their level of contribution to their Trust (although a few government entities deduct it, but do not remit it). Furthermore, with an annual population growth rate of around 0.7 per cent, the Government might have to find more than 20,000 units per year to keep pace.

Thus, my concern is, how can the NHT go spending the working poor's money on a tourism business when the Trust is performing way below its core objectives and targets? Simply put, if you can't do what you have been contracted to do, how can you take on additional responsibilities that you know nothing about?

By this example, one could quickly employ my recently terminated football coach bredren and make him coach the Holy Trinity track and field team.

As forgiving as the Jamaican electorate is, they don't like being taken for fools. Obama's Democratic Party lost the Senate despite making lives of the working class better; gross domestic product being the highest in a decade; unemployment falling to a six-year low of 5.9 per cent; and improvement in the minimum wage.

Jamaica's governing party must pay attention to the recent polls because they have no comparable record.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.