The National Housing Trust (NHT) is like an ill-fated donkey that has found itself in the hands of idle schoolboys. Those fortuitous jockeys, with little understanding of animal care, give a macabre meaning to the expression, 'animal husbandry', as their unfamiliarity breeds major contempt but little else.
I wish departing chairman Easton Douglas good health and hope that he enjoys his second retirement, as he and the other former board members continue to do what they were doing while on the board. A few months ago, the Trust was in the news because of the purchase of a piece of property and a suspected bailout to big (in body) 'black' entrepreneur, Lennie Little-White. For all of the stridency of the former board members, who did not walk under the public glare, the Jamaican populace was just not convinced that it was a good buy and the only goodbye we wanted to see was from the board ensemble.
The purchase of Little-White's Outameni property did not sit well with most of us, because it was not clear whether or not it was simply a social type of investment, such as the construction of Emancipation Park with the unflattering male sculpture. Or whether it was an expenditure that was expected to return some serious profit, which the Trust could use at some point to achieve its principal mandate, which is the provision of inexpensive housing solutions for the working class. The NHT was designed as a socialist worker-oriented entity, to encourage and reward the working poor; not capitalists, entrepreneurs or friends of political parties.
In more than a decade, the NHT dished out more than $2 billion on three major projects under the premise or pretext that they were investments. Some $63 million was sunk into an abyss theoretical project called Jamaica Lifestyle Village. Also, ironically named Central Wastewater Treatment Company Limited and Harmonisation Limited all pumped money down the drain. Yet, the only returns that accrued to the hundreds of thousands of houseless workers was the board, which, after each debacle, seemed as irremovable as a curry stain. Nothing in the report suggested that the board had any idea or desire as to how a profit would be made.
Now, the auditor general's report revealed that executives of the Trust were unsupportive of the Outameni purchase price of $180 million to Orange Valley Holdings prior to the deal being struck. Moreover, the purchase breached the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act. The report is unambiguous. The aforementioned Outameni acquisition was literally above board, but is that the tip of the iceberg?
From all appearances, the board, like so many other government entities, is independent, even as regards its mandate. More disappointing is the fact that there appears to be a culture of disregard spanning more than a decade.
To the chagrin of the workers employed to the Trust and who clearly advised against some of the endeavours, the conclusion is clear that either the board acted wantonly or with the endorsement of government. Indeed, for the board to act contrary to the technical advice and, ultimately, cause the Trust to lose billions of dollars, without sanctions as a result, gives the impression that the impunity with which it conducted its affairs must have been endorsed by the Government or that the board was simply a maverick.
It is difficult to believe that it is simply a matter of incompetence or negligence. Had the public servants and external regulators not explicitly warned against these purchases, the board could have pleaded ignorance and thus embrace its bliss. However, to stare in the face of good judgement and warning, like the proverbial puss that breaks the coconut in one's eye, sanctions, doubtless, have to be imposed.
I have great sympathies for the hundreds of technocrats and competent public servants who understand the Trust's mission statement, 'Our mission is to be effective stewards, caring for our contributors as we deliver housing solutions, build communities, provide contributions refunds and influence the market to make housing more affordable.'
The overwhelming majority of these workers are apolitical and have no allegiance, except to their jobs. After all, public servants have a cloak of anonymity and facelessness and hardly get credit for the work that they do.
Frequently, public officers have all the best of intentions and then are forced to bow to the behest of politicians. It is the same point I made a few years ago, with the JDIP and Fallback fiasco under the Jamaica Labour Party, when everyone, including many of my media colleagues, were calling for the neck of Permanent Secretary Alwyn Hales.
Many times, public servants are caught between the deep orange bauxite and the deep green sea. One wonders just how well the Trust would have done had it been allowed to be run with the rules of rationality and the considered input of the experts employed full-time to it.
The Trust, to its credit, has, between 2002 and 2013, accounted for 22,000 or more than 50 per cent of dwellings completed nationally. If one takes into consideration the loans the NHT provided to the private sector, who, unfortunately, did not pass on the cheap financing to the contributor, the number is more significant. From 7,165 mortgages, the number climbed to 8,485 by 2013. However, the number went down last year to just over 7,500.
From 2009 to 2014, in excess of 150,000 contributors got refunds annually, for a yearly average of $3.4 billion.
I am thankful for the new blood. But anyone who was associated with the embarrassing purchases should go. Incoming Chairman Dr Carlton Davis is an upstanding public servant with an impeccable record, and hopefully Lisa Harrison and Daisy Coke can force the politicians to make nationalistic decisions. But I could do without the politicians, and at least one trade unionist, who need to spend more time enhancing the interests of the working class and the union movement.
- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the 2013-14 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. His just-published book, 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is now available at the UWI Bookshop. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.