Just over a week ago, the chair of the Housing Development Corporation, Noel Garcia, was reported to have said that now that the figure for tenants’ arrears is approaching $157 million, its management is considering evictions and other severe actions.
This followed the disclosure by Housing and Urban Development Minister Camille Robinson-Regis that this debt was one of the reasons for the HDC’s inability to meet its outstanding payment of $1.3 billion to contractors.
Garcia, who is also chair of UDeCOTT (the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago), spoke of setting up a task force this month to oversee a campaign to recoup the losses.
Referring to tenants at Oasis Greens, he said that more than 75% of the occupants were in arrears and the total figure was $3.4 million. He said the HDC has around 100,000 renters and more than half owed fees.
The Express reported his assessment of the comparable cost.
“You are required to pay between $800 and $1,500 in a month’s rent when the market rate of similar properties is between $3,000 and $5,000.”
According to the article by Khamarie Rodriguez, he said “there was a culture of HDC occupants believing their homes were gifted to them by the government”, and in some cases, “recipients had neglected their payment obligations soon after they were given keys to units”.
He is also reported to have said that “while some were allowed to ignore these obligations, thousands were awaiting the opportunity to be housed”.
It jumped out at me, that line about how some were allowed to ignore these obligations—such a throw-away admission of the HDC’s neglect and irresponsibility, and, I daresay, tacit encouragement.
Roughly eight months ago, Minister Robinson-Regis was quoted as saying: “I know of people in my own constituency whose rental may be in the order of $100, $250 and yet they owing $50,000, which means from the day they got the unit they have not paid.”
She provided figures for the arrears, reported in the Guardian: “Rounded off in 2021, that debt was $143 million, 2020—$139 million and in 2019—$103 million. In 2018, close to $160 million was owed by tenants and $157 and $159 million, respectively, were owed for 2017 and 2016.”
Those figures went as far back as 2016; more than enough time for patterns to be tracked and offenders to be identified. Why was it allowed to keep accumulating?
Two sides to this, both articulated by Garcia. One is the culture of freeness—rewards bestowed for political allegiances, so people believe that their houses are gifts from the government. The other is that they are allowed to ignore their obligations.
It is possible to argue that things have been perilously tight for most people because of the pandemic; but we cannot ignore the fact that this delinquency is a cultural trait that pre-dates any economic depression.
The casual revelation that people were allowed to miss their payments without consequence, without attempting to work out reasonable measures to ensure that they contribute something on a monthly basis, is the obvious reason that the debts have mounted to such an astronomical figure.
Why pay for what you can get free?
As a householder, having waited for years without success for an HDC housing allocation, I have been now paying my mortgage every month for years—even after resigning my job and earning barely enough to make those payments. I know what the consequences would be should I lapse.
Is it fair that so many escape their responsibilities?
It is the way this society runs—large swathes of the population do not pay taxes, and while we may sympathise with those running their own little enterprises, I have seen for myself how much they rake in outside of the income tax net.
It is no wonder that we feel the weight of inequity and the idea that there is no justice and fairness in the way we operate.
It calls to mind the “quiet violence” of corruption that Noble Philip wrote about a few days ago. We are preoccupied with violent crime, but the most abhorrent crime in our society comes from its acceptance of corruption. It insinuates itself into the fabric of our lives so effortlessly that we are hardly aware how far we have fallen into that deepening darkness.
A response to my column last week about presidential help for our youth chilled me: “Take your money on the side, if you must, but do something for our youth and all of us instead of the constant inane chatter.”
Unnoticed, an institution slips when its shape and size is too unwieldy. Relating the stance of former managing director of the HDC, Jearlean John, over the “airport situation”, Philip quoted her: “There was a lot of looseness, no real structure, and it appeared anyone could have jumped up and changed things.”
Philip was looking at the overall impact of corruption on any society. It harms economic growth and stunts business initiatives, he said, and it robs the community of social trust and makes us feel everybody would steal if the opportunity arose.
Global headlines are daily reminders of the corrupt practices behind nearly everything: at home, the Piarco fiasco, alleged misconduct at VMCOTT, misuse of state funds… the list is as long as it is nauseating, and contributes heavily to the degeneration of our nations.