It's hard to separate which is the more embarrassing situation at the Chaguanas Lions Gate housing development. Is it the appalling reality that 231 housing units, sorely needed on the local market have been allowed, on the verge of completion, to lapse into rot and ruin, or is it the evident haplessness of everyone responsible for the project when faced by direct questions about it? The facts surrounding the housing development at Egypt Street, Enterprise are these. In April 2007, Brave Lion, a construction contractor, was awarded a contract for $156 million to construct the Chaguanas development.
By the fourth quarter of 2010, the project, in the final stages of completion, apparently stalled completely. As early as November 2009, Bruno Molinari, an Italian-born Canadian contracted to work on the project, claims that his salary payments came to an end. By then, he says, Brave Lion's offices had closed. Brave Lion director Joseph Azar pointed to the HDC, claiming that the State development company had stopped payments on the project since November 2009. Since then, the company has apparently become a nonfunctional shell. The Brave Lion CEO has resigned, and the Chief Operating Officer is in Canada, according to Azar.
That situation has led to contractors retained by Brave Lion, most notably Genivar, presenting their case for payment directly to the HDC. All that HDC Managing Director Jearlean John could say about the matter is that "99 per cent of the houses have been completed. We really have little or nothing to do there."
Eyewitness reports from the site suggest otherwise. With weak security and an abandoned work site, the Lions Gate development, overgrown by bush, is now apparently being targeted by vandals and thieves intent on stripping the development of its materials.
Lions Gate isn't the only government project to draw close to completion and occupancy only to lapse into a twilight zone of abandonment and predation. At Corinth, a large housing project with dozens of apartments has less than 10 per cent occupancy, is overgrown with bush more than six feet tall and vines are busy taking advantage of the unoccupied "trellises" provided for them by the government. This is an untenable situation and an outright embarrassment to a government that claims to have set the needs of the people of Trinidad and Tobago first on its political agenda.
The Ministry of Housing must move to perform a thorough audit of its housing projects, and existing housing stock to evaluate what's under construction and at what stage of completion these projects have reached. That review should also clarify the status of outstanding payments due on these projects and ensure that funds are fast tracked to meet contractual obligations and end unproductive and needless legal action on matters that are better engaged directly through appropriate mediation and mutually agreed on schedules of payment. It should never be the case that houses so close to completion should be allowed to deteriorate and in so doing incur additional costs for repairs because of vandalisation.
The Ministry of Housing should take the lead in identifying these lapsed projects and drive them to completion, readying much needed houses for distribution to the homeowners who, in many cases, have been waiting for decades for an opportunity to occupy a home of their own. Billions of dollars have been spent on construction in Trinidad and Tobago, but much of it hasn't affected the average citizen.
The Housing Ministry received the third largest budget allocation in Friday's marathon sitting of the House of Representatives, placing an additional $241 million at its disposal. The government has a clear opportunity here to leverage money already spent on these housing projects through decisive, results focused management of a situation that's likely to directly benefit the thousands of people waiting and hoping for access to public housing.