Minister of Community Services Frank McField responded to the findings of an Auditor General’s report on the Affordable Housing Initiative in an interview on Monday afternoon.
The 38-page report, which was the subject of the Caymanian Compass lead story on Monday, criticised several aspects of the affordable housing scheme.
‘First, it is important to remember the report from the Auditor General deals with his opinions,’ said Mr. McField. ‘Those opinions are founded upon the need to maintain bureaucratic procedures rather than the need to advance social equity.’
Mr. McField said it was his Ministry that actually requested the Auditor General prepare the report.
‘We asked for this report… because there was so much criticism and we wanted to be transparent.’
Mr. McField defended many of his decisions.
‘I place social justice very high in the scheme of things and people come first and procedures afterwards,’ he said.
The Auditor General indicated in the report that the project was not planned appropriately beforehand, something Mr. McField found justified.
‘The fact that someone’s opinion would call on my preoccupation for our development for the working poor as being premature, is to get back to the old argument of what came first, the chicken or the egg,’ the Minister said. ‘Should I have had a plan before the idea or the idea before the plan?
‘In part of the Auditor General’s opinions, he said that the National Housing and Communities Trust should have been created before this process started, and bureaucratically, I agree,’ he said. ‘However, that is not how the world works. Some people do start in the middle, as we did.’
Mr. McField said actually getting the project completed was his primary goal.
‘I am happy I did not allow the civil servants in my Ministry to plan affordable housing to death, like so many other things that have been planned to death,’ he said. ‘Some people don’t realise that sometimes if you don’t get up and do something, no plan in the world will help you get it done.’
One of the points raised in the Auditor General’s report concerned the lack of a proper tendering process in the award of the contract to provide materials for the homes, and to build the homes themselves.
Mr. McField said he stared with the assumption that there were no materials available in the Cayman Islands that could be used to create affordable housing.
He pointed to the lack of homes affordable to the working poor in Cayman as part of the reason his Ministry proceeded as it did.
‘To me, this is an indication that the country did not have the ability to cater to the very low income individuals and families in our society,’ he said.
‘The Government went on trips to Honduras, Jamaica and Cuba and then sent out invitations to people here and abroad to assist its desire to create decent, liveable accommodations for Caymanians.
‘My opinion, therefore, is that since there was no reaction historically or otherwise to the need, that it was fair, once we had found materials that affordable, to purchase these materials,’ he said.
The Auditor General also noted that the building systems brought in by the company awarded the materials and construction contracts, the Italian-based Vetromeccaniche Investment Limited, were new to the island and therefore should have been approved prior to the signing of the contracts.
Subsequent problems with the Planning Department’s Building Control Unit in getting the homes up to Cayman’s Building Code created delays and cost overruns, the Auditor General said.
Mr. McField, however, said his Ministry dealt with those issues.
‘There were meetings with the Government planners and my Permanent Secretary is the former Director of Planning, so we had sufficient knowledge to be able to make some deductions with regard to the materials and houses meeting the Building Code,’ he said.
Mr. McField said a stipulation was put in the Letter of Intention for the first purchase that the materials that stated they had to be compliant with the Building Code of Cayman Islands.
‘At every step we were cognizant of these requirements,’ said Mr. McField. ‘My Permanent Secretary walked and slept housing, so we had sufficient managerial ability from the very beginning to be able to achieve the desired results.’
Mr. McField noted that people criticised the materials used in the project and said they would not withstand a hurricane, something he now feels vindicated about.
Most of the affordable homes build at the Eastern Avenue site were destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, but the Windsor Park site fared much better, and the West Bay site only lost a small number of homes, the Minister said.
Mr. McField said containers floating through and ramming homes at the Eastern Avenue site caused the initial breach and subsequent destruction of most of the homes at that site.
‘I think that, on average, the houses faired much better than in South Sound and other places,’ he said. ‘When they talk about Building Codes, you can see that the homes were made compliant and the vast majority withstood the hurricane without major damage.’
In his report, the Auditor General suggested that that local companies like Frank Hall Homes and CI Precast should have had an opportunity to bid on the project on the same basis as Vetro, including Government waivers of land cost, planning fees and import duties.
The Auditor General suggested that CI Precast’s construction prices, which were used in a price comparison after the fact of the contract signing with Vetro, could have been lower had they reduces the thickness of the walls in their homes from six inches toward the 2.36 inches of Vetro’s walls.
‘I think this shows the Auditor General knows absolutely nothing about construction,’ Mr. McField said. ‘If (CI Precast’s walls) were thinner, they couldn’t hold the steel needed for the house. It would be sticking out of the walls and rusting. It shows (the Auditor General’s) opinions are not always right.
Mr. McField said the Auditor General seemed to indicate his Ministry made the decisions it did on its own.
‘If I didn’t have political support for this, I wouldn’t have gotten very far,’ he said.
‘(The Auditor General) has the Eurocentric attitude… that what is not written did not happen… which has long been discredited by those intellectuals who understand the usefulness of oral history.
‘His opinion is limited to written communication,’ Mr. McField continued, ‘He has no record of the many discussions I had about the housing project with the members of the United Democratic Party, with the Cabinet and at the Party caucuses.
The Minister was, however, willing to accept some of the Auditor General’s criticism.
‘I can’t tell you I did the best job in the world, but I did something that positively impacted the lives of many people, especially after terrible Ivan,’ he said. ‘Because of the Affordable Housing Initiative, some people now have homes.’