Housing Trust ready to go

Although it has taken much longer than anticipated, the National Housing and Development Trust is ready to start the process of building affordable homes for low and middle income Caymanians on Grand Cayman.

NHDT Chairman Leonard Ebanks said there have been many challenges in getting to this point.

‘We have not been idle,’ he said. ‘A lot has happened, but it has not been visible.’

Leonard Ebanks

NHDT Chairman Leonard Ebanks. Photos: File

Some of the initial challenges involved cleaning up the administrative mess left by the previous management of the NHDT, Mr. Ebanks said. Not only did all of the files and accounts have to reconstructed, there was also a forensic audit done by the Auditor General’s office on the Trust.

After that, a lot of attention had to be focused on the homes that had already been built by the NHDT between 2004 and 2005. Although many of those homes at the affordable housing site off of Eastern Avenue were destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, most of the homes at the Windsor Park and West Bay sites survived the storm. But many sustained a lot of damage, which continues to cause problems.

Maxine Gibson

NHDT General Manager Maxine Gibson.

NHDT General Manager Maxine Gibson said the surviving homes in West Bay have been the most difficult to deal with.

‘Salt water went through them in the flood [from Hurricane Ivan] and now the tracks are all rusting and the structures are bending,’ she said.

Rust from the steel framing of homes is bleeding through the wall. Other problems included water heaters – which were placed in the roof by design – falling through the ceilings and kitchen cabinets falling off the walls, Ms Gibson said.

The new NHDT board of directors learned of the structural problems with the homes in West Bay soon after it was appointed. After viewing the homes and getting some building advice, it was estimated the homes would have a life expectancy of only seven to 10 more years.

Although some of the constructed homes had not been sold, the NHDT made a decision not to sell any more of the houses, and instead to lease them to low-income Caymanians that had been displaced by Hurricane Ivan.

‘We thought it would be immoral to sell something on a 20-year mortgage that only had a life expectancy of 10 years,’ he said.

The NHDT still faces the problem of what to do with the people who had already purchased homes in the project. Mr. Ebanks said there is a plan to transfer their equity into a new home that would eventually be built on their home site.

However, that plan would necessitate relocating the occupants of the homes during construction of the new home.

‘We still have that logistical problem to work through,’ said Mr. Ebanks.

Going forward, the NHDT will not build modular panel homes.

‘We are going to build concrete homes,’ Mr. Ebanks said. ‘We have a plan that we think is the most economical.’

The exact type of concrete home is yet to be determined. The project will be put out to tender and the Central Tenders Committee will choose a contractor, or possibly more than one contractor. Whether the homes are block and mortar or some sort of poured concrete system will depend on the bids received.

In the meantime, the NHDT will arrange for the entire development infrastructure, including roads and utilities, to be in place before the building on the homes begins.

‘We want to deliver the property to a contractor so all he has to do is start pouring the slabs,’ Mr. Ebanks said.

Another thing that slowed the NHDT down was finding sites for building more homes.

A plan had been devised to build 29 more homes at the site off Eastern Avenue.

‘We were ready to roll on that site,’ said Mr. Ebanks. ‘Then we got an unsolicited offer to buy the property.’

The offer was substantial enough to make the NHDT rethink the decision to build there, Mr. Ebanks said. Based on the offer, it appeared the NHDT was getting ready to build homes that cost about $75,000 on $100,000 lots.

‘That’s not good economics,’ he said.

Rather than just accept the unsolicited offer, the NHDT put the property out to tender and eventually reached an agreement on the sale of the property.

The NHDT then started the difficult task of finding another suitable site in George Town. The Government land near Fairbanks Prison, which had been identified by the previous Government administration as an affordable housing site was eliminated from consideration because it had flooded so badly during Hurricane Ivan.

However, after some time of looking around unsuccessfully for an alternative site, the NHTD did some ground testing on the Fairbanks property and came up with a plan that would allow for about 50 affordable homes to be safely built on it.

‘We have to raise the level of the ground to mitigate against flooding,’ he said. To do that, the NHDT will create a retention pond on the site and use the fill excavated from that pond to raise the level of the surrounding property.

The Cuban migrant detention centre is on the site and will have to be moved, Mr. Ebanks noted.

The NHDT has also identified another 10-acre site in West Bay and sites in Bodden Town and North Side for more affordable homes.

The need for these homes is without question, Mr. Ebanks said.

‘We have about 500 applications right now,’ he said.

Ms Gibson said 90 of those applications were submitted last year.

‘Every day they’re coming in,’ she said. ‘We’re racing against the clock.’

About half of the applications submitted are from people who have acquired Caymanian Status at some point. Mr. Ebanks said those applications will be treated the same as those submitted by other Caymanians.

‘As far as the board is concerned, we have to treat everyone the same way,’ he said, adding that a point system has been devised to qualify applicants.

Mr. Ebanks stressed that not everyone would qualify for purchasing a home through the NHDT. Applicants will have to prove they have enough income to make the mortgage payments.

‘Our responsibility is to provide affordable housing at the lowest possible cost, not to provide free housing,’ he said.

‘You’re going to find people who can’t afford to purchase these homes. That’s where Social Services comes in.’

Mr. Ebanks said that under the previous management, the Housing Trust’ slogan was ‘housing for all’.

‘While we appreciate that is a laudable goal, and we’d also like to see that become a reality, that is not [the NHDT’s] responsibility,’ he said, adding that the NHDT addresses a particular need to a particular segment of the community.

Mr. Ebanks said the NHDT was not giving a hand out, but giving a helping hand.

Under the previous management, the Housing Trust sold some homes to people who were unqualified to buy them, based on their income. The result was a high rate of delinquency on mortgages.

‘When we came in, there was a delinquency ratio of about 70 per cent of the accounts that were in some position of arrears,’ Mr. Ebanks said. ‘That has been reversed now to about 25 per cent, with a select few – about three persons – who are just not able to pay [anything].’

Although a lot of the last administration’s plan did not work out well, there were some successes.

Mr. Ebanks said that most of the owners have taken pride in their homes and he agrees that the housing sites did not develop into the slums that were predicted by some.

‘Pride in ownership is something everyone aspires to,’ he said. ‘But another component of the success has been Maxine and her staff for all their behind-the-scenes work.’

Ms Gibson explained that NHDT staff makes regular visits to the West Bay and Windsor Park sites and they take a very hand’s-on approach to managing the developments. They help owners with budget planning if their payments get in arrears and encourage them to take pride in their homes.

‘We try to make people realise they have a stake in [the home],’ she said.

Mr. Ebanks also praised his predecessors for one thing.

‘[Affordable housing] was a need that was lacking,’ he said. ‘The previous government should be commended for identifying the need and doing something about it, although we disagree with the approach and it cost us a lot of money.’

Mr. Ebanks said the mistakes of the last government resulted in basically wasting US$14.5 million. Only 113 homes with were build for that money, and most if not all will have to be replaced within 10 years.

Because of the huge loss, Mr. Ebanks said the NHDT has been careful to make sure it has the right plan in place this time.

‘I apologize if people think we haven’t moved fast enough, but this country can’t afford another $14.5 million to go down the tube,’ he said.

Mr. Ebanks expects construction on the homes to begin in the second half of this year. He would like to see some of the houses occupied this year, but knows it probably won’t happen that quickly.

‘It’s a bit far-fetched to say we could get someone in by [this] Christmas, but certainly it could happen by early next year.’