‘HAJ in better hands’

Chair says agency will clear losses of $900m and turn a profit of $61m by end of Fy 2017/18

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, March 20, 2017

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CHAIRMAN of the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) Norman Brown has defended the agency’s operations in the wake of a press report on the weekend that revealed the agency had sustained $886 million in losses for the 2015/16 fiscal year, and that its operating expenses had increased significantly.

Speaking at a press conference convened yesterday at its Kingston’s offices to respond to the report which originated from the HAJ’s annual report for 2015/16, that was tabled in the House last week, Brown stressed that the agency is in a far better position now than it was prior to the appointment of new management in April 2016.

He insisted that the HAJ is now financially stable. "We have turned the agency around, (and) we have reduced our debt. Since we assumed office, we have not been a charge on the public purse. This board that I lead has made it our responsibility to return stability to the agency and viability," he stated.

Brown stressed that when the management took office in 2016, there was indeed a loss of $900 million that was inherited, but that by the end of this financial year the agency is projected to turn a profit of $61 million. He noted that although this is a small profit, it was impressive, given the previous situation.

The HAJ chairman also gave an explanation for the increase in operating expenses from $660 million to $1.3 billion for the review period. "Those occurred in the years March 2014 to March 2016. In our current financial year we have reduced our budgeted operational expenses by $91 million," he said. The total budgeted operational expenses for the fiscal year is $550 million, but is projected to taper off at $460 million.

Meanwhile, Brown said when his board took office, debt to the National Housing Trust (NHT) was $3.05 billion, but that now stands at $2.73 billion, having paid over to the NHT some $410 million. He noted that these are old debts which were mainly related to Operation Pride schemes and open market units. He also said most of the projects which were lagging for several years (2007 – 2011) have now been completed and brought to market. These include Bel Air in St Ann, Luana housing scheme in St Elizabeth, and Boscobel in St Mary.

The chairman noted that the HAJ has handed over 5,000 land titles over the past four years and has set a target of 1,500 to 2,000 titles to be distributed during this fiscal period.

He told the
Jamaica Observer that, while he could not speak to the specific plans that the Government has for the HAJ in the context of its position that NHT is to be re-scoped as a financial institution, he noted that portfolio minister, Dr Horace Chang has said that the HAJ is to be restructured. "We have not been told where we fit in the scheme of things just yet, but I know that there are changes coming," he said.

The HAJ chairman said the Government is seeking to focus more on public/private partnerships in order to remove some of the challenges facing the agency and protect the integrity of projects. "One of the challenges that the housing sector faces is that we undertake all the risk [and] it leads to a lot of problems, whether corruption, nepotism, etc. So the new mantra is that they are looking at public/private partnerships, so that the developer undertakes some of the risk so that we will ensure that the project gets value for money," he stated.

The HAJ is a low-market land and housing developer with responsibility for the upgrading of informal settlements. It is also charged with developing infrastructure, such as roads, as well as a titling programme. It was formed in 1998 through the merger of the National Housing Corporation, Operation Pride, and Caribbean Housing Finance Corporation.




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