Columns

Stop the waste, review Ruthven Towers proposal

BY ORRETT MONTAGUE

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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The National Housing Trust (NHT) invited bids from contractors for a high-rise residential development at Ruthven Road in Kingston over five years ago. Back then the NHT said it would build 238 apartments, across four blocks, each six storeys high, on the 5.71-acre property, the one formerly owned by the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Many contributors, like myself, were excited about the opportunity to purchase affordable housing near the New Kingston business hub since in 2010, when the NHT first revealed the Ruthven project, it was said it would cost $1.9 billion to develop — an average of just under $8 million per apartment. At this price the designers at A G Lowe Architects conceptualised one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, sports courts, a meeting room, a jogging trail, and more.

Just last Friday, September 22, at the project's ground-breaking ceremony, Prime Minister Andrew Holness correctly highlighted that central garbage, sewage collection, storm-water drainage, and even centralised potable water and electrical distribution systems allow developers to realise excellent savings on scale. The prime minister should therefore be concerned about the NHT's new price tag for the 238 apartments to be called Ruthven Towers.

High-density housing has been touted as relatively cheaper internationally. In fact, it is usually a cost-effective way to respond to the housing needs of low-income earners, as was the case with previous high-density constructions in Tivoli Gardens and Spanish Town.

Ruthven Towers apartments are now expected to cost the NHT's contributors $4.1 billion to develop. The NHT has not accounted for the doubling of the costs and now proposes spending on average over $17 million for each apartment. Further, there is every likelihood that these costs will rise, since construction for Phase One of the project (64 one- and two-bedroom apartments) is to last two years from November 2017 to July 2019. And Phase Two won't even begin until September 2019, therefore any increase in construction costs by 2020 would not come as a surprise.

But how exactly did the cost for the development double? Did the NHT accept the best tender from developers? Isn't the entity concerned about the increased cost these units are now attracting?

What's more, apart from possibly National Environment and Planning Agency approval and the need for zoning amendments, why was this project in the planning stages for six years?

According to Holness, “The project is in keeping with Government's mission to provide access to affordable housing solutions for Jamaicans.” But who does he expect these apartments to be affordable to? And at who's expense? The prime minister would be best advised to allocate a $9-million mortgage to each of the 238 future beneficiaries of the proposed Ruthven Towers, and commit the $2 billion in savings to building at least 250 new, high-density housing solutions with a more cost-effective developer and development plan.

Our elected leader has a duty to protect the poor and working class' trust, he should begin by ensuring that their contributions are no longer squandered to benefit high-income earners who usually have other options for housing.

The NHT's chairman, Dr Nigel Clarke, should stand on his integrity and ensure that the NHT does not subsidise high-end living on the proceeds of the poor, and does not fall victim to developers and suppliers padding contracts at the taxpayers' expense. Do not waste our money. A review must be done.

Orrett Montague is a freelance journalist and communication and social policy specialist. He also serves as communications director for the PNP Patriot. Send comments to the Observer or orrettmontague@gmail.com.

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