MONTEGO BAY, St James — The Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) is waiting to collect about $2 billion in unpaid mortgages so it can present roughly 7,000 Jamaicans with titles that are tucked away in its vault.
But an even greater challenge is untangling the cobweb of property lines that often exists in the informal communities it is attempting to regularise. It does not help that land surveys, which are supposed to be the State agency's guideposts, date back to a quarter of a century in some cases.
“[Unpaid fees] is one of the issues. But [there is] another one that might be a bit more technical, and I am a little hesitant to go there. What we find, at times, a lot of the surveys for informal communities are dated,” HAJ Board Chairman Norman Brown told the Jamaica Observer. “You'll find that the government entity — whether those from NHDC [National Housing Development Corporation] or Ministry of Housing — did a survey that is more than 20 or 25 years old and the owners were determined by that. Some of the titles are drawn up with that information, and then… when you go now to actually deliver the titles to the residents, you realise that there are serious levels of encroachment, because other persons just go and take piece of land beside the person and just build. So you might find that my kitchen is now in your front yard.”
Where the encroachment is minor and can be solved amicably between neighbours, that avenue is pursued. However, the more complicated cases may mean legal help is required. Recognising that untangling encroachment issues can be a costly affair, Brown said the HAJ's approach has been to spare residents this expense. The agency has now taken on the job of working with other government bodies to fix the issue before they carry out wide-scale distribution of titles.
“Remember, we deal with affordable mortgages, which is for the low-income folks. To go burden them with legal fees is almost defeating the purpose for which we exist. It doesn't make sense, that's the view of the board,” said Brown.
The HAJ, which was set up in April 1998, was originally called the National Housing Development Corporation Limited (NHDC). The NHDC came out of a merger of Caribbean Housing Finance Corporation Limited, the National Housing Corporation Limited, and the scandal-plagued Operation Pride. The name was changed to the Housing Agency of Jamaica Limited in September 2008.
According to the HAJ's website, in the first 10 years of its existence it got titles into the hands of about 8,000 people and there was an equal number of titles left in its vault. Brown estimates that the number yet to be disbursed may be as much as 7,000.
“I would say $250,000 to $300,000 is the average balance that is there on titles if I was to hazard a guess in that regard,” he said when asked about the mortgages owed. He added that there are larger sums, up to $800,000, but those are rare cases.
When the balances are small, the Government sometimes steps in to move the process along, he explained.
“I wouldn't want to call it an amnesty, but coming up to maybe Independence holidays, or an occasion of that nature, they will say to people [with mortgages] under $50,000, 'We would just take the administrative cost of $12,000 and your title would be delivered to you,' ” said Brown.
He added, however, that there is a continuous process of distributing — as they become available — titles for properties with paid-off mortgages. About 100, sometimes less, are delivered each month, he said. The HAJ also works with other State agencies, such as the National Housing Trust (NHT), to help regularise developments once the infrastructure is at a certain standard within the community, providing loans as needed, White said.
“It's a continuous programme,” the HAJ board chairman said of the effort to distribute titles. “As I speak, there is also an effort by the Government of Jamaica, led by the Ministry of Housing. [This is] a joint effort between that ministry and the OPM [Office of the Prime Minister] and all of the relevant agencies to have a mechanism to be able to get these titles not just from HAJ alone, but from all the government agencies into the hands of residents.”
“Our agency is a part of that body that is now working on a mechanism... to be able to deliver the titles. But I think there may be more than 25,000 titles being held by various government agencies that need to be delivered to the customer. I think that is actually a part of the IMF's [International Monetary Fund] mandate when they were here,” he added. “Because we have too much equity tied up. When you go in informal communities and you see a two-storey house, that house is built by cash because no mortgage financier is going to put any money in there as there's no security of tenure. So you can imagine if you would be able to release all of that equity back into the formal economy to do other things in the meantime,” said Brown.