Housing dream takes on nightmarish proportions

It is the dream of many to own their own home  and in Guyana this often entails purchasing a piece of land first through the Central Housing and Planning  Authority (CH&PA), a process that in itself can be a struggle.

“It is so frustrating!” exclaimed a young prospective home owner who is yet to receive the title for her land, even though it has been almost a year since the transaction was completed,  after years of being pushed around.

For potential homeowners, a typical visit to the Ministry of Housing on Brickdam extends to five hours, inclusive of waiting time.

“The first time I walked into the Housing Ministry a feeling of despondency blanketed me. It was in 2009, I was 26 and unaware of how many hurdles had been constructed there to frustrate potential homeowners.

That was the time I had encountered a network of public servants who do not communicate with each other and have very little regard for the people who are seeking basic information and guidance on the process,” Catherine shared recently.

She described the waiting area at the time as clogged with bodies and some of the people sweating profusely despite a functioning air-conditioning unit. She waited three hours before one of the officers invited her through the security manned front door.

“Why they allowed so many of us in that single room puzzled me. A better organized system would have meant that some people had to wait outside to avoid a claustrophobic feeling in that room and understandably, people were agitated.”

The actual interview lasted for 30 minutes and as she recalled, the officer was rushing her out of the office saying that other people were waiting to be interviewed. The process it seemed was to simply gather the documents, verify income and furnish the applicant with a letter.

“I had questions about land allocation and possible preferences in addition to contact persons to follow up on the application. There was simply no time for this. But I pushed back and asked whether the office was unable to answer my questions, and she casually replied with a loud yes.”

Public servants have over the years been criticized for taking a lackadaisical approach to their work and the experience at the Housing Ministry as detailed by Catherine, included a painful process of monthly telephone calls and infrequent visits in the first two years after she applied for land.

Catherine had a strategy. She would allow the Housing Ministry a two-year period before following up on the application. She had reasoned that two years was adequate time to have an application move beyond the shelves of the ground floor of the ministry.

But she was wrong. When she visited the ministry in 2011 to follow-up, she was informed that the application was stalled because the ministry had taken a decision to focus on single mothers and low-income homeowners. Based on her income, she had qualified for a middle-income house lot. She felt defeated and left the ministry planning to check again in another year.

In keeping with her strategy, Catherine documented every visit to the ministry detailing time of visit, who she spoke with, and the response given. She produced three sheets of paper during the interview, holding them up in one hand saying, “Here’s my meticulous housing timeline.”

September 2009 was the first entry – the day of the interview for a house lot. The series of visits commenced in 2011 and stretched into to 2014.

“This is a chronicle of the bureaucracy that is alive and well at not only the Ministry of Housing but the majority of government institutions. It points to a total lack of concern for citizens in this country by those operating at the higher and lower levels of the housing ministry. I plan to save it even though I have received my house lot because it’s likely to have some historical value,” she said.

Catherine recalled visiting the ministry early one morning on the day it was announced that the then Minister of Housing Irfaan Ali would be meeting the public at a “Public Day.” She arrived at 5 am and stood outside the ministry’s gate along with four couples who had journeyed from out of town to meet the minister.

“I looked at these people and my heart broke for them. I didn’t have far to travel because I live in the city but they had travelled for hours to be at the ministry for 3 am. This is what the system had reduced us to, people ganging up in the dark just to get a number to see a minister,” she commented.

The meeting with Ali was according to her, “disastrous.”

“He asked why I was pressing for a house lot because people had applied before me and were patiently waiting for a call. I told him, without missing a beat, that I wasn’t going to sit down and wait until he sorted out the bureaucracy in the ministry. I was also very adamant that I wasn’t going to sit back and let the system push me over and as expected, the minister didn’t take kindly to that,” she recalled.

Ali advised her to return in 2013 and check with someone in the ministry who was also on the panel with him that day. Catherine returned in 2013 only to find that the official was on vacation. She followed up with checks in 2014 and was again unable to meet with the officer.

When the government changed and a new administration was installed she decided to write to the then new Minister of Housing Keith Scott and she attached a copy of her housing visits to the letter. Scott responded to her within a week, but she was out of the country at the time.

“I flew home the next day because I knew how important the meeting with him was. I went to meet him prepared to listen, but ready to respond sharply. He was very receptive and after a long conversation I was referred to the Land Allocation Department. I had a land offer in 48 hours and I accepted it despite the fact that it was high income.”

Though she had finally secured the house lot, Catherine reflected on the thousands of applicants who were waiting on calls, but making no attempts to follow through.

“The system cannot continue to function in this broken fashion where your application gathers dust unless you know someone or you show up regularly to ask questions and insist on answers. I worry about ordinary people, especially poor people in this country who apply for land. The system is designed to frustrate and it’s disorganized.”

Catherine would later find out that securing the land was only half the battle. She has been back and forth at the ministry to sort out the Agreement of Sale. When asked whether she benefited from the Jubliee discount she said that was a long story.

“I did benefit, but I queried why they had not attached an addendum to the Agreement of Sale to reflect the discount. They said a letter would be forthcoming. This was since May 2016 and when I checked with the ministry last week, a staff member nonchalantly told me that she has no idea when the letters would be ready. It’s like the whole thing was a joke.”

The land, according to the ministry is hers, but she cannot start building because she awaits the title.

“The struggle for the title is the same, after several inquiries I found out it was sitting on someone’s desk waiting for a signature. That was the delay.

“I was told it takes about six to eight months to be issued; it is now been nine months and it was stalled for the lack of signature!”

“It is the bureaucracy in the system; it is terrible!”

The struggle continues for Catherine.

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