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Con artists have found fertile ground for their fraudulent activities in T&T’s public housing sector where demand has been outstripping supply for many years. In the latest scam, fraudsters have been luring their victims into handing over $20,000 to $30,000 as down payments for Housing Development Corporation (HDC) units that are never delivered.

In the same week that the state housing agency raised an alarm about that scam, several people who claimed they were legal tenants were evicted from Petrotrin bungalows at Clifton Hill, Point Fortin.

Both incidents have brought renewed focus to the acute housing shortage that successive administrations have been grappling with unsuccessfully since 1965. Public housing is not easily accessible to the average low to middle-income citizen who can spend decades on the HDC’s waiting list.

According to information on the agency’s website there are currently more than 175,000 applications on its database. With no affordable options on the private real estate market, a lot of people are not averse to taking desperate steps to “jump the queue” at the HDC, creating the situation that is regularly exploited by fraudsters.

Government is nowhere close to satisfying the high housing demand, since its latest projection, according to measures announced in the 2021 Budget, is for 25,000 to be delivered over the next ten years, not all of it in the income categories where there is the greatest need.

What is being promised is a mix of solutions, including 10,000 starter homes at a cost of $250,000, 5,000 homes at a cost of between $350,000 to $500,000, and another 5,000 valued between $650,000 and $900,000 for middle-income buyers.

The challenge of reducing the housing shortfall and boosting construction sector activity is also being addressed through two incentive programmes.

The Housing Construction Incentive Programme provides grants of up to $100,000, or plots of land, to developers who construct government-approved housing units for applicants on the HDC waiting list. The Aided Self-Help Housing Programme offers subsidised mortgages with low-interest rates from T&T Mortgage Finance to eligible citizens with land approved for residential use.

Whether these will succeed when a long list of previous initiatives has not made inroads into the huge and continually increasing housing demand remains to be seen.

However, there remains an urgent and desperate need for shelter that the HDC does not have the capacity to meet. Reduced government spending and increased costs for public housing developments, which more than tripled since 2015, make the task even more difficult.

This is an untenable situation which is further exacerbated by chronic inefficiencies and a total lack of transparency in the systems for allocating public housing. There are still applications in the system dating back to the predecessor to the HDC, the National Housing Authority.

It is also the case that some people have been able to exploit the system and gain possession of more than one unit which they then turn around and rent—a blatant contravention of HDC regulations.

Meanwhile, the list of people desperate for shelter keeps growing, providing easy prey for the fraudsters.