While the average cost of purchasing a home in T&T is around $1.3 million, the average national monthly household income is $10,800, according to a recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank.
As a further testament to the population’s homeownership challenges, there are as many as 175,000 people on the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC’s) waiting list.
Between 2010 and 2013, scores of aspiring homeowners thought they found an opportunity of a lifetime in Seven Hills Estate.
As advertised in a daily newspaper, in May 2013, the housing development, to be located on a 128-acre horse farm at Trestrail Lands, in D’Abadie, was ‘A prime opportunity for middle-income earners to invest in premium property.’
Seven Hills Estate Development Limited (SHEDL) and its directors, Bernard Saroop and Haydn-John Gadsby, promised multi-tier townhouses, simple family units, recreational, social, daycare, exercise facilities, and even a shopping mall and cineplex.
The project’s developer was R&D Holdings Limited—also owned by Saroop, while Gadsby, an attorney, was the company’s legal representative.
Prices ranged from $450,000 for a two-bedroom condominium to $1 million for a three-bedroom, two-storey unit.
It is believed that as many as 200 people signed up for units and townhouses, earning SHEDL millions.
But close to a decade after the development’s expected completion date, not a single unit has been completed.
Some clients, who pulled out of the project early, received refunds, but there are still people who are owed as much as $100,000 in down payments.
While it is difficult to give a precise number, some clients suggested there could be as many as 100 people who are still owed money.
During an Unspun investigation, which lasted close to a month and aired last week on CNC3, Guardian Media contacted Saroop and Gadsby about claims being made by clients.
Saroop said he was unable to comment as the matter was before the court.
Gadsby referred us to his attorney who said his client also could not comment at this time.
Sources close to both men, however, said they continued to maintain their innocence, directing blame, instead, towards one another.
Right price, wrong outcome
Miles Samuels, whose name was changed to protect his identity, heard of the Seven Hills Estate project through a friend.
He had been searching for a property, for some time, with his then-girlfriend.
“The price was right. It just seemed to mesh with what I was looking for. This seemed ideal,” Samuels said.
Ainsley Mohammed, whose name was changed to protect his identity, learned of Seven Hills through advertising by Richdan Real Estate and Property Development—an affiliate real estate company in the deal.
“I was looking to purchase a property and when I saw that advertisement, they were promising to deliver the building and completion of construction of the entire project within more or less one year. It sounded like something I would be interested in,” Mohammed said.
In the initial stages of their interest, Samuels and Mohammed said, everything seemed above board.
Seven Hills Estate Development Limited hosted an elaborate launch ceremony at the proposed site at Trestrail Lands.
Present at the ceremony were well-known politicians and businessmen, Samuels recalled.
In the early phases, there were also regular meetings where the business’s owners explained the project in detail.
Eventually, to secure a condominium, Samuels and his girlfriend made a down payment of $62,000.
The cheque, as seen during Unspun’s investigations, was made out to Richdan Real Estate.
Mohammed, meanwhile, made a 10 per cent down payment of $100,000 on a townhouse.
Not long after their payments, however, came the first of many issues.
“Initially, the project was supposed to have been done on Trestrail Lands, in D’abadie, and something happened with that location and they had to change location, change the site to another location, further up in D’abadie,” Samuels said.
While Seven Hills Estate Development claimed it was the owner of the Trestrail Lands property, it was not.
The 128-acre estate was owned by the Trestrail family up until late 2011.
In September 2011, according to media reports, the Trestrail family sold the property to the Housing Development Corporation for $200 million.
HDC developed the land and constructed a housing development called Trestrail Housing Development.
To appease clients for the project’s change in location, SHED’s directors promised that they would all receive full houses at the new location.
“After that, there were problems getting the necessary approvals, like from WASA, Town, and Country Planning Division, those things took an inordinate length of time.
I mean years. It was going on and on and on,” Samuels said.
While clients waited patiently for positive updates, the project’s developers came up with excuse after excuse.
A project that was supposed to be completed within 18 months, lingered on for four, then five, then six years, and then beyond.
“Nothing was actually happening…After two years, or a year and a half, we would have realised that nothing was actually happening on the site,” Mohammed recalled.
“Some people who dropped out early were refunded but some of us, who decided to stay the course, which is the majority, none of us got repaid…I was excited at the prospect of owning my own home and when that was taken away, that was a hard pill for me to swallow,” Samuels said.
As seen in email exchanges obtained by Unspun, requests for refunds were met with assurances by Seven Hills Estate Limited Chairman Bernard Saroop that it would come soon.
An October 29th, 2019 email, sent by SHELC’s communications and logistics specialist, to clients said, “I have been instructed by Mr Saroop to inform you that the legal process to secure the funding for your payments is still ongoing. The company is currently awaiting a legal document which he was told would be ready by November 8, 2019. Upon receipt of said document, clients will be notified of the payment date.”
In a subsequent email sent on October 8th, 2020, Saroop wrote that the company expects to notify its clients within two weeks as to a new timeline for the proposed refund schedule.
“Payments will be initialised as per the following three alphabetical tranches. Tranche 1: surnames A to H; Tranche 2: surnames I to R; Tranche 3: Surnames S to Z. It should be noted that any clients with legal matters before the court, or with legal matters, will be dealt with separately,” the email added.
Many of those refunds are still pending.
“His (Saroop) phone is always off. If you send him a text, he may respond but it will be like 2,3 weeks after. So, it’s almost like he’s doing you a favour. They seem to be shifting blame between the developer and the attorney as to who is, in fact, responsible. But ultimately, the documents we signed were with 7 Hills Development,” Samuels, who is not part of any legal action against SHEDL, said.
“It’s very, very stressful. I mean, time after time, all you would be receiving is just promises after promises…I always hear the saying that sometimes we don’t get justice but what we get is the law. So, what happens is that they, themselves, seem to know how to get around these things,” Mohammed lamented.
Clients have failed to get back their money despite contractual obligations outlined in agreements signed with Seven Hills Estate Development Limited.
According to clause 19 of the contracts, “If the company fails to show good marketable title to the property or fail to complete construction within 24 months or any other reason not the responsibility of the purchaser, the purchaser shall be entitled to rescind the agreement and receive a full refund.”
Clause 18 of the contracts further stated that “The company, hereby, warrants to the purchaser that the development plans for the townhouses have been/will be approved by the Town and Country Planning Division and all other competent planning and government authorities.”
Seven Hills Estate Development Limited also failed to obtain, as contractually obligated, the required approvals for the project to proceed.
“I think what people, like the developer, play on is they like to wear you down, hoping that you will eventually just give up and walk away. I’m not going to do that,” Samuels said.
“I just hope other people who signed up for the development would see this and probably come forward and give their side of the story as well and hopefully, together as a group, we could get our monies back and allow us to move on.”
Following their experience, both Samuels and Mohammed are urging people looking for good deals in the real estate market to be cautious.
They said despite doing checks and trusting people working with reputable organisations, they allegedly ended up conned.
“Be careful in making decisions like this. Sometimes if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is not true,” Mohammed said.
“My advice to other potential purchasers of developments like these is to make sure there are safeguards in place so that if the development doesn’t materialise, you could definitely get your refund, your deposit, back,” Samuels said in closing.
Instead of the proposed townhouses and condominiums of Seven Hills Estate Development, an HDC housing development can be found at Trestrail Lands in D’abadie.
Before the courts
For more than five years, a legal matter between Seven Hills Estate Development Limited and a client, Suzette Smith, has played out before the courts.
Smith, upon legal advice, was chosen to represent a group of five other clients, to take legal action against the business.
In 2011, Smith paid the company $65,000 for a 10% down payment on a dwelling house valued at $650,000.
After failing to receive her dream home or a refund, she took SHEDL and its directors: Bernard Saroop and Haydn-John Gadsby to court.
In the contractual agreement, signed between Smith and Seven Hills Estate Development, in 2011, the company said the townhouse would be completed within 18 months.
Section 19 of the contract said, “If the company failed to show good marketable title to the property or fail to complete construction within 24 months or any other reason, not the responsibility of the purchaser, the purchaser shall be entitled to rescind the agreement and receive a full refund.”
The contract was prepared by the company’s secretary Haydn-John Gadsby – who, at the time, was also a partner in the prestigious law firm, JD Sellier & Co.
In a 2017 high court judgement, judge Robin Mohammed found Gadsby liable.
The attorney was ordered to pay the claimant damages, with interest, for fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of contract.
The court ruled that within the contract signed with Smith, Seven Hills Estate Company Limited claimed it was the registered proprietor of the property in Trestrail Lands.
However, it was revealed in court that it was not.
The owner was the Trestrail family and then the Housing Development Corporation(HDC).
During the court matter, Gadsby claimed that he prepared the contracts under the belief that the company’s chairman, Bernard Saroop, was the beneficial owner of the land.
He said, as the company’s secretary, he was following Saroop’s instructions to prepare the contractual agreements.
However, Justice Mohammed found it unfathomable that a partner in a prestigious law firm could believe that Saroop was the beneficial owner in the absence of corresponding evidence.
“What makes Mr Gadsby’s misrepresentations even more alarming is the fact that he is a partner in the corporate department of a prestigious law firm with a decade of experience. Given this context, the Court finds that these misrepresentations cross the Rubicon of recklessness and/or negligence,” Justice Mohammed said in his ruling.
The judgement, however, was appealed by Gadsby’s legal team and remains before the courts four years later.
Meanwhile, clients owed money continue to hope and wait.