KINGSTON, Jamaica, December 8, 2014 (AMG) — Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is facing increasing pressure from the Parliamentary Opposition and local interest groups to dismiss the board of the state-owned housing agency, the National Housing Trust (NHT), following its decision to purchase a cash-strapped tourist attraction called the Outameni Experience.
The debacle began in late October when news broke that the NHT had acquired the nine-acre property for J$180 million (US$1.6 million) nearly two years earlier. The Opposition had raised concern that the agency, which is mandated to provide low income housing to the Jamaican populace, had no business purchasing the failing tourist attraction, and described the transaction as a ‘bailout’ extended to the former owner, businessman Lennie Little-White.
Five weeks after the debacle began, the Prime Minister and members of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) reveled in the victory of a by-election in one of its stronghold constituencies in the west, at about the same time that a small group of protesters staged a peaceful protest near the headquarters of the NHT and called on the government to act in the interest of transparency and accountability.
The attraction is located near Falmouth in the western end of the island, on the outskirts of the tourist mecca of Montego Bay.
The NHT was established by the government in 1976 and legally requires all working Jamaicans over the age of 18 to pay statutory deductions of 2.5-3% of their income. These statutory payments entitle the payee to borrow funds from the entity to purchase or build homes. However, the NHT’s decision to purchase Outameni and subsequent efforts by the government to justify the transaction has drawn the ire of opposition members. Public outrage has been further fueled as more news emerged that a large percentage of NHT contributors fail to qualify for any type of mortgage, despite years of payments to the agency.
Mrs. Simpson-Miller, whose office has oversight over the NHT said she was not made aware of the multi-million purchase until it was revealed in the news in October. She further told Parliament that the NHT board made a decision to invest in the land and “explore ways of using the property for social and physical infrastructure to enhance the quality of life and for the enjoyment of NHT contributors, Jamaicans and visitors.”
The Prime Minister has also refused to fire the members of the board despite mounting calls from the opposition and private sector leaders, adding that the NHT has the right to invest funds on behalf of the contributors. She has since appointed replacements for four board members who resigned amidst the controversy. Meanwhile a defiant NHT board chairman, Easton Douglas, himself a former minister of housing under a previous PNP administration, has flatly refused calls for his resignation.
So far, what remains undisputed is that the business at the center of the controversy, The Outameni Experience, was heavily indebted and was losing millions of dollars at the time of the purchase. The government has also admitted that it is carrying a monthly bill of J$1.2million (US$10,000) to pay for security, maintenance and the salaries of six people employed to run the property.
Last month, the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC), Jamaica Manufacturers’ Association (JMA) and the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) issued a joint statement expressing deep disappointment that the government missed the opportunity to restore public confidence by wiping the slate clean with the appointment of a new NHT Board.
This is not the first time that there has been public outcry over the government’s decisions surrounding the NHT. In 2013, Mrs. Simpson-Miller and her cabinet approved a four-year J$45 billion (US$400 million) withdrawal from the agency’s surplus funds to make up for a budget shortfall.