NATION

Fr Barr: What Went Wrong And How to Fix it

A myriad of issues plagues the Lagilagi Housing project and they have hampered what could have been the model to house the poor in Fiji, and perhaps the Pacific.
26 Jun 2019 13:26
Fr Barr: What Went Wrong And How to Fix it
Father Kevin Barr on June 20, 2019. Photo: Simione Haravanua

Roman Catholic priest and social worker Father Kevin Barr did not know what to make of the phone call he had just received.

The year was 2008.

He had been summoned to the Office of the Prime Minister, Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama.

“What could the Prime Minister want with me?,” said Fr Barr, recalling the phone call.

That was the call that was about to change the lives of many, especially for the 1050 families who lived in the shanty area of Suva called Jittu Estate.

A piece of State land that was now the largest informal settlement in the capital, Jittu Estate was symbolic of everything that was wrong with informal settlements in Suva.

The houses were built of used tin, plastic and tarpaulins, sanitation was a concern and there were incidents of crime, ranging from robberies to drug peddling and even prostitution.

“Mr Bainimarama wanted to know what the People’s Community Network was doing for the poor in Suva,” said Fr Barr.

“He asked us what our plans were and after discussions we expressed our hopes of building proper homes for the residents of Jittu Estate.”

This discussion sowed the seeds for the Lagilagi Housing Project.

Mr Bainimarama became the first Prime Minister in Fiji’s history to walk through Jittu Estate that year. He did it unannounced, to see for himself how the poor in Suva went about their daily lives.

It was during this visit that residents of Jittu agreed to move to allow for the Lagilagi Housing Project.

Government committed $12.7million for the project and PCN was given the task to oversee the operational aspect of the project, including finding the right people to stay in the newly-built flats.

As agreed there would be two stages, both would boast homes for 76 families.

Lagilagi Housing

Lagilagi Housing

Stage One

On July 11, 2013, Mr Bainimarama launched the Lagilagi Housing Project. It was a momentous occasion.

“It has been a mammoth task with a civil engineering phase that involved the relocation of squatters within the project site to other parts of the Jittu Estate, to enable earth works and the provision of water and sewerage. And a building phase for the initial construction of 33 homes at a cost of almost $3 million, with another 101 to come,” said Mr Bainimarama at the launching of the project.

In 2015, the first of the 76 flats were ready and the first lot of people from Jittu Estate moved into their homes.

The idea behind the project was for the people of the informal settlements to pay for their homes.

People would be required to pay weekly or monthly instalments for up to 12 years and depending on when the full amount was paid, these families would each get the strata title for the flat each family occupies.

Fr Barr said a savings scheme was started where PCN was handling the money and once these people would move into their flats, they would continue paying for their flats.

Stage Two

Fr Barr claims that Stage Two of the Lagilagi Project remains unfinished.

He said only 36 flats have been completed and 40 houses remain unfinished. He said the lists of people who are supposed to occupy the houses, is with former director Semiti Qalowasa.

According to Fr Barr, the project is unfinished because of the failure of the Housing Ministry to release the funds on time.

He said the contractors submitted their paperwork on time and so did PCN, however, the ministry delayed payments.

“This led to rise in the price of building materials and the contractor was going to pull out of the project,” he said.

“The contractor stayed on until the end of the year because they realised what the project was about, but not receiving payments was hurting them as well. As a result, Stage Two remains unfinished.”

Former Housing Minister Parveen Bala said he did not have control on the flow of funds.

The current Minister for Housing, Premila, Kumar said all of these issues would be dealt with.

Scams

While the PCN faced problems with completing the Lagilagi project, there were some staff members within the PCN who were able to take advantage of the situation.

“This particular thing came to my attention a bit late,” said Fr Barr.

Fijian Competition and Consumer Commission, in its 632-page inquiry report, pointed out that people who were ineligible to stay there had occupied flats.

The report also highlighted how some employees had been able to take money from people on behalf of PCN and did not deliver the flats.

The Fiji Sun has established that some people paid as much as $15,000 for a flat to people in PCN. These people can afford housing elsewhere.

This meant that people who could afford housing elsewhere were getting flats, although not as rampant as it is made out to be. Families with incomes exceeding $15,000 managed to secure flats. The money was allegedly collected by PCN staff, but never made it to the PCN accounts.

And there were people who moved to allow the housing structures to go up. They were still living in tin sheds.

Fr Barr said another problem PCN encountered was that some people who moved into the flats from Jittu Estate, did not take down their shanty homes but instead took advantage of the demand for housing and gave their old homes for rent.

He said in some cases some people stopped paying money to PCN.

The Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption, in its investigation which is limited to government funding, has found that the government allocation was soundly spent.

Warning

A myriad of issues plagues the Lagilagi Housing project and they have hampered what could have been the model to house the poor in Fiji, and perhaps the Pacific.

Lagilagi Housing can still be all that and more.

The authorities need to find out quickly where the flaws are and manage the project better.

FCCC is investigating more than 300 complaints into Lagilagi Housing and has already started court proceedings to evict a few people.

Fr Barr said he wanted to let the people of Jittu Estate know that there would be some people who would try to use this situation to their advantage.

Two weeks ago, a group of people held a meeting with residents of Jittu Estate to start a saving scheme to get housing.

The meeting went ahead despite a court order stating the meeting should not happen.

Furthermore, a person claiming to be a lawyer from the State was present at the meeting.

Fr Barr said while housing remains one of the most sought-after needs people would exploit it to make money.

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