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Nigeria needs N21trn to close housing deficit – Mayor of Housing

Nigeria needs N21trn to close housing deficit – Mayor of Housing

The Mayor of Housing, My-ACE China, gives free counsel to Governor Siminalayi Fubara on how to move the economy of the oil-rich state back to the front seat. In this interview with IGNATIUS CHUKWU, he spoke about what the governor can do on land matters to end the increasing menace of land-grabbers in the state. Excerpts:

Many business leaders point to the crisis of obtaining land papers in Rivers State and say this deserves urgent attention to attract investors. They also think housing deficit in Nigeria is getting out of hand. What is your take on these two critical issues?

I agree with you that Rivers State is the 7th most populous state in Nigeria with about seven million people. By December 2018, Nigeria posted about 20m housing deficit, needing N21 trillion to close the gap,

Gov Sim Fubara of Rivers State has started with 20,000 low-cost houses that may be scaled up to 100,000. This looks promising. There is hope for more estates to spring up if ease of land papers, ease of regulation, etc can be enthroned. Yes, there are challenges and prospects in the housing sector in Rivers State.

I must however say there are new figures in the housing sector which indicate that it is now between 24m and 28m deficit. The amount needed now to close the gap has risen from about N21trn which is for core costs to about N61trillion including ancillary costs. If you check the impact to building material markets, and other factors that will affect the house you want to build, you will find the cost is beyond the core costs.

Many have spoken about this but what really is the bane of the Rivers State housing sub-sector?

First, let’s look at the Rivers housing situation. The housing deficit in Rivers State is worse because it is a one-city state making most persons to cluster in the state capital, the oil city. By this, of the population of about 7m people in the state, over 5m is congested in the state capital, PH. In terms of city congestion PH is second most congested. Other states may have their population spread around but in Rivers, it’s all in Port Harcourt, Obio/Akpor, and Eleme. When you have sequestration or concentration in one place, the ones that have houses in the villages come to the city to be homeless. They add to the housing deficit. There is exacerbation of deficit in the city.

The superlative and fundamental factors:

Next, there is absence of housing data in Rivers State. There are the superlative and fundamental factors in the Rivers housing analogy.

The fundamental is that there is no agency in charge of all matters relating to lands and housing. In Rivers State, there are about five ministries and agencies looking after the sector.

A single agency would have been the Rivers State Geographical Information System (RIVGIS), but because it is not fully functional, you now have the Ministry of Lands, Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Urban Development, the Surveyor-General’s Office, and more. In this situation, none has responsibility to collate all matters and interface with the public.

What then would be your suggestion concerning the RivGis?

I would say, return to RivGis idea as way out in Rivers land title stalemate.

The way out is to systematize lands and housing subsector. An African proverb says any goat fed by all wives dies of hunger. One will say the other will feed it. I did not become Mayor of Housing in PH but in Abuja. I can tell you that the ease of doing business (EoDB) in Abuja is 100 times faster than in Rivers State.

The AGIS (Abuja Geographic Information System) has done an excellent work in mapping all the lands in the FCT, settling all the aboriginal owners, acquiring all the lands from the owners and keeping it for the FCT for land allocation, land use, and land purpose.

If we had a functional RivGis, they would interface with all the agencies and parastatals that have to do with land, interface with all the aboriginal land owners in the state so no one individual or investor buys land from any individual without verifying from a central body, in this case RivGis. This is because they would have mapped the land and had in their records the real owner of each land. The buyer goes to RivGis, pays a token, gets the digital information from RivGis; it shows you who to meet, he will settle with the real owner, and will come back to RivGis.

The RivGis tells the landowners what would be built. Investors do not need to guess who the real owner of a parcel of land is. They do not run the risk of dealing with multiple land owners, land grabbers, or thieves.

The RivGis also keeps the history of any parcel of land. The Government can now tell the landowners what the land use act is saying and what the location is meant for. Investors do not have to interface and do the back-and-forth of going from owner to owner and to many government agencies. They don’t have to fear about the authenticity or of family selling land to more than one buyer. It makes documentation easy. The buyer settles all parties in one place and pays to one agency who will distribute to all other agencies. The receipt is digitally generated and is viewable from anywhere in the world.

In 60 days, you come and pick your certificate of occupancy (CofO) without visiting any director, any permanent secretary, or any governor.

MALICIOUS OR MULTIPLE SALE OF LAND WILL GO

Malicious sale of land would go. You don’t need to carry any file anywhere. No bureaucratic bottlenecks or corrupt involvement is encountered.

What do you think killed RivGis?

The failure of RivGis is lack of policy continuity and lack of scale of priority. Without continuity, politics is a liability.

What had been killing any policy and development is lack of continuity; the syndrome of new government, new projects. The case in hand is the Rainbow Town estate in Trans-Amadi. That is trillions of naira tied down.

One of the things that attracted me to the Sim Fubara administration is the humility for continuity. To know you did not start this project but because you have the interest of the people at heart, you continue it, even in the midst of political crisis.

Governance in Nigeria is such that politics is prioritised over valuetics. I have a quote that ‘without delivering tangible dividends of democracy, politics is the greatest liability any society can have’. So, one of the reasons RivGis has not worked is because successive governments have come to truncate the good works of previous administrations.

And when people are saying that the present governor has scored zero because he continued and completed the projects that his predecessor started, I am wondering what planet these guys are speaking from; because what has been killing any policy or project started by an administration is discontinuing it by the next administration. Now, if any administration says it wants to continue the ones he inherited for the sake of the people, what makes that an offence.

The second most lucrative sector after oil in Nigeria right now is property.

Until RivGis is so digitalized that there is no or minimal human interference just like in the banks, the state will not surge forward in development.

Governor Fubara is working with public private partnership in the 20,000 low-cost housing scheme. There are also efforts for a Banana Island and Alesa Highlands estates coming. Can you tell us what challenges there could be in the sector?

The Director-General (DG) in the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) is pushing on her own. The governor has said he started real governance in February 2024. We know that things are not where they should be but we are very optimistic they are going to be far better because of the body language of the governor. The way the governor spoke shows he means business. He said at the summit that the state is now open for businesses. We in the private sector want to see more PPP initiatives and projects.

The difficulty of having access to property is when you go solo, but when the government partners with you, they make access to land, documentation, and certificates easy, easy.

WHAT INVESTORS WANT IN THE FUBARA ADMINISTRATION

What investors want IS Ease of land papers!

As an offshoot from the summit where investors expressed difficulty in getting land papers (certificates of occupancy), access to land, etc. I am sure this governor will follow through. The summit itself is a success for the mere fact that it took place because that is the first one the state has had in 13 years. It shows that this governor means business. That is how the investors feel about the summit.

Two: The continuity from the previous administration’s projects despite having issues with that administration, and he didn’t take out any of those projects because of malice of anything; that alone is a boost of confidence for the private sector.

Third: Flag-off and actual start of construction of the 20,000 low-cost housing units under a PPP is also a confidence booster. Please, people should not underrate that project because there has been hardly any FG housing project above 2,000 in a particular locus. The biggest FG housing project in Rivers State is the Trans-Amadi Garden which is not up to 1000. Agip Housing Estate is also a FG housing project and I am not sure it is over 2000. So, 20,000 is actually a new city.

This is one of the reasons real estate investors are comfortable with the 20000 and in PPP.

We see what you are doing in Rivers State from the entertainment sector to housing. How can this translate to people getting certificates of occupancy to boost development in the state? Some have called for proper planning in estate development while others want estates to be built outside PH or the speed up roads to undeveloped areas. What is your take?

My sincere advice to Gov Fubara is to increase the number and size of PPP schemes. It is not only in projects but in planning. World class businesses often engage consultants to get them the information and finished reports to work with.

I love beautiful houses, but when I see estates with houses but the community leaders squeeze the roads to such a narrow lane, my heart bleeds. People go there and build glorified shanties, and government officials approve them, approve the surveys, I weep. We should take advantage of virgin areas to do modern planning. Government can get that done through RivGis to develop a master plan. Let there be a system that stops the desecration of that masterplan.

There are security softwares that can detect any infringement on any map. If you register a particular map on a digital system, any attempt to tamper with it will lead to alarm and arrest. Abuja has that system and that is why the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC) has an office there to arrest you right away if you come with fake papers to alter any land on the digital map.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation have helped to reduce human interference and corruption in most of these activities.

The economic summit has come and gone, what is the immediate desire of the business community?

The governor needs to as a matter of fact sit down with group leaders especially captains of industry and technocrats and develop a white paper from the summit’s panel discussions. The governor can ask, who do you know that can actually do this or that. Just like the way the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) wanted to use Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) to remove election irregularities, though it was abused. We can ask for who has the expertise to map Rivers State and plan it vis-à-vis the part that has not yet been developed. Then, not only to have this in the system but have it in the public domain that everybody knows that this is the plan.

Are investors scared due to land tenure system and land grabbing? How can investors still be said to have confidence to invest?

Land issue is actually a big problem. Those problems you mentioned have made it impossible for investors to come. But for me, where others are running away from is where I run to. That is my nature. If you are able to crack that thing chasing others away, you will capture the right to scale. That is why I keep hammering on RivGis.

The Land Use Act gave every governor the right on every land in that state. The aboriginal owners of the land are first owners; the next are the traditional rulers of that area. When RivGis wants to map land in say Alesa, they know the boundaries of Alesa and the surveyor will map the original land and make sure everybody’s land is registered in the system. If the government wants to use the land any day, they already know who and who are the original owners of the land and pay them off through the land committee they set up from that community. The government will now tell the community, look, these are the buyers. They are now the real owners of this land. Government will paste the names of the owners of the land on the townhall walls and ask anybody who has land there but did not see their names to come to a place.

The government did not do that in this Alesa issue. When I came as a developer, I ought to go to RivGis first. For instance, I intend to build a highbrow sustainable city estate in Alesa. They will say, oh, if its highbrow, this is where we have provided for such a thing. If it is low-cost, it has to be in this area. I do not need to go to the community because RivGis would have already paid them. RivGis can now advise me that when you get to that community, give so, so type of jobs to the people, etc. I can now have a soft MoU with the community.

Why there is a lot of land-grabbing at the moment is because there is no system now. My people have a saying that crisis is an opportunity for fraudulent people to exploit. When there is crisis, things are not organised, fraudulent people take advantage

Do you know that in this state, people sell one land to over three buyers? This is because there is no system to track land transactions in the state. Nobody knows who owns the land and who buys. If RivGis had been made to work, these things would be a thing of the past. All you needed was to go to RivGis, confirm who owns the land, pay, and come back to RivGis to do documentation.

From your experience as land developer, do you think Rivers people love to acquire property?

The hard truth that may shock you is that over 70% of those who buy property in Abuja and Lagos are from Rivers and Bayelsa (south-south). I know one of the biggest developers building estates in Lagos and Abuja. I came here and asked him why he was not building here, he said he was not ready for the headache.

This has caused capital flight. If you track the size or amount of capital leaving this zone, it is astronomical, just because this place is not organized. Capital seeks organized societies to work.

You mentioned that the governor said the 20,000 houses can he extended to 100,000. The last time I spoke to newsmen on it, I said it can be expanded to 200,000 houses through PPP. Private people know how to do their thing, just give us level-playing ground.

There is clamour for foreign direct investments (FIDs), how may this be accelerated for Rivers State?

One of the biggest marketers of any location is local direct investors (LDI). We that are on ground get many calls from faraway investors asking us what the government is truly doing and our experience on hand. They will know whether to come or not. So, one of the greatest de-marketers or marketers of a state is the LDI. So, the governor needs to rally those of us that are here, work with us, solve our problems, then we can naturally and gladly tell the FDIs that Rivers State is good to invest.

Our people say it is the rat at home that tells the one in the bush that there is fish in the fireplace.

We are now happy that for once in over a decade, Rivers people now talk business, and investment is now a subject of discussion. Many have said they now want to commend the governor that for once the people are talking about business, not politics. The economic summit is a good idea focusing discuss on business.

You can see the number of people thanking the government for talking business. The theme of the economic summit is ‘Rivers Emerge’, and I said at the summit that Rivers people are waiting and eager to emerge.

Many are saying government has work to do in the housing sector. They fear that if they got land and want Certificate of Occupancy, they would wait forever. In a situation such as this, it would difficult to expect investors to come because they may not come. Some fear that if they built without certificates and approvals, they would risk demolition without compensation. The say that is why they go to other states. That is why we are throwing light on this matter so the governor can remove these bottlenecks and allow land papers to be available. The people want top business people to engage this new governor so people will be sure that if they buy land, latest in one month, their papers would be out. Some of them say nobody wants to waste his money because the government can come and claim that it is its land and the investor’s money is gone. They want the governor to be engaged along these lines.

These are the things LDI talk about and if the conditions are good, their talks attract outsiders to come and invest and do business.

When it comes to government bureaucracy and policy, I tell you I always look at the body language of the governor. We are very hopeful of the outcome of the economic summit. Government expands and contracts on the body language of the principal person in any society, in this case the governor. In law there is what they call the ‘right to fair hearing’. It is assumed that when a court hears you, there is the belief that the court will deliver justice.

What is one thing you think will blow Rivers State to big proportions?

I want to plead with the Rivers State Government, especially the governor, that we are sitting on a very unique opportunity that must be exploited immediately. Recently, you have been hearing of demolition in Lagos. That is a huge opportunity for Rivers State and South-South in general. For every house you demolish, you have de-marketed 35,000 interested property buyers, investors, and prospective businesses in that location. Now, people are looking for where to go to from Lagos. People in the Diaspora are looking for where to invest apart from Lagos, where to put their moneys in property other than Lagos. This is a huge opportunity.

The only way to avoid demolition in land matter is systemization and digitalization, mapping; land use purpose allocation by a system that cannot be rigged by any official. When a place is meant for shopping, and you allocate it to a developer for shopping mall, and it is mapped in a digital system that cannot be distorted, even if you leave government and one other official comes to say that shopping mall should go down, once I brandish that paper to show the allocation right, the land use approval, etc, there is no competent court of law that will give that governor the right to demolish it. It is like you cannot sabotage yourself because the law will see that you issued the right and approval, you cannot sabotage it. It gives a lot of confidence.

But there is this ‘anything goes’ syndrome?

‘Anything goes’ is only here. I have done business in other places and for five years in Abuja. Sir, nobody buys from AGIS and it is demolished. Nobody buys land without AGIS and Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA). Every land in Abuja has been gazzeted and registered with AGIS. The system is foul-proof. The demolition you see in Abuja is for breaches. AGIS has allocated land to you maybe for residence and you go and set up anything else. One day, they will demolish it.

Those that kept to the rule, nobody loses land in Abuja. There is no free land in Abuja because every land has been captured in the system. As a matter of fact, you don’t need to know anybody in Abuja to buy land. All you have to do is to go to AGIS and pay what they call a ‘Legal Search’. It will show you the original owner of the paper you have and tell you who to deal with. Besides, they have an EFCC unit there. If you come with paper belonging to another person’s land, the EFCC will arrest you right there.

There is need for such a system here in PH to create investment confidence here. We live in a world where anything you want to do has been done somewhere. You are not inventing any wheel. You do not need to go far. Copy and paste what AGIS and FCDA are doing, simple. Know it that Rivers State has more real estate potential than Abuja.

What about affordability?

I agree with you that a two-bedroom house is not less than N38m to build. This is because of building materials, which are imported. But our grandparents built with local raw materials. Age grade helped each other to build. It was when rod and cement became the only way to build, then cash became the only way to build.

HOW TO MAKE RIVERS A BUILDING MATERIALS HUB

Government can do an industrial park, somewhere close to the waterways, and say, this 10-hectare area is for an industrial park. Government can then create road to it, remove tax, give 24-hour power supply system through gas power since there is right to states to do power. Now, sell power half the price. People from China and other places will flood the hub because they know power is cheap there. They know they will not pay tax. Many steel industries are dead but the government has refused to privatise them. Only few people are allowed in the cement sector. So, these cause huge rise in building materials and cost of housing. Rivers State can pursue this and become the hub for low-cost building material in Nigeria.

Look, everything in a house is imported.

What about mortgage as a way out?

It is alien to Nigeria. What is innate in Nigeria is cooperative and thrifting. No matter how you finance N38m house, it cannot be less than N38m.

South Africa fought their own by finding a way to produce brick. Nigeria has much of that. If you want to bring down housing costs, bring down building materials.

Earning capacity is low. A person earning N30,000 per month will need 150 years to pay a mortgage.

The Rivers State government is subsidising 1000 out of the 20,000 being currently built. Subsidy can bring it down to about N18m.

Have you let the government know about these plans so that these things can be actualized? Can you work with the government to make these things happen?

My heart bleeds when people ask me this question. This has been my passion in real estate. When I joined this business, we had about 20m housing deficit in Nigeria. The size of a problem determines the size of the reward from it. Right now, we started from the high-end which is easier to finance and to sell. We are the first company to engage the full services of a green architect, a minimalist architect, and we have research fellows in the UK and Turkey to see how we can do away with imported raw materials. What we can generate locally can compete with what we have such as using solar to burn clay and produce clay bricks so they are better and cheaper. The key things are to reduce the foreign raw materials to local ones; and reduce the structural density of a house. Some can do with less spaces and facilities. We are cueing into what our people know such as cooperative and thrifting to do crowd funding. One of the things that motivate me is that the tallest building in Nigeria is the Cocoa House in Ibadan. It was not built on the back of mortgage but cooperative.

But, if I don’t breathe, I cannot do an experiment because if it fails, my money goes. So, we want to make money in the luxury space and plough back to low-cost or alternative raw material buildings.

The Alesa Highland estate is one of such ones. We can launch our low-cost next year so people can dream of owning their own houses. Our plan will not take people up to 35 years to repay and it will not cost you a leg and an arm.

The problem is foreign exchange. If your business is local, dollar can rise and not affect you.

They call you the Real Estate Success Strategist, what drives your passion?

The difference between me and others is that they are in real estate but real estate is in me. So, we can’t stop seeking collaboration.

That is why as many others complain of charlatans in real estate, I only call for sanitization. Yes, I agree 375%. That is why I am talking about RivGis. I am a registered member of the Real Estate Association of Nigeria. We are saying, RivGis should screen people who say they are estate developers. Ask them for their registration in the association. Screen us. If I come in and nobody tries to ask me of my credentials, it lumps me with all the charlatans in the industry.

Even the EFCC is asking questions. There should be association of registered real estate practitioners in Rivers State. This gives government power over developers. These are the things we are talking about. Let RivGis be made strong, let them screen us.