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‘Real estate is our oil in Lagos; we are conforming to global best practices to ensure enduring continuity for genuine participants’

In the quest and vision of the current Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu in making Lagos a 21st Century economy, the Office of the Special Adviser on Housing had the mandate to oversee the erstwhile Lagos State Real Estate Transaction Department in the Ministry of Housing (LASRERA).

ADETOKE BENSON-AWOYINKA, the Special Adviser to Lagos State Governor on Housing, in an exclusive interview with KEMI AJUMOBI, Associate Editor, BusinessDay, shares on the vision and implementation plans of LASRERA, identifying fraudulent realtors, Lagos State Agency Regulatory law 2015, among other matters. Excerpt:

LASRERA: why was it established and how are you curbing increasing cases of fraud in the real estate sector?

We started off being the Lagos State Real Estate Transactions Department under Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola and we have an enabling law that was done by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu in 2007. So, it was kick-started by Governor Fashola with that department in the ministry of housing, which he put under the responsibility of the Special Adviser to the Governor on Housing.

So, when we came in last year, we looked at the laws, we looked at the executive order and we saw that we could actually do much more than what was currently being done. So, we picked up those two documents and we started with a stakeholders’ engagement last year at the Eko Hotel in October 2019, where we gathered stakeholders in the industry, real estate practitioners, estate agents, estate developers, mortgage bankers association, the Nigerian Bar Association and so on.

We brought everybody together to a roundtable where we thought we needed to sanitise the industry, clean up the industry, take the quacks out, and stop fraud in the industry. The conversation started then and by February 2020, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, Governor of Lagos decided that it was right for us to make it an agency under the office of the Special Adviser, Housing. So, we started that journey there.

Our mandate is mainly to regulate the real estate industry, which includes; real estate practitioners, developers, real estate agents, estate surveyors, anybody along the value chain of the industry of real estate, we sought to bring them together, we created a platform where we could all come together and also display what we’re doing.

We want a platform where anybody all over the world can go in there, pick up a realtor of choice and fly with them knowing that the Lagos State has done due diligence before listing those practitioners there. So, we have lasrera.com, where we have everything that we are doing. Our mandate is right there; we have a question and answer section where you can seek clarifications on questions from us.

We also attend to questions from the public, we resolve issues, we have a mini tribunal there that we use, a committee of enquiry that looks into real estate matters or disputes. After that, if we’re unable to resolve those issues, we take them to the office of the DPP in the Ministry of Justice where those matters are charged to court for proper court procedures to begin.

So far, we’ve done so much in adjudication. We’ve had cases that we’ve taken to court where we’ve actually gotten judgment on behalf of the people. We didn’t charge the people, it is the responsibility of the state government to protect lives and properties, so, we do all that, making sure that we give such services. Right now, we’re in the process of registering real estate practitioners. The reception has been good among the stakeholders.

When we talk about fraudulent practices in the real estate sector in Lagos state, what type has been brought to your attention?

It’s ongoing. Every day there is a petition. I just looked at a petition about a landed property in the Awoyaya axis of Lagos which belongs to somebody and which about four property developers have started selling. So, we have matters that come in. Last week, an old family friend came in, she had the service of a real estate agent who had been looking after the property since her late husband passed away and right now, he has put members of the public into those structures and has not remitted monies back to the owners of the property. So, we have issues like that. We’ve had issues with developers.

About two months ago in Awoyaya, 158 people were defrauded by some certain gentlemen and a lady. They were renting a 10-unit home and collected monies from 158 people. Last year also, we had an issue in Ketu-Alapere where about 250 people were also defrauded of a 15-unit apartment. Monies were collected from members of the public and at the end of the day; there were not enough units to go round. This was clearly an intention to defraud, obtaining monies from them by false pretense.

We’ve had such issues. We have a matter in Ajao Estate. That matter has actually gone through the law courts and the courts have forfeited the property to the government of Lagos State and we’re in the process of selling off that property and giving the money back to the owners. In Gbagada, 70 people were defrauded; a couple expecting a baby lost that baby due to that incident.

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We want real estate in Lagos to be the best all over the world. We want to propagate real estate as an industry that is worth the while of investors, international investors, and if we do not clean up what is currently going on, it would not enhance our dream of real estate, and real estate is our oil in Lagos, we need to make sure that we conform with global best practices to make sure that whoever is involved in real estate in Lagos is in for the long haul and not just people who want to jump on the bandwagon, defraud people and get out immediately.

Have there been cases of people who defrauded and justice had its way?

Yes. The courts have actually jailed one or two of them and the case in Ajao Estate, the property was forfeited to the state government. We’re doing a certain number of collaborations within the value chain. We have met with the Chief Judge (CJ) of Lagos State, canvassing for designated judges to deal with real estate matters so that we don’t have them in the law courts for an endless number of months or years, so we can have a quick dispensation of justice because they say justice delayed is justice denied, and in real estate, you need to be on top of what you are doing. The CJ has graciously agreed to give us designated judges so that it will expedite our matters.

We’ve also had consultations with the Deputy Commissioner of Police at the state CID in Panti, so all of our processes will go through Panti and we won’t have to go through the normal rigours of having the police to collaborate with us because we already have the collaborative effort with Panti.

Therefore, whenever we have matters, we know where to go to. We already have a liaison officer there who is ready to deal with everything that we’re doing. Justice Alogba also promised us a liaison officer that would always deal with our case whenever we have such matters pending before the courts. Yes, we have prosecuted, we have had properties forfeited. We don’t want to be a toothless bulldog we want to be a dog that would bite if and when the need arises.

Advise on how to differentiate between genuine and fraudulent realtors

We’ve constantly gone on air, on TV, on the pages of newspapers and we’ve gone on social media and we’ve told everybody that if you’re dealing with a real estate practitioner, make sure he is licensed with the Lagos State Real Estate Regulatory Authority.

We give permits for people we’ve done due diligence on, the stakeholders are responding positively, they’re glad that we’re here to sanitise the industry. So, I keep telling the members of the public; ‘pause before you pay that money,’ or ‘pause before you play in that real estate sector,’ because when you pause and take a deep breath, you must ask ‘are you registered with the state government?’ the state government has created a platform where you can register and we can also go online to see that you’re registered.

Before you have anything to do with that practitioner, make sure that that practitioner is registered with the state government. The rest is caveat emptor, you do so at your own peril.

Shed light on the Lagos State Agency Regulatory law 2015?

That’s the same law from Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s government. We’re currently in the process of adding that law right now. We’ve gone through the first reading, we’ve gotten exco approval and Mr. Governor’s approval for the amendment of the constitution.

We’re currently at the Lagos State House of Assembly and we’ve gone through the first reading and we know that it is the enabling law for the agency and as you know, with everything that government does, there has to be an enabling law. We’ve had an enabling law since 2007 and that’s the one you just quoted of 2015.

We’re also amending some sections of it to deal with the current realities of time because a law from 2007 is already archaic and probably would not speak and address some of the issues we have right now. So, right now, that law is before the House of Assembly and it is being amended.

Registering as a realtor in Lagos state

We encourage people to come in and register, the process is not cumbersome. What we ask for are your trade documents, we want to know where your office is located, we don’t want a briefcase agent, we want agents or developers that we can verify are actually in the business.

We do not want people we can’t trace where they operate out of. So, we do our due diligence, we send in our officers from the office to go and check out those locations and verify that what you have put in your form is where you do business out of, so that when you have matters in the industry, we know where to look for you, we know who to call upon.

We have all that there, you come into our office or you go on the website, you fill our form, we verify your locations, you verify the papers that you have put in and we do our due diligence and issue you a permit to practice.

That permit is what we give to our developers and our agents. It is also barcoded so when you have the permit, you can verify it and see if that person is on the website.

In making Lagos an investment hub for those interested in real estate, how close are you to fulfilling that?
Mr Governor has an agenda and he always emphasises on the agenda: Traffic management and transportation, Health and Environment, Education and Technology, Making Lagos a 21st century Economy, Entertainment & Tourism Industry and Security and Good Governance, (THEMES)

So, in making Lagos a 21st-century economy, we’ve put a number of things into place. We’re improving on the technology that’s why we’re laying fibre optics all over because we know that for you to get that 21st-century economy, technology must be top-notch.

We have to put all those things into place. One of the things we’re also doing is this law we’re bringing on board. We also have a law that is coming into place that we have been looking at, the Mortgage foreclosure Law.
We’re also coming up with our Condominium Law which would manage affairs of people living together, that also would sanitise what we’re doing and help people know what their limits are when it comes to shared facilities in those shared environments.

We have laws that we’re actually putting into place that are supposed to keep those structures working and then show people that in Lagos, everything doesn’t go, everything is guided by our rules and by our laws and the guidelines that we desire.

So, with the THEMES agenda of the governor, we’re able to follow those processes and make sure that all those are the things that are uppermost in our minds when we talk and when we look at developmental processes, our processes in the Land Planning Bureau and Physical Planning Bureau, we’re working to upgrade them.

We have the EGIS platform in the Lands Bureau, where the survey documents of everything on land in Lagos is also available. So, there are a number of things that we’re putting in place to make Lagos that destination in Africa where real estate should thrive.

The Mortgage Foreclosure Law

We have a Mortgage foreclosure Law coming up. Right now, when you have tenants occupying buildings, unfortunately, because that law is not in place now, you have to go through the law courts to go through the process of eviction and all what not.

So, once the Mortgage foreclosure becomes law in Lagos, it means that once you default on your payment over a period of months or years, the foreclosure aspect of it kicks in and the process begins and at the end of the day, that property is either auctioned or sold.

The process is going to be transparent. We’re supposed to make sure that you’re on time with your payments. Right now, investors are weary of coming into Lagos because they say there is no way we can protect our investments, but with the Mortgage Foreclosure Law, it’s going to be a thing of history because then, you can actually go into that foreclosure process and get your property back once there are defaults on payments.

The Condominium Law

This is a law we’re looking at and tinkering with what is supposed to guide and guard relationships between co-tenants or co-occupiers of a property. When we were growing up, we all grew up in mostly single-family homes with our yards.

It was just you and your parents and you didn’t have to share facilities with neighbours. But most of the structures that are coming up in Lagos, because of land constraints; we’re going vertical in our development.

So, it means that occupiers are going to share spaces and facilities and we see a lot of disputes come out of these shared spaces and facilities. The condominium law is supposed to come in and be put in place in Lagos state where you know where your limitations are, you know what your expectations are from your property developers, facility managers, everything is there and is followed to the latter of the book.

That is what is obtainable in the west where people live in shared spaces and you do not see neighbours being aggressors to one another. Here, we don’t have those laws, so we can have little skirmishes or disputes among tenants. We are looking at all those laws and putting in structures in the real estate industry and we are not leaving anything to chance.

Addressing the issuing of two separate approved documents of ownership to two different people on the same property
I’m surprised that Lagos State government would issue a document of ownership to two different people, I doubt that would ever happen. If you have that issue, I would suggest you write to the Lagos State Real Estate Regulatory Authority. Write a petition complaining against such issue and we would look into it. I doubt the Lagos State government would issue two certificates of occupancy for two different people on the same property.

I doubt it. It must be some unscrupulous elements in the state government and you know everywhere you go, you have bad eggs, everywhere you have people who are doing things they are not supposed to be doing. But I doubt it.

Urban renewal

Urban Renewal is not under this agency, but it’s under housing as well. It’s under a government agency called Lagos State Urban Renewal Agency (LASURA). That brings me to the matter that went on last week. The people of Ikoyi and Victoria Island came up against the Lagos State government for felling some trees in order to give way to infrastructural development.

These things come up, we have to meet halfway, both the people and the government. Those structures have existed for forever, especially in Lagos Island. Those structures are owned by families. Yes, we would have to negotiate with those families.

Some of those buildings have given way because of the weak infrastructure and the weakness of the house from being time immemorial. Some of them have collapsed and some of them are awaiting demolition.

So, it is an issue where the government has to meet with the families, speak with the families and see what we can do about it. It is not government land, it is family land, so we still have to seek the indulgence of the citizens, speak to the families, engage them and see what we can do about renewal.

But I know that the issue of urban renewal and the renewal of parts of Lagos is very imminent and it is part of the things the government is looking at. Nevertheless, it has to be with the corporation of the people. We cannot get into people’s properties and say we want to pull them down; people would come up in arms against us. So, it still depends on the families that own those properties.

Yes, now we don’t encourage buildings to go on like that, so we have various arms of government that deal with that, the Planning Permit Authority, we have LAPCA that controls building structures, we have so many agencies of government in place that would actually disallow such buildings coming up. But for the ones we already have especially in Lagos Island, we’re gradually getting there.

Managing the real omo oniles (land-owners) and the land miscreants

We all tend to forget that Lagos actually belonged to some people who are supposed to be indigenes (omo onile’s). We have landed properties that Lagos has taken from families that have been excised to the government under government excision. We also have those that have been released to those families.

Of course, there are sometimes overlaps. We had a gentleman call from the U.S. and he had bought two landed properties in Magodo area from the Baale or from some Omo Oniles and he fenced the property. He still lives in America. Another gentleman encroached on the property and started building.

The same Baale called the man and told him somebody has encroached on your property because the Baale knows that they had the legitimate title to that land. So, the man came to the Lagos State government, he went to the lands bureau, physical planning and complained. It was actually realised that he got the C of O, he was the original owner even though he had bought from the Baale.

The other man claimed he had bought from the Lagos State government and the government has denied knowing anything about the sale of that property, that they would not sell a property that does not belong to them, the same way that the Omo Oniles are not expected to sell properties that have been excised.

It’s all about being aware of the property that you’re buying. It still boils down to due diligence and the slogan I keep saying: “pause before you pay, pause before you play.” If you’re ‘playing’ in the real estate sector, you have to be careful because, by the time monies exchange hands, there is no going back on it.

On the other hand, the extortionists (you refer to) who come around structures or landed properties, who also refer to themselves as ‘omo onile’s’, I think that’s ridiculous and I think you can avoid that by involving the authorities. Don’t assume that for everything you do in Lagos, the government is not going to do anything for you.

Involve the authorities, people should know their rights when it comes to things like this and make sure that they’re not pushed around. Involve the authorities if you have such problems.

Challenges of marketing Lagos’ real estate sector to the world

One of our major challenges is fraud in the industry which is why we have been cleaning and shouting sanitisation and regularisation of the industry. Real estate in Lagos is like no other place in Nigeria. Recently, a colleague of mine who is running a magazine on real estate spoke to me about a real estate show coming up in Dubai in November and he wanted Lagos to be part of it.

I told him we would get our developers in Lagos, put them together and showcase them in Dubai as an investment destination in Africa. We’ve also had people calling us from Dubai, private organisations, asking us to give them practitioners they can deal with in Lagos.

So, even without launching that program, there is evidence that shows that we want to build a global market for real estate, people are already reaching out to us. Because we’re just starting, we started this agency in February, I can assure you that by next year, we would be that investment destination we want to be. Because by this time next year, we would be able to gather all our developers and our practitioners under the same umbrella.

We have a stakeholders’ meeting coming up on the 29th of October. We had it last year and the turnout was fantastic, but because of COVID-19 this year, even though we are going to reduce the numbers, we are still going to have the stakeholders meeting where we are going to constantly engage practitioners in the sector, and you know from engagements, you have these ideas come up about what we need to do.

So, by next year, for something like that, Dubai 2021 show, we should be having a good showing of real estate developers, practitioners out there where people will actually know that Lagos is the investment destination of Africa. And where else in Africa would you have the kind of real estate turn over that you’re getting in real estate but Lagos? Nowhere else.

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