By Benjamin Omoike
Reported cases of fraud as it relates to housing in Lagos is no news. Before now, unsuspecting Lagosians had fallen prey to predators in the guise of real estate practitioners (agents) and developers. The unwholesome act has been cause for concern for the state government, because housing is as critical as is a sensitive matter in a cosmopolitan city as Lagos.
Housing deficit on its own, is a huge challenge and bridging the infrastructure gap has been on the front burner for previous administrations, as well as the administration of governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Safeguarding the interests of citizens willing to part with their hard-earned cash in their quest to secure shelter, then, becomes paramount for the government of the day.
According to Toke Benson Awoyinka, Special Adviser to Governor Sanwo-Olu on Housing, who also doubles as the Chief Executive Officer of the Lagos State Real Estate Regulatory Authority, LASRERA, it has not been easy stemming the tide of fraudulent activities in the sector. However, she says, the state has made tremendous progress on the matter, and asserts that it is a step in the right direction.
Awoyinka calls on Lagosians to ‘Pause before you pay’, to avoid falling prey to real estate fraud.
‘We have not nipped it in the bud. That is why I’m calling on the citizens because they’re the recipients of these frauds. For every fraud that is reported to us, we make sure that we prosecute, and make sure that we get the citizens back what they deserve. So, the only way we can nip it in the bud, is if the citizens comply with what we’re saying. Do not deal with practitioners who are not registered with government.’
Analysts agree that one step the government has taken in the right direction is setting up a working portal, as it tries to sanitise the sector, and many ask how the response has been. The Special Adviser says it’s amazing that the response has been huge from people, especially those in the Diaspora.
‘We’ve had situations where even Lagos State Government officials have come in here, and they were referred by their family members and friends in the Diaspora, that they know of a Real Estate Regulatory Authority platform, which they have gone to, that has told them what the Lagos State Government is doing in sanitising the industry and that they would like to check out what we’re doing.
‘We have almost resolved a particular issue, also which was a petition from the Diaspora, with a big time developer in Lagos…we are at the verge of that resolution right now. We’ve had online meetings between the practitioners and the public, who had made the complaint. So, in the Diaspora, I think we have done very well, and its mainly on the platform and advocacy.
“We’ve also had people in the Diaspora, who have called in, asking us to recommend developers for them, that they’ve listened to all our advocacy telling them that for you go deal with a developer in Lagos, you ensure that he’s registered with government, and government has done due diligence on those developers and real estate agents.’
She continues: ‘So, in that line, the Diaspora has really caught the fire. On the side of the practitioners, we launched a portal on the 11th of June, and since then till the 9th of July, we had over a thousand people who had started their registration process on the portal. So, I would say that’s a huge acceptance by the public and also by the practitioners.
Mr. Adeyemi Ogunbote is a Community Development Committee (CDC), Chairman in Ojodu area of Lagos. According to him, cases of fraudulent activities in Lagos, have still not totally abated, as many still fall victim to the tricks of some so-called agents.
‘The situation is still there, although, many people are wiser now. We still hear of people falling victim to these so-called agents, who go about parading as people who can provide houses or properties to people. They take you to see some property after collecting about three thousand naira or more from you. They tell you N1,000 is registration fee and N2,000 is for them to take you round to see the property. Some charge much more, in some cases and in some areas; it could well be up to N10,000, and they still fail to deliver the property to you.’
‘In some cases, they don’t have access to those properties they’re parading. And if you don’t do your home work well enough, you could even go ahead to pay for the lease of the property, lose hundreds of thousands of naira, before you realise it’s a fraud.
“My advice is that people shouldn’t rush to pay or patronise some of these so-called agents, but should make enquiries first, from people around the area they’re taken to, as to know the true ownership of the house, and better still, insist on seeing the landlord or owner, before making any payment. This should also be done before credible witnesses.’
Public analysts and observers have equally wondered if LASRERA has the capacity in-house to resolve high profile cases, as has been seen in recent times. Awoyinka says, strategic partnerships is the way to go. ‘Yes, we’re doing some strategic partnerships. Last week, we met with the MD of the Lagos State Signage Agency. That partnership, a couple of people had called me…what is LASSA going to be doing with LASRERA? And I said before any real estate fraud starts, the first port of call is advertisement, and LASSA regulates advertising industry in Lagos.’
‘So, if we have the collaboration of LASSA on what we are supposed to do, LASSA can sieve through those adverts before they actually hit the air space. And once we sieve through those ads from there, LASSA tells you…are you registered with the state government? Do they know what you’re doing? Are they aware of your transactions? Have you met all their criteria? Because right now, we have a very sophisticated market in terms of technology, so most ads go in the air space. Most don’t go on the walls or buildings anymore, except in the very high density areas of Lagos and some strategic places like the high brow.’
‘Most ads are online right now. With LASSA, the collaboration is going to be very fruitful because we already have something there. We have a regulatory body there which is regulating adverts on our behalf. We also went to the state CID, where we met with the Deputy Commissioner of Police last week, in our collaboration as well, which we have gone to them for. We realise, like you said, cases can be very high profile, and you need the security forces. We’re not going to be able to do that part of it ourselves. So, we’re partnering with the state CID in the apprehension of fraudulent practitioners and resolving disputes that are beyond our own capacity.’
Lending a voice to the matter, Chief Lamidi Gbadebo is a traditional head and land owner/seller (Omo onile) in the Ajah axis, in Ibeju-Lekki area of Lagos. He says activities of fraud by agents and developers alike, ‘isn’t new to us. That is why we are always careful when transacting our business – because anybody can be defrauded – you, the owner and the buyer. I always advice potential buyers, whether individuals or corporate bodies, to always come out straight when they want to buy land.
‘They should not look for short cuts or patronise those who promise them unrealistic deals or cuts. They should ensure they deal with the original family, be on ground to enquire and carry out investigation on the land by themselves. They can appoint representatives or lawyers to go to the appropriate government agency, to know if the land or that area is even up for sale in the first place. They should also be thorough enough to find out if the land had already been sold to another person. They must know if there’s a family tussle on the land, and that is why they must come to meet the traditional heads (Baale), to ensure all these things before making payment to anybody. As I speak to you now, there are many cases in court that are still unresolved.’
For the government, security agencies are saddled with the responsibility of apprehending those who engage in the nefarious act of defrauding unsuspecting Lagosians.
The S.A says, ‘Yes, we get them to do the apprehension of these erring members or address these criminal activities that are ongoing, and then, we take it to the law courts. So, within the system, we are also working with the Ministry of Justice. They prosecute on our behalf, which makes them a strategic partner in what we are doing here. Our next port of call will be the law courts, which we’re going to be meeting with the Chief Justice of the State. Also, to seek their collaboration, so that we can have assigned to us, special courts or special judges that would handle these cases very fast. So, we won’t have these matters bogged down within the bureaucracy of the law,’ she said.
The reality on ground is that people have fallen victim to housing fraud in the cosmopolitan city. Eugene Ifunanya is resident in Lagos. He says his ordeal in the hands of these fraudsters isn’t one he likes to remember.
‘I was desperately looking for a place to stay because I was having troubles with my landlord where I was staying. He had given me an ultimatum to move out of his house. So, a friend introduced me to this guy, who claimed to be an agent. He asked me to register and fill a form with N1,500, which I did. He was in a very small space, like a small store, which had a table and two plastic chairs only. The place was poorly painted and didn’t look too clean. Some people said the guy was an agent, so I went ahead.
‘He later asked me to drop N2,000, for him to take me round and show me some properties for me to make my choice. He actually showed me some places, which I didn’t like. Finally, he took me a particular property which still had some work to be done for it to be finished. It was a new building. The windows needed to be fixed, some pipes as well, and tiles needed to be laid in the living room. I met a man who posed as the landlord.
‘They told me that the work would be finished in one week, if I could make an initial deposit of N200,000 of the total sum of N380,000 – which included agency and commission fees. I liked the place, and since I didn’t want someone else to get the place ahead of me, I made the deposit. To cut a long story short, the guy (agent) just disappeared. The guy who posed as the landlord, I later found out, wasn’t the owner of the building, but a guy who was put in charge of the place. People later blamed me for my error, the case dragged on but I lost my cash. It’s not something I like to remember. I learnt my lesson the hard way.’
Regarding shortcomings in the sector, public opinion analysts and observers have not absolved government. They have variously laid the blame at the doorstep of some government officials. They argue that there are some ‘bad eggs’ in the system, who need to be expunged. The S.A says, ‘I tell people government is a two-way street. Government is not everywhere. So, on our portal we also have the whistleblowing part. We have a slogan in our agency here, ‘Pause before you play; pause before you pay’. Just take that step, think twice about it because it’s real estate.
‘I say again to the people, do not deal with anybody who is not registered with the Real Estate Regulatory Authority, if you deal with them, you do so at your own expense, because if you bring these matters to us, we will ask if you made verification. For that real estate agent that comes to you, please ask them, are you registered with the state government? We have to regulate. It is for lack of regulation, that we have all these activities ongoing.’
As the matter rages, Lagosians keep their fingers crossed in hopes that the Agency succeeds in this audacious task of regulating and sanitising the Lagos housing industry.