POSTSCRIPT / September 30, 1999 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Villar a housing Santa or astute businessman?

SPEAKER Manuel B. Villar claims in his propaganda to be the champion of mass housing in this country. The way his line is cast, one would think that Villar built endless rows of cheap houses and gave them practically at cost to homeless Filipinos.

Now it turns out in Senate hearings that these houses are far from cheap, that Villar’s companies have been raking in megamillions, and that government institutions that had lent out the money for those houses are not being paid on time.

The unvarnished truth is that Villar’s foray into land development and housing was nothing but a well-conceived business plan, a lucrative business that once landed him among the world’s billionaires.

If the Speaker is to be credited at all for anything, it should not be for providing allegedly cheap houses to ordinary Filipinos. The buyers paid for Villar’s houses, and paid very dearly for dwellings that sometimes turn out to be overpriced yet substandard.

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BUT Villar has a point when he says that it is not his C&P (Camella and Palmera Homes) housing firms that directly owe government lending institutions and that it is the buyers of the houses/lots who owe these lending agencies.

To fully appreciate this claim of Villar, Senators Rodolfo Biazon and Nikki Coseteng, who are investigating reported massive fraud in mass housing, should look into the manner that these loans were acquired.

Some homeowners talk of this alleged modus operandi: Villar’s salespersons suggested to buyers to get a housing loan from Capitol Bank, then owned by Villar’s family. Using the buyers’ papers, the bank turned around and applied for funding from government lending institutions.

Buyers merely signed the papers given them and Villar’s companies did the followup with the lending agencies. While the supposed loan beneficiary was the lot/house buyer, Villar’s bank and other companies got the then booming business.

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THE senators will stumble on an interesting detail if they compare what the lending institutions charged Villar’s companies for the funds and what his bank charged the buyer. Many buyers are not aware that they could get loans directly at interest rates lower than what Villar’s family bank charged them.

(In fairness to businessman Al Yuchengco who has bought Capitol Bank, the present owners of the bank – now renamed RCBC Savings Bank — have nothing to do with the past transactions with house/lot buyers and lending institutions.)

This roundabout way that Villar companies secured or helped secure funds for their customers may explain why Senate investigators have been receiving information that Villar’s companies had cornered the biggest slice of housing loans.

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SUCH gathering of data is part of a legislative committee’s work. So-called inter-chamber courtesy should not stop senators from looking into housing scams even at the risk of the Speaker of the House being mentioned by witnesses.

It is right that Senators Biazon and Coseteng are asking questions. Homeowners who have to pay exorbitant rates and settle for substandard houses are grateful to the senators.

No government official, however exalted, is exempt from scrutiny in an inquiry into matters of public interest. Why should senators “first consult” a congressman, even if he is Speaker, before his name is mentioned in official proceedings?

When legislative committees summon private citizens and businessmen to their inquiries, no such courtesy now being mentioned by Villar’s defenders is invoked for victims of congressional insults and muckraking. Even Cabinet members are sometimes treated like dirt by legislators who lose their bearings.

Villar should welcome the inquiry since this gives him a chance to explain, if he can, that his business dealings are above board and that he has not been taking advantage of his position in the government and the housing industry.

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ON another hot topic, if the Estrada administration has any moral mooring at all, the debate over the use by Cabinet officials of privately-owned luxury vehicles impounded by Customs would not drag this long.

If they had any delicadeza, they would have returned those vehicles on the same day their true ownership was brought to light. Estrada officials do not own those vehicles, so why are they using them? It’s as simple as that.

If President Estrada was right when he gifted his boys with the vehicles, why don’t Cabinet officials also take over private houses and buildings whose owners have failed to pay the proper taxes?

The stench emanating from Malacañang is nauseating. Mahiya-hiya naman kayo!

* * *.

EVEN if by some legal acrobatics, a court rules that the appropriation of private vehicles for the personal use of leeches in government is legal, how can they defend its morality?

As they defend the indefensible, officials scream that others before them had done the same thing.

So what if this is not the first time? It only goes to show that theirs is not even an original sin. It was wrong then, and it’s still wrong now.

If they still have just a bit of conscience left, these officials should lose no time in returning the vehicles. They don’t own those luxury vans, and neither does the government own them. Why are they clinging to them?

President Estrada has offered an explanation for this behavior of his Cabinet. He said his boys need the luxury to lend them an air of dignity. Snatch that lollipop from them and you strip them of their dignity!

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A PRESS release says that the government will check buildings to see if they can withstand big earthquakes, referring to tremors of the same intensity as the Sept. 20 tremor that collapsed buildings and killed thousands in Taiwan.

The move is as laudable as covering the manhole after it has swallowed a child playing near it. They should have scrutinized the engineering details when the plans were still pending before the city or local engineer’s office for approval — not now when people are already using them.

But don’t imagine that an army of engineers will now check buildings, condemn structures found deficient, and require owners to upgrade them. That will never happen in this country.

So why did they announce the alleged inspection? Simple – to lull the people into thinking that the government is doing something.

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BUT we should not check only the buildings. A structure could be technically unassailable, but if the ground where it stands is not stable, it poses a danger to the occupants and the public.

Reminds us of the report of Director Raymundo Punongbayan of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology that the Marikina Valley Fault System is active and one of its lines runs through the heart of Fort Bonifacio where an ambitious futuristic city is supposed to rise.

The fault that’s threatening Fort Bonifacio has not been mapped fully and in detail, raising fears that there may be areas in the Fort where the fault runs without the occupants being aware of it.

In the spirit of full disclosure, buyers may find it prudent to ask for an iron-clad assurance from the sellers that the area being bought does not lie on a branch of the Marikina Fault that stretches from Angat in Bulacan to Taal Lake in Batangas.

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WHICH reminds us also to ask: What’s the deal in the reported intention of Malacañang to forego collecting the P8-plus billion representing the last installment of the payment of the Metro Pacific-led group that bought Fort Bonifacio?

Metro Pacific has a good reason for not paying this last tranche. The government has failed to relocate the occupants of that corner of the Fort and, therefore, has not been able to deliver it clean to Metro Pacific.

A Palace source told us that President Estrada has agreed not to collect the P8+ billion since it is supposedly difficult to remove the squatters and other occupants of the area awaiting delivery to Metro Pacific.

Very intriguing. Why is Mr. Estrada suddenly not interested in collecting P8+ billion? How many reasons are behind this strange behavior of one obviously in need of money?

If we stand to collect P8+ billion for a piece of land with squatters, we should be willing to spend P500 million – or even P1 billion — to buy out the occupants and take full possession of the area and deliver it clean to the buyer.

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INVESTIGATORS of the National Telecommunications Commission are poised to pore over the traffic data of Globe Telecom to check the company’s charge that its network congestion is due to the inability of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. to provide adequate lines.

The investigators are also expected to check reports that Globe Telecom has not been using all its lines to service subscribers, that some of the lines may have been used for other purposes.

These conflicts are normal in a deregulated market. The active marketing of many telecommunications companies offering a myriad of services has broken the PLDT monopoly, preventing it from manipulating pricing the way the oil cartel has been sucking the blood of captive users of oil products.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 30, 1999)

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