Squatting and the need for an equitable housing policy

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Prime Minister of Jamaica the Most Honourable Andrew Holness Photo courtesy of Jamaica Information Service

A week ago, the Prime Minister of Jamaica told the nation’s Parliament of an illegal settlement, sponsored by a criminal gang, that had developed in the community of Clifton, St Catherine. As such, he stated that the structures would be demolished, starting that Thursday morning, and that the lands, which are part of the government’s Greater Bernard Lodge development plan, will be regularized and legitimate owners provided with titles. True to his word, that same week, a demolition crew sans heavy equipment and backed by a detachment of police and soldiers executed the PM’s orders They demolished at least eight structures that were at various levels of completion before a mounting throng of protesters triggered a halt to the cruel action. It did not help that there has been no proof of any kind of criminal involvement but at the same time, several people appear to have lost whatever investment that they may have attempted at owning a piece of the rock while attempting to satisfy one of mankind’s most primal needs – shelter.

A painful history

It goes without saying that home ownership is the dream of every self-respecting individual as owning a home is not only a sure way of guaranteeing shelter security, but it also helps to break the cycle of poverty that has stalked most Jamaicans since the end of slavery when on 1 August 1838, some 569,047 Black men, women and children walked freely off the sugar estates and out into the Jamaican spaces. While the British Government compensated the former slave owners for the loss of their human “property” at a rate of approximately 20 pounds per slave, those who had been ensaves received nothing. With no consideration available to them, the formerly enslaved simply demitted the plantations with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Many of these formerly enslaved opted to occupy abandoned estates left vacant by planters who decided to return to England, while others squatted on what was then unoccupied and unutilized Crown Lands. There, they engaged as small produce farmers until 1867 when the then Governor Sir John Peter Grant set up a Lands Department to repossess Crown Lands occupied by the squatters. By 1912 more than 240,000 acres were repossessed forcing some occupants back onto the plantations and others into the growing urban drifts.

Persistent poverty and squatting

It is important to understand that the circumstances for most of the newly freed were cast in impoverishment, a state that traversed from colonialism through to independence in 1962 when the administration of the Island’s affairs fell to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), one of the two political parties formed during the first half of the t century, the other being the People’s National Party (PNP). Independence did not bring about any significant transformation of the circumstances of the islands’ Black majority population. In fact, the influx of people from rural to urban centres continued, underpinned by at least three factors. First, the Jamaican government has always pursued a policy that has persistently favoured urban development at the extreme expense of rural areas, thereby making the latter unattractive, especially to the young. Second, Jamaica lacks a strong peasant tradition capable of keeping small growers wedded to the land. And third, most of the poor in Jamaica (60 per cent of those who live below the national poverty line) are found in rural areas and are drawn to urban centres in search of a better life. Over the years, this urban drift has created significant pressure on available urban housing and given rise to significant numbers of squatter settlements in St Catherine, and Kingston and St Andrew.

Land redistribution experiments or benefits politics

In 1973, the then Michael Manley administration attempted to tilt the scales in favour of the landless poor by essaying the Land Lease Project, an integrated rural development approach which provided land, technical advice and loans to thousands of small farmers. In principle, the programme accomplished the redistribution of an estimated 14 per cent of idle land across the island, but in practice, it was benefits politics 101, a strategy that both sides have used to their political advantage.  Over time, though, most of these leaseholders have disposed of these properties or passed them on to their heirs even though they had no title.

Operation Pride or more of the same

The situation became even more aggravating in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Prime Minister PJ Patterson launched the Programme for Resettlement and Integrated Development Enterprise (Operation PRIDE) in May 1994 with the intention of providing support to individuals and groups interested in becoming landowners and in establishing communities. PRIDE organized the sale of plots of government land to people who did not own a house or lot and assisted these groups in obtaining interim financing and grants for infrastructure and site development through the National Housing Trust (NHT), building societies, credit unions and other relevant institutions. Unfortunately, the PRIDE programme fell apart over time as the cancer of political divisiveness ate at the roots stifling what would have been a great opportunity for ordinary working-class Jamaicans to acquire an asset that could lay the foundation of generational wealth creation. In its place the competitiveness among the two political gangs saw the surreptitious expansion of a number of these strategically located squatter settlements to shore up voting in some marginal but significant constituencies.  The resultant “wink and nod” reaction to squatting frames the hypocrisy which appends the current response to recent events in Bernard Lodge, St Catherine.

Holness shows his hand

The Bernard Lodge property is a plum property primed for considerable development over time and has been the source of much discussion. One wonders why the PM would have gone out on a limb to not only announce that criminals were involved in selling lots but to also see to the destruction of the structures. This is a road that no other political administration prior to Holness has trod. Instead, successive administrations have regularized squatter settlements for most of the last six decades, using this as a major tool in their individual benefits politics arsenals to divide poor Jamaicans, as getting a home is a big deal. From a PR standpoint, though, getting a home from the hands of the prime minister is the cherry on top, for both sides. It should not escape anyone who has been paying attention that PM Holness has resorted to this tactic ad nauseum as he has promised the delivery of 70,000 homes over the next couple of years and it appears that he intends to hand-deliver each set of keys himself, binding each recipient to the JLP for life.

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