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NHT should fund squatter overhaul

Published:Tuesday | December 9, 2014 | 12:01 AMOwen Allen

It is a national disgrace that 900,000 Jamaican people should be living in squatters' settlements that are without proper roads, adequate domestic water supply, sewage disposal system and access to municipal services.

With the growth of base sectors such as tourism (with a high demand for cheap labour and poor infrastructure to accommodate this migrant labour force), this has contributed in no small way to the spread of informal communities that now rim the entire tourism coastal zone.

With the degradation of the environment and the negative impacts poor sanitation and infrastructure have occasioned, this is beginning to undermine the economic sustainability of the tourism product itself. The situation has gone beyond simple palliatives; it is a crisis that must be managed with urgency from a multi-sectoral perspective to bring short-, medium- and long-term results with a clear vision and strategy.

The Community Organizations for Management and Sustainable Development (COMAND) welcomes The Sunday Gleaner's effort at redirecting the debate over the National Housing Trust's (NHT) J$180 acquisition of the Outameni property and shifting the conversation where it matters: the housing crisis that impacts the majority of the Jamaican people.

Many of these 900,000 Jamaicans living in informal communities have done well for themselves by providing their own housing solutions. What has eluded them is the means to develop adequate infrastructure that would add value to their investments and security of tenure.

According to The Sunday Gleaner's editorial, most people, including, the majority of the NHT's more than half a million contributors, can't afford to buy the houses that come to market in Jamaica. Sixty per cent of NHT contributors who fall in this bracket are, even with one per cent mortgages, effectively excluded from the formal real-estate market.

Many of these working poor must find refuge in these informal communities, many of which are situated in the growth corridors of Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, Negril and lower St Andrew.

That is why COMAND welcomes the position advanced by The Gleaner's editorial suggesting that the NHT should use its resources "to underwrite/subsidise the cost of infrastructure - which is the major cost of real estate development- so as to help to deliver more affordable shelter to Jamaicans".

This call for the NHT to give support towards the cost of infrastructure dovetails with COMAND's positions that the NHT should set aside 20 per cent of its annual budget as a dedicated mortgage fund to provident societies whose members are qualified contributors to the NHT. That was one of the recommendations coming out of three consultations with provident societies held in Kingston, St Andrew and St Catherine. The regional consultation was held at the Faculty of the Built Environment University of Technology in Kingston on April 30, 2009 after previous consultations in Montego and Ocho Rios.

We support the view expressed in The Sunday Gleaner's editorial that the NHT should "be robustly at the fore of research into lowering the cost of shelter, from design to the type of material used" and in this respect of immediate concern is a sewage-disposal designs that are affordable, appropriate and culturally acceptable.

However, we do not support the view that there should be a "cultural shift in Jamaica, from the quest for homeownership," notwithstanding that which obtains elsewhere. While the provision of shelter is of primary concern, there are the underlying issues of inequity and the need to address the intractable crisis of persistent intergenerational poverty that comes without ownership.

Ownership of land and house must be part of the social engineering to promote greater equity in the society ergo responsible citizenry. Rental is an acceptable immediate and short-term solution to the shelter crisis, but ownership is fundamental in altering the inherited economic architecture.

Within these so-called squatter and gully-bank communities is discarded potential capable of contributing towards national development and growth that has eluded the formal private sector.

That is why, since 1997, COMAND has been advocating for the creation of an alternate, bottom-up-driven economic growth model for Jamaica that would revitalise idle assets and resources, especially in depressed communities islandwide and to integrate housing into a broader development programme at the community level, creating a ladder of opportunity for marginalised households to participate in community-driven economic activity

n Owen D. Allen is chairman of The Community Organizations for Management and Sustainable Development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and odamaxef@yahoo.com.