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Ronald Thwaites | Fixing Kingston's housing

Published:Monday | September 5, 2016 | 9:00 AMRonald Thwaites

The decision to site the new Parliament building in Heroes Circle has happily revived the discourse on how to improve housing conditions in the Old City.

The concern is that with the development of a 'Government Circle' at Race Course, what will become of the many thousands of people, most of whom squat in yards close to the curtilage of present and future majestic State edifices.

Neighbourhoods which used to be pleasant residential areas - Allman Town, Fletcher's Land, Jones Town, Woodford Park, Campbell Town, Parade Gardens and Rae Town - have deteriorated significantly, demeaning the quality of life of the residents and reducing property values.

 

URBAN NEGLECT

 

Apportioning blame for urban neglect is much easier and more familiar than proposing affordable solutions. There are, in fact, many positives.

All the properties in these communities have registered titles, are situated on an orderly grid of streets and lanes and have the basic, if antiquated, infrastructure of electricity, water and sewage connection. There are churches, shops, schools and some recreational areas. All these will considerably reduce the cost of regeneration.

The dwellers on the front page of Heroes Circle can see it in their best interest to relocate to decent, modestly priced apartments; apartments on land unused on Arnold Road. Similar solutions, which need not break up families and friends, are possible in other areas where relocation is unavoidable.

With four ministries and six high schools within easy walking distance, Kingston Gardens is ripe for re-gentrification. Given the choice, many people will opt to live closer to work.

Most of the yards are owned by Government and its agencies or persons who have long since died or migrated or are held by the Administrator General. There are very few property transfers in these areas. In terms of the formal economy, these lands and houses, for which no tax is paid and utility charges are seldom collected, are dead assets.

Although characterised by levels of unemployment - more than 60 per cent of the adult population - many have contributed to the National Housing Trust (NHT), but have never been able to get a benefit, or if they did, have used it to move to Portmore.

Using discounted purchase, obtaining title by adverse possession or by designation as a housing area, properties can be vested in occupants and new buyers if they are facilitated by the NHT.

The aim must be to place the responsibility of ownership on someone rather than leaving tenure ineffective or undetermined. Not everyone will be in a position to own, so creative rental arrangements can be crafted to keep occupants living where they are.

Once a title is able to be mortgaged, rebuilding becomes an economic proposition. A loan of three million dollars can do wonders to renovate a sizeable tenement yard. The zinc fence can be removed, bathrooms can be added, as well as bedrooms, where better family life can be lived.

Such financing over 20 to 40 years at the low interest rates now obtaining can be afforded by people who earn modest incomes. And if they won't pay, the properties must be repossessed and sold just like anywhere else.

State agencies that seem to have lost their way in respect of old-city regeneration, like the Kingston Restoration Company, the Urban Development Company and the National Housing Trust, should be tasked to lead these processes. An effort to secure mortgage guarantee insurance, once offered by an international partner, ought even to interest some shy private capital to the venture.

And it need not involve subsidies, as has been the norm of past efforts. Inner-city people just want access to land, limited finance and freedom from the Sargasso Sea of legal red-tape and watch what they will build.

 

HOUSING TRUST RESOURCES

 

Government's stated intent to expand the land-titling initiatives of the past administration is commendable. Please use the resources of the Housing Trust next time round for houses rather than to prop up other inefficient state operations.

And please, hear the cry from the long-neglected people of the old city. It will be a reproach to all of us and a huge disrespect to them if there is a renovated Heroes Park, a new Parliament building, the proposed waterfront Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grace's new headquarters, Digicel, and all the other anticipated developments surrounded by slums.

I believe far-reaching urban renewal is possible in our time and within our resources.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com