Editorial | Rebuild old communities
Ronald Thwaites has the embryo of an idea of how the National Housing Trust's (NHT) money might be used to rebuild Jamaica's blighted urban communities, while providing jobs for young people, but it is in need of deeper thought and refinement if it is to have a chance at a fruitful germination.
His, nonetheless, is a significant voice, which we hope will help to reinvigorate an unfortunately lapsed debate, about which we commend Mr Thwaites to our interventions of 2015 when his parliamentary colleague, Delroy Chuck, floated his own ideas for dealing with so-far intractable problem of inner-city decay.
Mr Thwaites, of the opposition People's National Party, represents the constituency of Central Kingston, one of the capital's grittiest. It is not only littered with tenements, but suffers from high rates of joblessness and sporadic outbursts of violence.
In his article in this newspaper yesterday, Mr Thwaites argued for mobilising these unemployed youth, in his constituency and elsewhere, who might otherwise be recruits for criminal gangs, into construction brigades, renewing housing and infrastructure and generally upgrading the physical environment.
This redevelopment would be paid for from the resources of the NHT - not apparently by sequestering additional portions of the Trust's more than J$250 billion of assets, but by diverting to the project the J$11.2 billion annually the Government plans to extract from the NHT to help meet its IMF-prescribed target of a primary surplus of seven per cent of GDP.
Tapping the NHT for resources is not a matter on which we disagree with Mr Thwaites. We are concerned, though, despite an attempt at a high-minded framing of the issue, at his seemingly politically reflexive call for the starving of the central Budget and the potential fiscal crisis this could cause.
Two years ago, Mr Chuck, a government MP, whose North East St Andrew constituency has several pockets with characteristics similar to Mr Thwaites', suggested that the Government declare inner-city communities special development areas, allowing for their purchase for renewal by private developers. Investors in such projects are allowed various tax rebates.
In the absence of such schemes, Mr Chuck argued, such communities will only grow worse. Critics, however, claimed that gentrification would push current residents - many of whom now squat - out of affordable shelter by pricing them out of the market.
We, however, don't believe it has to be either-or, in a circumstance of public-private sector partnership, with the potential of cheaper development and less need for Greenfield ones.
Many of the capital's blighted communities already have basic infrastructure and large swathes of basic, if run-down, housing. With appropriate investment, communities like Spanish Town, Rollington Town, Kingston Gardens and others can be brought back from the brink. To ensure a mixed and equitable shelter arrangement, a proportion of the more than J$20 billion a year the NHT invests yearly in housing could go towards the project as equity with, or as loans to, private partners.
Further, it could not be beyond the capacity of the Government to fashion a special-purpose vehicle with the appropriate legal framework, protect the interests of small individual owners, who are part of the arrangement. At the same time, the Government would use its special powers under the Local Improvement (Communities Amenities) Act to forcibly acquire property in circumstances where owners of properties can be found or refuse to be party to the arrangements.