Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Restoring inner cities

Published:Monday | August 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM

One of the grave weaknesses of our national culture is to depreciate the value of infrastructure and institutions in which others have made significant investment, financially and socially.

For example, there are four community centres in central Kingston - all well-needed, built with public funds, which are now squatted. Downtown Kingston, parts of Montego Bay, and Spanish Town have large areas, once elegant or at least useful, now eyesores and often incubators of crime and violence.

Instead of sustained efforts at urban renewal, revisioning structures to meet changing preferences and applying discipline to settlement needs, a distracted State has allowed disorder to prevail until now entire communities, once socially and financially valuable, have become dead assets, attracting the description of garrisons and ghettos.

If we want to recreate value, increase employment and suppress crime, the restoration of inner cities ought to be the highest priority of national housing policy. To do otherwise, or very little as up to now, is to waste billions of existing investment even as we borrow to build again in some new, relatively expensive area of urban sprawl.

Government has breezily set a target of 15,000 new housing creations a year. Even that is less than the real demand, though probably much more than the pockets of those who really need can afford.

While we await the long-overdue study on the objectives, operations and financing of the National Housing Trust (NHT), let us hope that the NHT could find, say, $30 billion a year for new investment. At a very modest price tag of $5 million per unit, this will produce only 6,000 houses.

As currently structured, without a sturdy secondary mortgage market and mortgage guarantees, the private housing capital market, despite thriving on the savings of the poor, shows no appetite for low-income housing.

This situation can change if the nation would take inner-city renewal seriously. There the capital outlay would be much reduced, given the existing investment in infrastructure, albeit outdated and inadequate.

While measures to regularise land ownership are being settled either through already-enacted provisions for adverse possession, local improvement laws and the activities of Land Administration & Management Programme, an NHT loan of under $2 million, secured by a conventional mortgage, can transform most inner-city big yards - removing zinc fences, upgrading sanitation, repairing a roof or adding a bedroom - all restoring value to the formal economy and wealth to individuals.

 

LIFT UP COMMUNITIES

 

Connect such activity with a repeat of the affordable Lift Up Jamaica project of a few years back, improving communal infrastructure - sidewalks, recreational areas and utility connections.

Properly executed, using largely community labour under the supervision of the army and efficient organisations like the Jamaica Social Investment Fund, the outcomes, after comparably modest and partly recoverable investment, would usher a new climate of hope and dignity in many depressed areas.

Obviously this is but the barebones of a proposal for inner-city regeneration. It is intended to stimulate public discourse about healing a sore which, unattended, will aggravate the crime scene and continue to erode family structure.

And this way will not involve the huge subsidies or the mass relocation of people like slum clearance efforts of the past.

It is possible, within our resources and in our time, for, as Portia used to dream, "inner cities to become winner cities".

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