Fri | Sep 18, 2020

Editorial | Charles must make urban renewal his priority

Published:Wednesday | September 16, 2020 | 12:09 AM

A notable development in how Prime Minister Andrew Holness has fashioned his new administration is making urban renewal part of the new super ministry he has assigned to Pearnel Charles Jr. Hopefully, it means something significant.

Two things are noteworthy about the prime minister’s action.

First, no recent Jamaican government, and perhaps none ever, has had urban renewal as a specific portfolio responsibility, although the subject has been absorbed in, and shared by, a variety of ministries and agencies, particularly those that covered housing, social development and public works.

Second, the governing Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) manifesto for the recent general election did not address the issue of urban renewal. It spoke in generalities about what the new administration intends to do in housing.

The Government, the manifesto promised, would provide 70,000 housing starts over its five-year term, of which 10,000, or 14 per cent, would be allocated to people up to age 35, who will be eligible for 100 per cent financing for the homes. The administration also plans to spend J$1 billion annually on social housing, including for the construction and repair of houses.

Given the absence of a manifesto statement on urban renewal, it would seem that Mr Charles has been afforded a blank canvas on which to fashion his own plans. In which event, he should start with an interpretation of his mandate that gives emphasis to urban renewal. Mr Charles’ portfolio, to be precise, is housing, urban renewal, environment and climate change. With the proposed rethink with respect to the built environment side of his portfolio, the minister should set the delivery of the homes promised in his party’s manifesto within that context.

By most estimates, nearly 56 per cent of Jamaica’s 2.7 million people live in urban communities, an increase of around three percentage points from the last census six years ago, when 54 per cent of 881,000 households, and a similar proportion of the 854,000 dwellings, were urban. Many of Jamaica’s urban dwellers are among the one-third of the population whose homes are in informal communities.

It does not require deep observation to be aware that many, perhaps the majority, of these urban communities are scarred and gritty. The decay is obvious in large swathes of Kingston and St Andrew; Spanish Town in St Catherine; May Pen, Clarendon; Montego Bay, St James; Savannah-la-Mar, Westmoreland; and other urban centres across the island. The lack of, or broken down, infrastructure and other services contribute to social dysfunction, which helps to fuel crime and other anti-social behaviour.

The policy response to urban decay has primarily been new suburban developments, often on the island’s “most fertile … A 1 soil” – such as at Bernard Lodge, on the St Catherine plain, where the Holness administration proposes a new city of 17,000 homes – to which people who can afford to, generally flee. The upshot: worsened inner-city squalor and other forms of dislocation.

There are, however, significant and too-often-overlooked positives in these blighted communities.

They tend to have the bones of infrastructure – roads, water and, sometimes, sewage systems, although in disrepair.

SALVAGEABLE HOUSING STOCK

Further, a goodly portion of the housing stock is salvageable. The downside, though, is that people who live in these communities often cannot afford to repair the properties or have no titles to the real estate, either because they lack the wherewithal to acquire them, have tenuous or informal tenancy, or are squatters in tenements.

It cannot be beyond the competence and creative imagination of the Government and its shelter and built environment experts, in partnership with state and private-sector financing agencies and communities, to resolve these problems.

The National Housing Trust and Housing Agency of Jamaica might, for example, decide on, say, a three-year moratorium on, or scaling down of, investments in greenfield developments, allowing for the channelling of around J$25 billion a year to urban renewal. That money could also be used to leverage private capital, while qualified inner-city residents would bring to the table the real estate they own or control and/or sweat equity.

The need for urban renewal is urgent and Mr Charles should waste no time getting about it.