Squatting: symptom, not a virus
The rate of increase in squatter settlements in Jamaica over the last decade seems to be alarming to many persons. In fact, the spread of the problem seems analogous to a viral infection that has managed to evade the natural immune system of its host.
Consequently, the effects of squatting have dominated many discussions at all levels. Though the main objective of this contribution is not to belabour the consequences of squatting, it is instructive to mention some of the most pressing ones.
Squatting has been blamed for increases in crime, both violent and non-violent ones. The use of the word ‘blame’ is not a suggestion that the subject has been wrongfully accused. In fact, the evidence points to guilt. For instance, the major business of the police is to maintain law and order in our communities. However, the difficulties associated with policing unplanned settlements are well documented. Chief among them are a lack of adequate access to such settlements, due, in part, to inadequate roadways and little or no data on the residents. These policing challenges are even more pronounced in squatter settlements. Therefore, without referring to crime data, the conjecture is that the subject is not innocent.
Other issues include those related to the environment and disaster management. Here, the accusers have found support in the many incidents where lives have been lost when there is a storm, hurricane or even heavy rains that have led to flooding. On the point of the environment, one must also look beyond squatter settlements to consider other land uses such as agriculture. Note that it is not being suggested that landowners are not guilty of practices that result in environmental degradation. However, one must admit that owners are more likely to protect their investment in land and its resources.
Additionally, on the topic of consequences, one cannot forget the land market. Here, the accusers can go beyond conjecture; they can employ the logics of economics. If the supply of a product falls, with no changes in demand, one should expect the market clearing price to be higher. On the other hand, if demand increases and supply does not respond, the consumer will have to pay more. Consumers refer to those who seek to purchase, lease or rent real property. Undoubtedly, the market for real property is the most complex of them all, so the economist’s logic must be applied carefully.
Another consequence of squatting, as it relates to the real property market, is that it adversely affects the values of those properties that are in proximity to such settlements. One may or may not be familiar with the term ‘not in my backyard’. It refers to a situation where a community or residents (NIMBIES) in a community oppose a development based on the rationale that it will result in a loss in property values, lead to increased traffic levels, and result in increased pollution and other environmental issues. It must be noted that a squatter settlement is by no means classified as a ‘development’. However, they do ‘develop’, and sometimes do so in your backyard, forcing you to become a NIMBY.
Squatting takes land out of the ‘formal’ market. As such, it reduces supply and augments the problem of scarcity. On this note, we can contextualise the housing deficit. One major input in satisfying housing demand is land. Undoubtedly, the location of the land is critical – the realtors’ wisdom informs that with regard to real estate, the most important characteristic is location, location, location! Therefore, any phenomenon that reduces land for residential use in desired locations will necessarily contribute to a worsening of the housing deficit.
The metropolitan area of Kingston and St Andrew, as well as other urban centres across Jamaica, is punctuated with squatter settlements. Though many solutions have been proposed, the most widely promoted ones include: relocation of settlements where necessary; regularisation of some settlements; and for the Government to facilitate the provision of low-cost housing. Presumably, with regard to the latter, many squatters are low-income earners and would, therefore, be provided a feasible and appealing alternative.
Specifically, some current initiatives include public-private partnerships to supply new units, revitalisation or redevelopment of existing government apartment buildings and mobilisation of money to fund deposits and low-cost mortgages. These initiatives are commendable and will provide some aid. However, we cannot cover a barrel with a bottle cap.
The extent of the housing deficit in the formal market implies that there exists latent demand. Therefore, even if we are able to employ strategies that result in increased supply of low-cost housing units in desirable locations, the gap between demand and supply for mid-to-low-income housing is substantial. As a result of this majority, Jamaicans at the bottom of the list must simply continue to wait indefinitely for their affordable housing solution or find alternative solutions – even undesirable ones.
SQUATTING, HOUSING AND THE ECONOMY
The bottom line is that these strategies may provide temporary relief, but by themselves they are not the panacea. It seems obvious that squatting, like all other problems in Jamaica, is wrapped up in our stagnant economy. The average annual growth in real output over the last decade is 0.1 per cent. In addition to this, real per-capita income has not moved substantially since the 1970s. Negligible real income growth juxtaposes increasing demand for urban living. As such, the growth in squatter settlements should not alarm anyone. Squatting is, therefore, not the virus; it is a symptom, and housing is simply a host cell.
The virus is our ailing economy. The good news is that the housing sector is an important component of the antibody. Research suggests that housing plays an important role in macroeconomic stability and by extension, economic growth. Therefore, although our housing policies are often defined in terms of social outcomes, we must also emphasise the potential economic outcomes. Housing affects the economy directly through its impact on the housing sector and, indirectly, through its impact on consumer’s wealth and behaviour. Consequently, while we press ahead with relocation, regularisation and the provision of low-cost housing, these strategies should be seen as part of a broader economic growth strategy.
For example, the link between housing and Jamaica’s labour market must be thoroughly understood and should inform our solutions. Research suggests that housing is a determinant of the rate of start-up of new businesses. This implies that housing is a complement to our agenda to stimulate local entrepreneurship. Consequently, our goal to address the symptom (squatting) presents us with an opportunity to pursue both social and economic outcomes.
It is, therefore, critical that we reject the urge to indulge in temporary relief at the expense of sustainability. The only potent antibody to squatting lies in our ability to tap into, and capitalise on, the complementary relationship between housing and economy.
• Anetheo Jackson is a lecturer in the Faculty of the Built Environment, University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to email@example.com.