Mark Ricketts | Illegal settlements need action, not talk
Squatting, captured land, illegal settlements are not only islandwide and expansive, but they have gone upscale, cheek by jowl, with Parliament.
In last Sunday's Gleaner, senior writer Erica Virtue reported, "An undetermined number of families are
now living on a government-owned property attached to Gordon House. These families have illegally occupied the property for years in spite of the rattling from members of successive administrations about the dangers of squatting. Even with the proximity, officials of both parties said they were unaware that squatters were at the doorsteps of Gordon House."
What makes this amazing is that beyond the issue of nearness to our legislative authority, and government ownership of the property, most illegal settlements pay no property taxes; enjoy what is deemed by occupants as social water (that is, free water, to which they are entitled) and oftentimes; with wires strewn all over the place; have illegal hook-ups to JPS, which are dangerous.
Recent fires and the cries of those who have lost everything and have nowhere to go speak volumes as to the occupants' vulnerability. Adding to their horror are the deplorable and inhuman conditions in which some of them live - no proper sewage disposal system, and the excessive pile-up of garbage even on the property next door to our Parliament, or the huge garbage dump and general filth in another location, which nobody in authority was aware of until a fire a few days ago laid bare the reality of people's existence.
Mayor of Kingston
Even Kingston's mayor, on seeing the huge dump with the likelihood of toxic fumes, could not believe that so many men, women, and children could have lived so close to such a mound of garbage.
While we indulge in irrelevant chatter about unrepresentative polling on Twitter identifying whether Jamaicans are better off, we have not addressed the fundamental issue of whether Jamaica itself is better off when more than 700,000 continue to live in illegal settlements, and the number is increasing every day, and income inequality, which is terrible, is getting worse every year.
Instead of serious action, we maintain the mirage with non-productive chatter. Here is Dr Peter Phillips' latest suggestions on squatting;
1) Releasing government lands for titling where communities exist or to replace the squatter communities;
2) investing at least $10 billion of uncollected National Housing Trust refunds to refinance an islandwide Squatter Community Transformation Programme.
Land reform, titling, and ownership have been critical components of the PNP policy agenda from 1938, but achievements have always fallen short of expectations. The PNP was in charge of government 41 of 56 years since 1972 when there were accelerated increases in squatting and land being captured in spite of the party's emphasis on land reform.
Land reform is a useful idea for micro-adjustments and for offering some equity to the seriously disadvantaged, but with our Constitution, it cannot be a wholesale policy prescription for redistribution and redressing centuries-old inequities.
In recent years, governments have wiped the slate clean of billions in uncollected property taxes, and the NHT has wiped out some $50 billion in outstanding amounts owed and sourced $20 billion to satisfy government budget needs and still have legitimate subscribers to satisfy. How much more can Dr Phillips ask of the NHT?
Prime Minister Andrew Holness' solution to squatting is: "We will build up housing to satisfy the outstanding demand, and we will build each year to ensure that the market for housing clears, and then you will not have a squatting problem. This is not a promise, not a gimmick, not appealing to any emotions. This is about getting it done, and we will get it done." In whose lifetime, may I ask?
That statement by the PM is a pipe dream similar to his election promise that crime would soon be reduced to the point where everyone can sleep with their doors and windows open.
Housing solutions are about the existing stock, the annual supply, the location and composition of available offerings, ordered planning, zoning, land use and density, respect for ownership of property, respect for the ruling of judges, income levels, overall demand, and economic growth.
Squatting is not a JLP thing or a PNP thing. As with the PNP, ever since the JLP administration took the reins of government, more land is captured every day and illegal settlements are being expanded.
The number of people currently benefiting from illegal settlements, social water, and no property taxes is more than a quarter of our population. This means that the economy would have to grow at least five per cent annually, starting today, for a significant dent to be made on squatting and capturing land.
The inequality in incomes and the current cost of construction has meant that large numbers of NHT subscribers cannot qualify to purchase a home.
The lawyer of a wife who lives overseas, and who has a court ruling against the squatters, and whose husband was killed on their 867-acre property in Little Bay, Westmoreland, years ago, was on radio recently pleading for help to remove squatters off his client's land so that she can sell her property. She has been threatened with the phrase, "Lady, if you ever come back ... !"
Listen to the PNP MP Dr Wykeham McNeill in whose constituency Little Bay falls. "They, the squatters, have been on the lands 20, 30, 40 years, and I have known them for years. I was negotiating in 2004 with both sides and it ended up in bloodshed." The MP concedes that there is a judgment but brushes it aside, saying, "There is a view that there are other sides to the judgment."
Court of Appeal Judge Patrick Brooks, in April this year, argued that Parliament should take another look at the Limitation of Actions Act, specifically its negative effects on property owners whose landholdings are taken over by squatters.
After a court order stated that people said to be squatting on 85 Red Hills Road were to be evicted, Minister Karl Samuda proclaimed that "the Government would be moving to acquire the property and any judge who declares that a person who claims to own the land, whether it is so or not, has the right to evict the people is not to be tolerated".
No, Mr Holness. Squatting will be with us for a long time. As seen from the examples above, neither party has the vision, resolve, and the strength of leadership to do the right thing.