Squatter landlords! Renting and selling properties

Published: Sunday | May 24, 2009

Tyrone Reid, Staff Reporter

Socio-economic research conducted by the Ministry of Water and Housing has unearthed a mushrooming trend where squatters are doubling as landlords and collecting rent for illegal houses constructed on state-owned lands.

Some are even selling off state land at pepper corn rates.

The squatter-landlord development has been spotted in both rural and urban squatter settlements.

Basil Forsythe, director of the Squatter Management Unit in the Ministry of Water and Housing, said the illegal practice is fairly widespread."Some lots you can't go on like that. You have to be prepared to pay some money," he said.

He told The Sunday Gleaner that several government agencies which own or manage state-owned lands have been lamenting the issue during quarterly meetings held to discuss squatting.

The meetings are attended by officials from the National Water Commission (NWC), the National Land Agency (NLA), the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) and other entities.

"They would report what their offices find happening. These are some of the reports you get," he said. Efforts to contact the responsible officers from the NLA, UDC and NWC on Friday were not successful.

Forsythe pointed out that some of the unlawful landlords have even 'sold' government lands to persons for $20,000 or $30,000.

Prevailing market rate

The rental charged, he said, is not substantial and is generally below the prevailing market rate. He explained that many squatter settlements are controlled by an individual or a small group of persons, usually those who first occupied the area. "You can't just move on without having some sort of link," Forsythe said.

A document titled Guidelines for Dealing with Informal Settlers (Squatters) outlined, in stern terms, that the Government will not tolerate the unlawful sale or rental of its lands. "Persons who have captured government land and are illegally renting, leasing or selling portions to others will be identified and prosecuted," read a section of the document obtained from the Housing Agency of Jamaica, formerly the National Housing Development Corporation.

The head of the Squatter Management Unit also pointed out that some unlawful tenants who have constructed houses on government land started out paying rent to another illegal occupant before moving out into "their 'own' home".

Doreen Prendergast, senior director of housing solutions in the ministry, was not immediately able to say how much the squatters were charging their 'tenants'.

Conducting research, which includes collecting socio-economic data on squatter settlements, falls under the purview of the housing solutions division.

Prendergast said data from the ministry's research showed that "varying sums" were being charged by the fake landlords.

"You always come across samples of persons who are paying rent. It is not unusual to come across scenarios like that," she said.

Last month, the ministry demolished six houses in Cullouden, Westmoreland that were built on government lands. Minister of Water and Housing Dr Horace Chang revealed that the decisive action was taken after the unlawful residents started to collect rent.

"The problem became severe, however, when they began to rent house spots on the property to which they had no legal claim," Chang said in a release.

Illegal dwellings

Chang noted that the demolition of illegal dwellings in Cullouden was in sync with the ministry's policy framework.

"Where cooperation and dialogue fail, the ministry must be decisive. Demolition only becomes necessary when all other efforts fail," he said.

In mid-April, Chang stunned his parliamentary colleagues and the nation when he announced that one-third of the population or approximately 900,000 persons are occupying lands illegally.

During that sitting of the Standing Finance Committee of Parliament concerns were raised about about an insufficient sum set aside in the 2009-10 Estimates of Expenditure to deal with squatter management. The document shows almost $6 million allocated to the Ministry of Water and Housing's Squatter Management Unit.

In the 2008-2009 Budget, some $8.7 million was earmarked for squatter management, but this was later reduced to $4.8 million in the revised estimates.

The executive summary of another document captioned Assessment of Squatting in Jamaica showed that the ministry has identified a total of 754 squatter settlements. The document was prepared in 2008. "The assessment revealed three types of squatting in Jamaica: agricultural, residential and commercial, the most dominant being residential," read a section of the 2008 study. Some 320 squatter settlements were surveyed for the 2008 study. Sixty-six per cent of them have been in existence for more than 20 years.

While some relatively small squatter settlements had less than 10 units or households per site, some large settlements have more than 2,000 households.