Patricia Green | In search of tangible solutions for housing conundrum
With keen interest I followed the Office of the Prime Minister town hall meeting on ‘Housing and Land: Building Jamaica’, held on August 31 in Montego Bay. The prime minister repeatedly stated, “I am the minister of housing.” It was good to hear that the nation has a minister of housing.
The programme was interesting and included visual presentations by Lois Edwards Bourne of the National Land Agency, Doreen Prendergast of the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ), and Martin Miller of the National Housing Trust (NHT). These were followed by Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett, Minister of National Security Dr Horace Chang, culminating with Minister of Housing Andrew Holness who passionately empathised that Jamaicans have faced challenges over housing and land.
This town hall meeting was advertised by the Jamaica Information Service as focused on residents of St James and neighbouring parishes. It was the second in a series of town hall meetings being hosted by the Government to engage the public on a range of issues relating to policies, programmes and initiatives impacting their lives. Critically, it was to provide an opportunity for citizens to share ideas, pose questions and express their thoughts. Sadly, the citizens were advised after all those presentations that they had less than 15 minutes to pose their questions in-person, and virtually online.
I learnt much from the citizens, also from the answers they received. The exchanges were extremely enlightening. They demonstrated that citizens are facing real, even poignant challenges.
Overall, there were seven questions permitted at the town hall meeting, and I summarise these, while I stand corrected if necessary, as:
(1) Why am I allowed to use NHT financing only to purchase NHT schemes versus being able to purchase housing on the open market?
(2) When will workers in government, some with over six years of service, be given posts instead of contract work? This question is possibly tied to receiving NHT benefits.
(3) How much longer, after making the requisite payments eleven years ago, should anyone wait to receive a title for lands that a family grouping has been living on for over one hundred years?
(4) Who will “regularise” communities deemed “capture lands”, socially labelled globally as “squatting”, where communities have existed there for over fifty years, yet since the past twenty years have been receiving regularisation promises from government?
(5) What do self-employed persons need to accumulate points/scores for selection for NHT or HAJ housing?
(6) Where do persons who have committed crimes go to receive expungement so that they may be able to get jobs, thereby being eligible to benefit in house and land schemes? A response came from the Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs Marlene Malahoo Forte, elaborated on by Minister Chang, that there were some amendments to the act in 2014 and 2015. The Ministry of Justice website provides this definition, “...expungement is having a conviction removed from one’s criminal/police record after a specific period of time has elapsed and after certain requirements have been met. The Statute which authorises the expungement of criminal records is the Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) Act, 1988...”.
(7) Whither shall I go as a “lower-class” person who, just like my mother before me, has been trying to make a living in the tourism industry, and me now suffering marginalisation from Indian traders, thereby being unable to make any adequate living to get NHT and HAJ house and land?
There were constant reminders that citizens should refer their questions to the agencies who had booths at the event. It was poignant because some had expressed frustration in that the agencies appeared unable to give clear understanding or bring about resolutions. Therefore, they came to present their cases directly to the minister of housing.
Imagine my surprise to read the media reports on this Montego Bay town hall meeting: Country Poised for Sustainable Growth and Lower Unemployment – PM; Holness: My mind is not on election; Gov’t to undertake US$209m water improvement project in north-western parishes; houses for tourism workers in the west.
Have there been headlines previously on housing for tourism workers? I decided to do a search:
• 2010 January – Housing soon for tourism workers.
• 2012 May – Chinese to build homes for tourism workers.
• 2012 July – Gov’t promises better housing package for tourism workers.
• 2016 February – Pension scheme and housing for tourism workers.
• 2018 March – Alarming number of tourism workers don’t own homes – Wehby.
• 2018 May – TEF pumping $1billion into housing projects for tourism workers.
• 2020 March – Tourism workers in HAJ’s cross hairs.
• 2020 March – Jobseekers creating housing crisis in MoBay.
• 2022 January – Tourism workers will be assisted to find affordable housing – Bartlett.
• 2022 November – Holness lauds hotel group’s plan to build houses for resort workers.
• 2023 January – Spanish hotels pledge to build 2,000 homes for workers.
All this has demonstrated that housing issues have remained for many years, and across changing administrations. How to break this seems a steep hurdle. I believe that this crisis may be rooted in colonial governmental legacies and practices that persist today, which Jamaican citizens are contending with on a daily basis.
Through the entrenchment of plantation slavery, housing and land denial to persons of African descent in Jamaica have been particularly heightened in the western parishes which contain large property expanses of former sugar estates. Many of these former plantation lands have become “crown lands” under the authority of government. I therefore recommend that issues surrounding housing and land may only be resolved at the highest governmental level through implementing radical and innovative local decolonisation interventions.
Where will be the next town hall meeting? I suggest in the Kingston and St Andrew Area (KSA). ‘Citizens’ Rights to the City,’ with approximately 30 neighbourhood associations, has been asking for years to discuss house and land issues pertaining to the 2017 Provisional Development Order. Now confirmed in 2023, this Order permits increased densities for multifamily buildings of mid- and high-rise units, arbitrarily inside private-dwelling-house neighbourhoods.
A question may arise at such a town hall meeting over statements made by Education Minister Fayval Williams as member of parliament on behalf of the Government. At a groundbreaking ceremony for a multifamily development, Williams announced “...I love to see progress … there are a number of multifamily buildings that have gone up, are in the process of going up and on the drawing board...”. The minister of housing may need to clarify why the Development Order (Confirmation) appears to have eliminated from the KSA, neighbourhoods of private dwelling houses surrounded by gardens.
Patricia Green, PhD, a registered architect and conservationist, is an independent scholar and advocate for the built and natural environment. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com