Editorial | Prioritise urban renewal
Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ recent reiteration of his Government’s commitment to urban renewal is welcome.
However, rescuing large sections of Jamaica’s towns and cities from the blight with which they have been overtaken demands something far deeper, more fundamental, and greater coordination, than the piecemeal projects now being undertaken. It needs a process more akin to what was implied when, after the 2020 elections, Mr Holness made urban renewal a specific portfolio subject of a dedicated housing ministry.
Unfortunately, that concept didn’t survive for long. Urban renewal is again spread across several ministries, thus lacking focused attention.
The Government is pledged to provide 70,000 homes and/or housing starts during its current five-year term, as well as spend around J$1 billion annually on social housing, including in repairing existing homes and constructing new ones. The administration says it is on track with those targets. However, most of the new constructions are greenfield suburban developments, or high-rise complexes in the choicest parts of the urban areas.
Similarly, there is the Government’s planned new city of between 14,000 and 17,000 homes on 2,373 acres of land at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, the former sugar estate which the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) described as having Jamaica’s “most fertile … A1 soil”.
Separate from the Bernard Lodge project, where much preliminary work, including sub-divisions, has already been done, Mr Holness has floated the possibility of another new city in south-western Jamaica, in the parish of St Elizabeth.
However, the construction boom of recent years hasn’t reached the island’s gritty, crime-affected inner-city communities where people often live in overcrowded tenements, many of them contributing to the estimated 900,000 Jamaicans, or the one-third of the population, who are deemed to be squatters, or residents of informal settlements.
Last week, Mr Holness announced that his Government, as part of the programme of redressing Jamaica’s historic problem of landownership and informal settlements, was identifying marginal lands on which to build subsidised homes for people who have been forced to squat. And during the Budget debate in June, the prime minister disclosed the allocation of J$252 million for an urban upgrading project that includes the removal of rusty zinc fences from around homes, the construction of community parks, the replacement of street signs and the paving of sidewalks and pathways. Each of the island’s 63 MPs would be allowed J$4 million for projects in their constituencies.
The Gleaner agrees with Mr Holness that urban decay and blight threatens “sustainable development” and that renewal is critical to improving people’s quality of life. So, schemes like this one have a place.
But the scale of the decay in urban Jamaica – where an estimated 57 per cent of the population lives – is too enormous to be overcome by small-bore approaches – as a quick drive through the inner-city areas of the Kingston metropolitan area, or Spanish Town, St Catherine, will reveal. The same goes for May Pen, Clarendon, Montego Bay, St James, Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland. And many other towns across the island. The fix insists on a big, concerted intervention.
There is strong logic for it being done, not least of which is the economic and social returns from fixing these communities.
These socially and economically deprived neighbourhoods are generally the incubators of the island’s gangs, blamed for over 60 per cent of Jamaica’s more than 1,500 murders a year. Gang shootings injure dozens of people. Further, most estimates say that crime costs Jamaica between five and seven per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually.
At the same time, properly functioning cities and urban communities, where people live close to the services they use and consume – schools, hospitals, government institutions, and so on – are inherently more efficient. In this sense, size and proximity matter.
There is something else in favour of renewing urban communities. In many cases, good bones and rehabilitable infrastructure exist, including salvageable homes, roads and, in some cases, basic water and sewage services.
What, generally, people who live in these communities don’t have is money, or the means to collateralise their possessions. They often lack titles to the properties they either own or control.
It can’t be beyond the competence and imagination of Jamaicans to overcome such hurdles, especially if turning back urban decay were a national priority. In that event, the resources of state institutions agencies, such as the National Housing Trust (NHT) and the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ), can be leveraged in concert with those of private sector and international partners (as well as the equity of community members) to generate financing for these medium to long-term projects, which would enjoy tax breaks to enhance their attractiveness to the private partners.
One idea of how seeding a major urban renewal undertaking might be approached is that the NHT for, say five years, halves its spending on greenfield developments, and instead steer the money to redevelopment schemes. Done at scale, the demonstration effect would be powerful.