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EDITORIAL - Squatting: difficult terrain for politicians

Published:Monday | April 16, 2012 | 12:00 AM

The reprieve given 73 squatters who now live at government-owned premises at 87 Beeston Street in Kingston may have sent encouraging signals to others who are illegally occupying land and property all across Jamaica. It is estimated that about one million persons, or nearly one-third of the population, are squatters either on government or privately owned property, mostly in our urban centres.

In a flurry of media reports last week, the nation was made aware that some 73 persons had turned the abandoned Traffic Court at 87 Beeston Street into their home. Having been served with an eviction notice, they turned to Member of Parliament Desmond McKenzie, who gathered his leader, Andrew Holness, and colleague spokesman on housing, Dr Horace Chang, and together they dashed to the scene to plead the residents' case for an extension.

This activism by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) top brass on behalf of squatters seems to suggest that the party does not even understand the logic of its own commitment to tackle the squatter problem while it formed the Government.

It was Dr Chang, then minister of water and housing, who brought the stark figures into the public domain and spoke decisively of initiatives to tackle this problem. And JLP Senator Dennis Meadows brought a motion to the Upper House calling for squatting to be criminalised. So why on earth is the Opposition defending a practice which it tried so hard to discourage?

This looks, surprisingly, like political opportunism because squatting is surely not the answer to a housing problem. But perhaps Mr McKenzie has the answer, for he was quoted, when he served as mayor of Kingston, as saying that squatting communities represented safe votes for one or other of the major political parties.

The well-documented difficulties with squatting should have made Minister Robert Pickersgill profoundly reluctant to suspend the May 9 eviction notice for the Beeston Street residents.

However, Mr Pickersgill and his opposition counterparts have demonstrated once again that squatting is, perhaps, the most difficult terrain for politicians to traverse. It was too much to expect that the Government would have stuck to its decision.

Taking tough decisions

Not too long ago, there was a demonstration by squatters after the police attempted to uproot them from their Dumfries Road settlement in New Kingston. Now, squatting has provoked fresh controversy at Beeston Street. Undoubtedly, we will see many such demonstrations in the future because the Squatter Management Unit appears unable to deal with the magnitude of the squatter problem.

The causes of squatting are several. Among the reasons cited are rural-urban drift, the inability of Government to meet the housing needs of the urban poor, and the unchecked population growth of the poor.

The implications of squatting are many. They include overcrowding, criminal activity, inhuman living conditions, and degradation of the environment. And the costs associated with trying to address these problems are enormous to the society as a whole.

Until our politicians are prepared to take hard, unpopular decisions to make the fundamental changes that will transform the way the country's affairs are managed, it is safe to predict there will be no end to the social and economic problems that Jamaica will face.

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