Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Government's Plan for Slum-Dwellers Under Fire
By Dionne Jackson Miller, IPS, 8 October 1999
MONTEGO BAY, Oct 8 (IPS) - Forty-eight year old Sybil Erskine has lived for years in a small wooden shack in the middle of one of Montego Bay's inner city ghettoes.
She has raised her nine children next to stagnant, stinking gutters, and near to garbage-choked alleys. "The place is not sanitary so we'd like to move," she says, "When the government is ready, we're moving."
But the new government programme recently announced here to relocate slum-dwellers like Erskine to healthy, clean communities is attracting criticism because of its proposed source of funding.
The cost of the programme called "Relocation 2000" has not yet been announced, but will certainly run into millions of Jamaican dollars. The cash-strapped government is looking for funding from the National Housing Trust (NHT) an agency financed by a special tax on wages, and with the specific mandate "to provide shelter for its contributors in an equitable and efficient manner", according to its mission statement.
The Trust provides loans to build houses, purchase on the open market, and also builds houses.
The NHT was set up in 1976, and has been one of the government's success stories, in a country where public sector agencies are often accused of political favouritism, corruption and inefficiency.
In its 1998/99 financial year, the NHT delivered 7,058 housing solutions island-wide, amounting to 100 million dollars in mortgages.
Projections this year are for 6,905 housing solut ions, with mortgages amounting to 107 million dollars.
While often lauded for its work, however, NHT officials admit that the Trust cannot, on its own, meet the local demand for housing. The NHT recently received more than 18,000 applications for 845 housing solutions, which many say is an indication of the country's chronic housing needs.
Against that background came Prime Minister Percival Patterson's announcement, that the agency will be bankrolling housing projects for non-contributors in the inner cities.
Many inner city residents are either unemployed, under- employed or self employed and pay no taxes. But the Prime Minister clearly stated that non-contributors will not be excluded.
"I have said to the National Housing Trust, yes, your primary obligation is to contributors, but like any other institution or entity in the nation, you have to make some contribution that extends beyond the confines of your contributors to the national good," Patterson says.
This is the position which has sparked controversy. Both the country's opposition parties - the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the National Democratic Movement (NDM) have come out against the NHT's participation in Relocation 2000.
They charge that having itself so far failed to effectively address the problem of squatting and slum living, the government is now trying to get one of the country's best run public sector agencies to shoulder the burden.
"My concern has to do with non-contributors benefiting from the NHT Fund," says Michael Stern, spokesman on housing for the NDM. "Only 15 percent of persons who have put (money) into this fund have benefited. And if 15 percent of the people are benefiting, we ought to increase the (contributors) who will benefit."
In fact, only 10 percent of the contributors have received NHT benefits, which is one of the factors prompting the JLP spokesman on land and development, Andrew Holness to insist that the NHT should stick to its original mandate.
"The squatter problem not only involves relocation, it involves the development of infrastructure, it involves developing the community, and that requires a different framework from the NHT framework," he says.
"If you're an NHT contributor and you default on your loan, you lose your house. But you put a squatter into an NHT built home and he defaults, what next? So you have to have an institution that's going to deal with the social work aspect of developing," says Holness.
Economist Dr. Omri Evans says it sets a bad precedent for the government to utilise funds in an institution for any purpose other than that originally intended.
"They should find alternative funding," he says. "The (NHT) contributors should be the beneficiaries. Like anything else, once the opportune time comes, the mandates for which these institutions are set up are changed. It's undisciplined."
There are also concerns that the programme may not have been well thought out and may result in social problems. As one indication of this, critics cite the government's intention to move more than 300 inner city families from Railway Lane in Montego Bay, to land adjacent to a middle class housing scheme at Cornwall Court.
Cornwall Court residents have mixed views on this issue.
"I think round here would be appropriate for them, they really need it like how they're in the ghetto. We don't mind having them as our neighbours, even though they're from Railway Lane," says one man.
Other residents, however, express fears of falling property values, if unemployed home-owners prove unable to maintain their properties.
"You talk about orderly development, but you find people setting up all kinds of ramshackle places next to your place that you pay millions for," says one resident. "It only serves to devalue your property. That is unreasonable."
Some also cite a fear of increased crime.
"I'm a bit scared," says one woman. "Those people from the ghetto, they are very violent, maybe you can find one or two good ones, but I'm scared."
Whether soon-to-be neighbours are scared or not, however, appears to be beside the point. Patterson has announced that the first set of inner city residents will be moved within the next six months. Hundreds of other families will be moved from two other sites elsewhere in the country by August next year.
"I am not tolerating any foolishness from anybody," he says. "We have to get this job done on time."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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