“De horse run way long time ago now you come to shut de door”
– from “Hard Ears”, Romeo, 1992.
As the matter of the illegal housing settlement at Rock Hall in St. Philip re-emerges after disappearing from our collective radar for over a decade, a solution has been proffered, but, as expected, the excuses as to why squatting was allowed to get out of hand have been flying fast and furious.
At last week’s post-Cabinet news conference, Prime Minister Mottley expressed her concern about the matter, emphasising the fact that some of the properties were built on a former landfill, which could create significant health problems. She said at least two Government agencies were preparing to survey the residents, after which they would try to find new accommodation for them.
She said: “Twelve years ago, we recommended that for people below the poverty line, earning $1,500 a month or less, they would get a grant for $25,000, but they would have to pay their own labour costs, but for anyone above that, Government will be offering loan facilities.”
The area MP Indar Weir contends that people gravitated towards squatter settlements because they “have no choice and nowhere to turn”.
In reference to his survey of residents, Weir said: “We are making sure we identify the people living below the poverty line, and many of their names will show up at the Welfare Department, at the Rural and Urban Development Commissions, and the National Housing Corporation.” With this statement, he implied that these people had submitted their names to those state-run agencies but had not heard anything from them.
If that is the case, why does this problem persist? Under the last administration, no fewer than two Ministers of Housing outlined plans for a wide range of “housing solutions” across the island. Some projects did come to pass, notably the high-rise Country Road, Valery and Grotto complexes, all in St. Michael.
But what has happened to the other projects that were in the pipeline? Has the current administration looked into the status of those projects, and if they are stalled, do they know why, and what plans are there to resurrect them? Has BERT ruled them out as unfeasible?
The Barbadian thirst for land ownership is part of our national DNA. Many face serious challenges when they rent homes or apartments, from high prices to lax landlords to deplorable condition. Despite a threat from then Prime Minister Stuart to introduce formal rent control legislation nothing has come of it. The State does not carry out inspections of privately owned properties offered for rent, except for vector control or planning violations. Many landowners overcharge for substandard housing, and refuse or neglect to pay utilities they are supposed to pay and leave tenants out in the cold when those services are disconnected. Many other owners take months or sometimes years to fix structural, plumbing or electrical problems.
A resident of Rock Hall has said her decision to move came after issues with her family’s dwelling. She said: “My boyfriend learned there was a place up here where people were setting up houses.
“The situation was bad on us and we just took the opportunity.”
But building, owning and occupying a home legally is a bit more complicated than that. There are such things as title deeds, surveyor’s reports, planning permission, instruments of conveyance, house plans, not to mention legal fees.
Granted all of these are costly and take a while to process, but buying building materials and paying a contractor, which we assume these folks did, is a costly and time-consuming process, too. Many of the people in Rock Hall spoke about finding shelter for their families, but since these houses were built without the necessary paperwork, they cannot pass them onto the children when they die.
At the same briefing, the Prime Minister offered a ray of hope to the many Barbadians experiencing challenges in finding a roof to put over their heads by saying: “We recognise there is need for serious intervention regarding housing lots and housing solutions.
“We have a duty to treat to this fully and the Government must do so.
“We will work with Town Planning, and eventually there will be greater access to lots to rent, or rent to own, so that people will not feel the need to find a spot any place where they might end up in jeopardy.”
We support the Prime Minister’s statements. We look forward even more to supporting action.
Now it is up to both state agencies and private developers to make the process of homeownership easier by offering more reasonable prices for land and house for low-income homeowners.
And in Rock Hall, the Government agencies especially need to do their job and follow up on prospective clients more diligently.