Editorial | Launch assault on urban decay

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The case of Walter Duncan, who sleeps rough in downtown Kingston, as was reported by this newspaper on Wednesday, underlines the nexus between poverty and homelessness and their intersection with our decayed inner-city communities. It provides an opportunity, too, for a serious discussion on creative approaches to urban renewal, which, unfortunately, has happened only in fits and starts.

Mr Duncan used to live on Tower Street, one of the most blighted parts of the city, until, in circumstances that are opaque, he lost his home. His situation worsened with the loss of a steady source of livelihood. He used to sell coconuts on the Kingston waterfront, until the area where he did business saw the first flush of gentrification. New restaurants and shops are there. Mr Duncan’s rickety handcart, understandably, is no longer welcome.

He now does odd jobs. At night, he sleeps atop the sea wall. At 57, homeless, and without a steady income, Walter Duncan isn’t in a position to rent, much less purchase, a decent home. He isn’t unique. His situation, including many people in better economic circumstances, is replicated in the Kingston Metropolitan Area and across Jamaica. They live in tenements, where they squat, rent, or own homes they can’t afford to repair.

Indeed, the oft-quoted data is that an estimated 900,000, and up to one million, Jamaicans either squat or live in informal communities, mostly in urban settings. Around 20,000 homes are required annually to cut into the backlog of housing need, but, on average, fewer than 6,000 are delivered. Most of these are unaffordable to people who require shelter the most.

Further, for the better part of half century, most of the homes built in Jamaica have been greenfield developments that have encroached on the island’s most fertile lands, as would be the case with Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ proposed city of 17,000 homes on 1,300 acres on what the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) describes as «the most fertile soils in the island…Class 1 soils».

It is not surprising that of the 37 per cent of Jamaica that was deemed fertile enough for agriculture, less than 20 per cent is now available, with most of the reduction, according to agricultural officials, coinciding with the suburban expansions of the last 50 years.

This expropriation of farmland, if it continues, will likely carry an additional cost, beyond the need for infrastructure and services to support the new communities. Scientists warn that with global warming and climate change, agricultural yields could fall by a third, which, if all things remain equal, it will require 33 per cent more land to grow the same amount of food. Fertile lands should be a premium for crops, rather than concrete.

REDEEMABLE HOUSING STOCK Brownfield projects, very few of which have happened in Jamaica, increasingly make sense from a social, environmental and economic standpoint. It is widely accepted that the grittiness of decayed urban areas contribute to the social dysfunction that attend many of these communities. Yet, these urban areas possess many of the bones, even if creaky, that would make renewal feasible – roads, water, and sewage. Much of their housing stock is also redeemable.

The problem is that the decay in most of Jamaica’s urban communities is so expansive that renewal can’t be piecemeal. It demands overarching direction. In any event, most people who live in these communities are without the means to undertake the refurbishment of properties. Their poverty, however, as economist Hernando de Soto analysed of poor people globally, doesn’t mean that they are without capital. The question is how to harness it. This must be part of the conversation in a search for a broad mix of solutions to urban decay, where displacement by gentrification isn’t the sole option.

It can’t, for instance, be beyond the imagination of policymakers to devise ways to leverage the resources of government institutions – such as the National Housing Trust, the Housing Agency of Jamaica, and Project HOPE – private capital and the capital of inner-city residents, including sweat equity, for a major, and sustained assault on urban decay. Though its management has become a by-word for corruption, Operation PRIDE of the 1990s had conceptual ideas worth revisiting.

LINK ORIGINAL: Jamaica Gleaner

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