Editorial

The squatting dilemma

Tuesday, August 21, 2012    

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For decades, successive Jamaican governments have battled with the issue of squatting. In fact, the problem has become so huge that the Government established a squatter management unit in 2006.

At the time, the agriculture minister, Mr Roger Clarke, acknowledged the magnitude of the problem while establishing the operational protocols of the unit.

"There will always be instances where eviction will be necessary, although this will be the option of last resort, when all other measures, as stipulated in the guidelines, have failed," Minister Clarke said.

We are not able, at this point, to comment on the effectiveness of this unit. However, what we can say with absolute surety is that squatting continues to be a big problem in this country and is contributing to environmental, health and social disorders that need to be addressed with urgency.

Recall that former Housing Minister Dr Horace Chang told us two years ago that there are approximately one million squatters in the country.

So pervasive is the issue that there is a confluence of thinking in both the previous and present administrations on a legislative response.

In November 2010, then Government Senator Dennis Meadows called for legislation to criminalise squatting, as he expressed concern about its adverse "impact on the socio-economic fabric of the society resulting in crime and other anti-social behaviour".

Early last month, Dr Morais Guy, the minister without portfolio in the housing ministry, told residents at a function in St Mary that the Government is moving to enact legislation to make squatting a criminal offence.

The intention, Dr Guy explained, is to amend the Trespass Act so that squatting, now a civil offence, will attract criminal penalties.

It's not difficult to understand why there is agreement with that position, because occupation of other people's property is not only illegal, but contributes to social disorder.

It also inhibits investment. Potential entrepreneurs whose buildings and lands have been captured or who have witnessed such occurrences will obviously have reason to believe that there is not enough protection for them to risk doing business.

As the situation now stands, it is difficult, even with a court order, to regain possession of captured land for fear of violence and the interference of politicians.

But even as the Administration moves to adopt a tough policy on squatting, it cannot ignore the large chunk of the population that is in dire need of shelter. Most of those people are impoverished, unemployed and unskilled. We need look no further than last week's untidy eviction of several squatter families from private land on Duke Street in Kingston to recognise the hard realities.

There are, we know, many programmes geared at improving the lives of such individuals. It appears, however, that the needs outweigh the resources.

Solving this problem, we submit, will require more than the usual government push to provide affordable housing. It needs a heavy focus on education and creating the climate for investment which, in turn, will provide jobs that will give people the economic power to purchase property.

It also demands a culture change among those politicians who have been turning a blind eye to squatting, or who have been encouraging it because they value such communities as safe pockets of votes.

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