Mon | Dec 9, 2019

Editorial | Rally gives HOPE to inner-city renewal

Published:Thursday | July 18, 2019 | 12:17 AM

Last month, when he named Danville Walker as head of the inner-city housing renewal under the HOPE programme, whose primary aim is to provide opportunities for at-risk young people, Prime Minister Andrew Holness didn’t disclose the specifics of the mandate he had assigned to Mr Walker.

“The idea,” the PM said at a leadership retreat for officials of his ministry, “is to support the development of affordable housing solutions right across Jamaica.” A primary focus of the project will be “tenements and big yards”, the usually urban, zinc-fenced, run-down houses and shacks that many Jamaicans make their homes.

A month on, the public has been offered no greater clarity on the matter, or how the HOPE scheme will interface with other state-supported shelter/housing programmes, such as those provided by the National Housing Trust, the payroll tax-funded agency to which employees contribute two per cent of their incomes and borrow at below-market rates for mortgages.

What was revealed, however, is that Mr Walker has J$1 billion to spend this fiscal year. The issue for this newspaper is how this cash, with the application of creative thinking and hard work, might be leveraged to several multiples of the original amount to start a major assault on Jamaica’s urban blight.

Indeed, it is common ground that as many as 900,000 Jamaicans, or one-third of the population, live in tenements or informal communities, with little or no social services. And, of an estimated demand for 15,000 homes a year, only around 4,000 are being delivered, and most of these are not affordable to the people who need them most.

Given its tight fiscal situation and competing demands for limited resources, the Government has not only to establish priorities, but to be efficient and creative in getting the most value out of every dollar spent. With high levels of unemployment and crime, and a sense of hopelessness, urban renewal is an area of expenditure, if done correctly, from which taxpayers can extract significant returns.

In recent decades, the national penchant is for greenfield housing developments, which often means encroachment on the island’s limited fertile lands, such as is being promoted by Prime Minister Holness with his planned new city at Bernard Lodge, which would put under concrete thousands of acres of what even the Government’s environmental agency concedes to be “the most fertile soils in the island”.

COMMUNITY REDEVELOPMENT

This newspaper’s view is that any money to be spent on a new vanity city should be directed to the redevelopment of communities such as those around National Heroes Circle, where Mr Holness wants to build a new parliament building. These communities include Allman Town, Kingston Gardens, Woodford Park, Fletcher’s Land, and Torrington Park.

Like blighted urban areas such as Olympic Gardens and communities off Bay Farm Road in West Central Andrew, which Mr Holness might know well, they come with the advantage of having, even if severely stressed, basic infrastructure – roads, water and, in some cases, sewerage systems. Many of the homes have rehabilitatable bones, or more. Moreover, they have armies of idle young people, most of whom, if properly motivated, are willing to work.

Many people in these communities can’t afford to upgrade their homes. They are not, however, totally without resources, some of which may be cash, or possibly seed equity, which can be quantified and pooled through institutions such as friendly societies or trusts and combined with government resources. These can be leveraged to raise private-sector and international donor capital for a renewal project.

Any such endeavour, though, will demand hard, concentrated effort and political will, including members of parliament and councillors working with community members to build trust and devise projects. These can’t be solely top-down initiatives, or ones in which capital is skimmed from the top and little value is returned on money spent. In other words, it has to be directed from the highest level of Government – the prime minister, who must believe in and want it done.