The will to act
Bulldozers moved in recently, tearing down structures in a small shantytown on Hamster Road, off Faith Avenue, in southern New Providence.
Somewhere between 50 and 60 people who lived there have found alternative housing after being asked to vacate the land, according to Janet Brown, a member of the United Haitian Bahamian Association, whose family owns the property.
Brown’s father, Willie Georges, had farmed the land, and when he died in 1991, the family allowed his workers to remain on the property.
Those living there developed it into a substandard community.
Brown and her family recently gave them notice to leave.
“When [Minister of Labour Dion Foulkes] and his team had a meeting where they invited all the Haitian leaders, I was one of them that attended the meeting,” she said, referring to the meeting of the Shantytown Action Task Force.
“He spoke about the things that the government had planned and what they wanted to accomplish. We came back and spoke to the folks, giving them the opportunity to look for other places. We gave them a notice to vacate.”
Brown explained that most of those on the land relocated to apartment complexes; in some instances, two families are sharing a two-bedroom apartment to help cover the rent.
Now, Brown and her family intend to undertake a housing development on the land, which was once home to shantytown dwellers.
The removal of the shantytown is a small success story for the task force, headed by Foulkes, who insists the initiative the government has embarked upon to rid the country of these communities is a serious effort.
Brown, who has been working with the task force, said she understands and appreciates what the government is seeking to do.
“What I do appreciate is how they’re doing it in a humane manner, in a sense that they’re not just coming and bulldozing the areas,” she told National Review.
“They’re talking to people. That’s something we didn’t have in the past, where communication was given on both sides, letting them know what was happening and for us to also provide feedback.
“The Haitian leaders meet with the committee and we’re aware of what is happening, and we also inform our people as to what is going on in the community.”
Asked whether the residents had challenges leaving the land, Brown said, “The residents, they don’t have a challenge in leaving. The basic thing with most of them is where they’re going to go and the rent.
“Even though they have some income coming in, the rent is normally like $600 to $700 per month and relocating from shantytowns to actual apartments, coming up with first month rent, last month and security deposit is a little rough on some of them.”
Brown said her family covered the cost of demolishing the structures.
The government has committed to tearing down the structures in all shantytowns that do not meet the building code.
As a part of the effort, Foulkes has committed to meeting with landowners and leaseholders.
The process of getting rid of the Hamster Road community seemingly went smoothly, but that was a small shantytown, compared to many others across The Bahamas.
What to do about them is a more difficult question to addresss.
Successive governments have vowed a crackdown on shantytowns.
After coming to office in 2012, then Prime Minister Perry Christie underscored the need to tackle the shantytown problem.
“We all live in an environment where we must ensure that we do everything to protect the health of all people living in this country,” Christie said.
“So the government cannot allow such situations to exist. So we’re [going to] have to address the issue. We have the will to do so. We have to begin.”
Ken Dorsett, at the time minister for the environment and housing, announced that a Special Project Unit (SPU) was created within his ministry to address infractions and environmental concerns surrounding shantytowns.
The Department of Environmental Health Services said it had received numerous complaints from Bahamians and residents over the years about the presence of these communities.
A report covering 2012-2015, which was released by Dorsett some time after the formation of the unit, noted that while, for many decades these illegal communities were thought to be predominantly occupied by illegals, it was discovered that, over time, this was no longer the case. Bahamians were also residents or frequent guests.
The report was compiled by Department of Environmental Health Services officials who visited shantytowns across the country.
It said, “While many environmental issues were found, the most alarming was the lack of proper toilet facilities, the presence of faecal coliform in water, the many derelict vehicles on the properties and the improper disposal of garbage.
“Because of this, the Ministry of the Environment and Housing, the Ministry of Works and Urban Renewal, along with other relevant ministries and government agencies, began the dismantling of shantytowns, beginning in New Providence.
“Many makeshift structures were removed from large properties such as Joe Farrington Road, Faith Avenue North and Sea Breeze Lane in New Providence and Treasure Cay in Abaco.”
Still, when the Progressive Liberal Party left office, these communities were still flourishing.
According to Foulkes, there are 11 shantytowns on New Providence, five on Grand Bahama and more on Family Islands like Abaco, which is home to The Mudd and Pigeon Pea.
The last survey in 2015 showed 1,000 residents lived in those two areas of The Mudd and Pigeon Pea, but Foulkes believes it could now be as high as 2,000.
Some residents believe there are as many as 5,000, but the minister doubts the number is that high.
An ongoing survey of shantytowns in The Bahamas is expected to produce new numbers. The survey will begin in Abaco in two weeks.
In March, the Shantytown Abaco Task Force was set up.
While in Abaco, Foulkes said, “The objective that my committee is charged with by the government [is] to regulate all unregulated communities; so any structure, for example, that has not been built according to our laws, the building code [set out] by the Ministry of Works, they will be removed.
“We are going to enforce all of our environmental laws, in terms of any environmental concerns, with respect to outdoor toilets and septic tanks, and any other environmental issue.”
Ridding The Bahamas of shantytowns won’t be an easy task.
But Foulkes has said the government is serious about the pledge.
“All of the shantytowns, we are giving them sufficient notice for the residents to relocate,” he told National Review yesterday.
“There will be a public notice by the government; the Ministry of Works has a legal obligation to post notices on houses that are not built to code. The AG’s office is advising us on the legal aspect of it.”
These communities were allowed to develop over many years.
In an April 2013 article, Timothy Roberts, of the Abaconian newspaper observed: “As a resident of Abaco for many years, and having spent time here as a youth, I have seen the ripple effect that lack of enforcement has brought to this island’s society.
“It is the 800-pound gorilla everyone talks about from time to time, yet there is no hope that it will be dealt with.
“Rising from the unfettered influx of illegal immigrants specifically from Haiti (the largest people group entering illegally) are numerous shantytowns – unauthorized makeshift slums built of plywood and scrap lumber and lacking proper sanitation.”
Roberts added: “The question of who to blame often comes up, and to look at the whole picture, there are people to blame from regular citizens, who are exploiting or making money from transportation and cheap labor; to government officials, who may be making extra money on the side; to politicians, who either lack the will or use the situation for political gain. We all have a part to play in the problem as it is today.”
While some Bahamians fuel the problem by collecting rent, etc., many others are angered that these communities have been allowed to exist in the open over decades, with illegal electricity connections and a complete disregard for the building code and laws and regulations relating to the development of housing communities.
Many residents are squatting on government and private land.
The Mudd is on crown land. Pigeon Pea is on private land.
Shantytowns drive down the property values in surrounding communities.
The report on shantytowns completed under the Christie administration said, “Many of the long-term shantytown occupants express that ‘new arrivals’ do not have the same reverence for proper hygiene and respect for law and order resulting in the decline of the towns.”
That was an interesting observation from residents who reside in structures that are illegally constructed.
That same report defined a shantytown as “a cluster of dwellings which do not meet minimum environmental or regulatory standards with respect to water supply, solid waste management, sewage disposal, general aesthetics and structure”.
It observed: “Many of the long-term residents of these shantytowns have assimilated and are recognized as productive, law-abiding citizens who contribute to the growth and development of this country.
“Historically, many of the older occupants in these areas were farm laborers who were hired by diverse persons from throughout our society.
“These laborers, in some instances, were allowed to occupy the land after the owners had ceased farming operations. In turn, these occupants are expected to share a percentage of their crop and pay the landowner a varying small fee.”
Brown said the dwellers on her family’s land were not required to pay rent.
It is commendable that the government is tackling this problem, which is tremendously complex, especially when we start to look at areas like the massive Abaco shantytowns.
But anyone expecting a quick fix is being fanciful.
Fixing a decades-old problem of this nature will take time, cooperation from Bahamians and a great deal of sustained political will beyond the current term of the Minnis administration.