Sophia squatters and ad hoc fixes

Since coming into office in May 2015, the APNU+AFC administration has shown an unusual appetite for courting controversy by making decisions and taking actions that are not only unwelcomed by the political opposition, but unpopular with the masses as well.

Recently the Ministry of Communities and the Central Housing and Planning Authority have taken strong action to remove squatters in the Sophia community – action which included the complete demolition of their shacks and dwellings. However, such an extreme remedy as the destruction of the dwellings  has come only short months after Minister within the Ministry of Communities, Valerie Patterson-Yearwood, made this observation as reported in our June 24, 2017 issue: “My view is, and my intention is, if I am going to relocate a squatter, I must be able to upgrade them in some way or the other. Upgrade their life. And so my belief is that we should be able to have some low-cost houses built, whether… we use self-help, we use whatever. We build the house and then we relocate that squatter… So it will give them a sense of pride, and I think this is what our government is all about.”

Minister Patterson-Yearwood also said that they were working towards the provision of low-cost homes for the residents by year end 2017 with the assistance of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and other international organisations.

Fast forward four months to October 2017 and we have a situation where the Sophia residents illegally perched on Government reserves have been served with eviction notices and some have had their homes demolished while others have pleaded and protested for more time and the CHPA has temporarily halted the eviction and demolition proceedings. Minister Patterson’s utterances this time around did not seem at all as accommodating compared to her words spoken in June 2017. After scores of residents protested in front of the CHPA’s offices on Brickdam, some with their school aged children in tow, Minister Patterson-Yearwood said at a subsequent press conference, inter alia: “I am aware that the notice said that you are given two weeks to move, but we have agreed to extend this [time] to end of January, 2018, which gives you enough time to get your act together.”

Squatting on land whether or not owned by government is a very difficult matter in any jurisdiction. The apparent lack of finesse shown by the CHPA in dealing with this very sensitive and difficult matter is probably symptomatic of many central and local government agencies today. They appear not to be cognisant of the right of the individual nor the fact that legal right does not always mean moral authority.

Squatting is a difficult issue to police simply because squatting itself as a phenomenon points to a failing in society usually as a result of social marginalization. With housing becoming expensive in crowded cities, unregulated squatter communities tend to form on the edges of cities as persons search for better economic opportunities that cities are believed to offer. With our small population and considerable land space, squatting should not be an issue in Guyana if our consecutive Governments pursue a well thought out, inclusive, balanced, long term housing development plan that addresses normalization of squatter settlements. Such a plan should look first to present an efficient land distribution system to citizens that should not be a money-making exercise for the government since the development of housing fuels the development of the economy.

The current system of land distribution as has existed over the last decade is very onerous and very discouraging to many citizens. Squatting as an alternative to a cumbersome, inefficient, ineffective, costly and sometimes markedly unfair land distribution system must seem as a better alternative to some, if simply for the reason that it saves time and effort. The CHPA and the Ministry of Communities would do well to get their own house in order before launching such an aggressive and destructive method of retaking government lands from squatters.

The rights of squatters to eventually lay claim to land and property on which they have perched illegally for many years is something that property owners are usually acutely aware of, and we are certain that government is wary of waiting around for squatters to gain actual legal rights to properties through adverse possession. It is also true that economic and infrastructural development can be stymied by squatters perched on lands which have strategic value to certain developments.

The US$30 million “Road Network Upgrade and Expansion Programme” which is potentially being affected by the illegal structures in Sophia (some of which have been demolished) is definitely going to be of significant benefit to the country once completed. However, the human cost of the dislocation of the illegal settlers cannot be discarded as being of little consequence. The seemingly rushed manner in which this matter is being handled does not augur well for the psychological well-being of the affected families of men, women and children. Regularising of squatter settlements is a project in itself and should not be treated as an ad hoc, nuisance issue which must be settled with dispatch so we can move on to the really important matters. This matter must be given the human and financial resources necessary to ensure its successful execution with minimum negative social consequences for the community.

Minister Patterson-Yearwood and the CHPA must not conduct this operation in the manner of an irate landlord trying to repossess a once neglected property in order to benefit from its sale or development. The Ministry of Communities and the CHPA must take some responsibility for the state of affairs that has been allowed to develop due to their own inefficiency and ineffectiveness over the years with the execution of their housing policy.

The sudden mad scramble to issue land to applicants does not distract from the ongoing lack of a clearly defined and effectively executed housing policy in Guyana. Ad hoc fixes are not an effective strategy.

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