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Columns : The New Bahamian - Joseph Gaskins Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

Shanty Towns Are Only One Part of the Problem, And I’m Not Talking About Immigration
By Joseph Gaskins
Jun 14, 2013 - 4:02:45 AM

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As residents of New Providence dealt with terrible weather and severe flooding, talk of low-lying areas, housing and the situation of residential location is dominating the national discourse. Before the storm, similar issues of concern were peaked by a new report out of the Department of Environmental Health on the presence and conditions of shanty towns in New Providence.

For many Bahamians, shanty towns are a physical representation of the problem of illegal Haitian immigration, often conjuring images of a mass, unwanted invasion.

As the Department of Environmental Health’s report seems to make clear, these makeshift neighborhoods are often without running water, proper mechanisms for the disposal of human and animal waste, as well as inadequate housing structures. Because of these unhealthy conditions, residents of these shanty towns are exposed to a number of diseases which cannot be contained within the boundaries of these squatter cities. These fears have led to an almost universal response -- “tear them down and ship the Haitians out.”

Indeed, it would be hard to separate the issue of illegal immigration from the very real presence of shanty towns in New Providence. We also know that New Providence is not the only island that is peppered with these settlements. To radically address this issue, however, we must look beyond the shanty town as an isolated issue brought on by the problem of immigration and come to terms with the reality that they are a part of an urban landscape characterize by poverty and inadequate housing.

Admitting that there is growing, abject poverty in the Bahamas, and in particular at the center of Nassau, is often difficult for Bahamians to do. Even more difficult is for Bahamians to imagine the issue of shanty towns, usually framed specifically in terms of illegal Haitian immigration, as having anything to do with their day to day lives. I want to suggest that Bahamian urban poverty and the so called “Haitian shanty towns” are inextricably connected to one another.

In their book, “The City in the Developing World,”  Robert B. Potter and Sally Lloyd-Evans point out that at least 20 per cent of the world’s total population lack decent housing-- in the developing world “it is estimated that at least one fifth, and perhaps over half, live in substandard housing.”

Their research shows that the source of this housing crisis is two fold. First, the issue of housing is “intimately inseparable from the wider issues of inequality, structural poverty and social welfare.” Second, housing problems are as much about land ownership and access to land as it is about housing itself.

Are inequality and structural poverty a part of the Bahamian socio-economic landscape? Alison Lowe seems to think so. In her “Insight” piece for the Tribune, “The Bahamas Is Becoming Increasingly Unequal,” she reminds us that a United Nations Economic Commission for the Caribbean and Latin America report ranked the Bahamas as the most unequal country in the region.

Income equality in the Bahamas has been steadily declining since 1999, despite a closing of the gap between 1973 and 1989. Moreover, according to Department of Statistics figures, “the number of Bahamian households surviving on less than $5,000 a year has increased by an ‘alarming’ 83% over the past four years.”

Shanty towns are not the only symptom of growing urban poverty. Potter and Lloyd-Evans argue that shanty towns, along with the homeless and street sleepers, as well as those renting in slums, or what we may refer to as “ghettos,” are all a part of the problem of housing in the developing world.

New Providence has its fair share of all three and taken together, solving the problem of shanty towns becomes less about immigration and more about access to adequate, affordable housing for everyone living in the capital.

What is peculiar about shanty towns is that governments, as ours have, turn a blind eye to them during times of economic boom where there is a high demand for cheap labour. These squatter cities provide inexpensive housing option for laborers making less than what is needed to live in suitable, permanent housing.

Politicians have also been known to see these areas as ripe for political control through superficial patronage -- giving food, appliances and cash in return for votes. These housing settlements often only become a problem when economies contract and unemployment rises or when governments have found more lucrative purposes for the land on which they are built.

Similarly, the homeless are left to the care of civic organizations who are underfunded or lack the human resources to deal with the causes of homelessness. In particular, medication for mental illness and proper counseling for drug and alcohol addiction are not readily available to those in need. Furthermore, little is done about slums and tenement yards where people are made to live in deplorable conditions in exchange for affordable rent.

Those in shanty towns, as Potter and Lloyd-Evans research illustrates, are more often than not long time urban dwellers not just new migrants. In fact, from Potter and Lloyd-Evans’ perspective, people often move into shanty towns only after spending time in inner-city slums looking for jobs. Despite employment and because of insufficient wages, they are often still unable to afford proper housing.

If housing and poverty are at the center of the shanty town problem then the solution is not to raze these settlements. It makes no sense to eliminate housing for people who are in desperate need of it. Moreover, it seems massive government projects to relocate shanty town residents are often ill-planned and poorly executed, exacerbating the problems of poverty. “In a nutshell, apart from a few wealthy city states, most Third World governments cannot afford high-technology, high-rise responses to their housing problems,” Potter and Lloyd-Evans conclude.

The Tondo Foreshore Development Project in Manila, Philippines  may serve as an example of how innovation and cooperation can solve the housing problem here in the Bahamas.

As a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) documents, Tondo Foreshore was one of Manila’s most volatile slums with a population of some 180,000. Instead of resettlement, the Philippine government embarked on a project of upgrading the slum over 10 years. Residents were active participants in the process through the provision of housing loans in the form materials, not cash. The government also upgraded basic utility services, altered the layout and alignment of structures and eventually residents came to own the land on which they built through steady payments, therefore acquiring equity and building personal wealth. The appraisal price of the land double during the upgrade process and even residents’ incomes rose over time.

Potter and Lloyd’s research may not be applicable to New Providence’s shanty towns and the example of the Tondo Foreshore development may not work here in the Bahamas, but we can all agree something must be done about these spontaneous settlements.

This is not a partisan issue or an immigration issue, it is an issues based in urban poverty and inadequate housing. This is also not a question of land or squatting, but of how important it is for those residing in our country, under whatever circumstances, to live in humane conditions.

Instead of the reactionary response of tearing down shanty towns and deporting its residents, we need to think of innovative ways to cut through the culture of despair and raise the residents of shanty towns out of hopelessness through critical, progressive policies.

Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was born in Grand Bahama Island, studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and has begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology.  Joey  lives in Nassau and is a part-time lecturer at College of the Bahamas. He also writes for  the Nassau Liberal  www. nassauliberal. webs.com  and The Tribune. You can reach him at    jgaskinsjr@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of TheBahamasWeekly.com

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