Ok, Destroy The Shanty Towns, Then What?

By Rogan Smith |
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Some things are easier said than done. Getting rid of our nation’s shanty towns happens to be one of those things. 

Bahamians have been calling on the government to get rid of these informal communities for years, and following the passage of Hurricane Dorian, which decimated many of these areas in Marsh Harbour, Abaco, that call has become even louder. 

But, doing so isn’t going to be as easy as many people think. 

Firstly, let me say that I believe in law and order. Secondly, I respect, and seek to follow the laws of the land, thirdly, I don’t like law breakers, and fourthly, I support my government when it seeks to enforce this country’s laws. 

Ban On Construction In Abaco

So, I was pleased to hear the Minnis administration announce that in the wake of Hurricane Dorian’s massive destruction, no one would be allowed to rebuild in The Mudd, Pigeon Pea, Sand Bank and Farm Road areas in Marsh Harbour, Abaco for six months. 

I welcome that ban, as it’s incredibly inhumane to allow people to return to an unsanitary and highly contaminated zone. Officials believe bodies are still buried beneath the rubble. 

If we’re being honest, I’m sure many Abaco residents are happy with this ban, too. Not just because they are concerned about the remaining occupants’ safety, but because they simply do not want those residents resurrecting a shanty town that they have been critical of for decades. 

Who could blame them? Shanty towns are major eyesores and environmental hazards. They also bring down property values. That is not conjecture. That is fact. 

These communities, which house Haitian migrants, as well as poor Bahamians, also provide haven to the undocumented.

Abaco shanty town.

For decades, Bahamians, particularly homeowners who have had their land encroached on by these substandard communities, have pleaded with subsequent governments to eliminate these shanty towns. 

While there have been some inroads, with the government demolishing some communities, it’s also faced legal challenges. Just last year, a Supreme Court judge later granted an injunction blocking a demolition exercise. 

I suspect more challenges will arise as the government seeks to get rid of these communities. 

Believe it or not, some people were thankful that Hurricane Dorian destroyed those shanty town communities. While they may not have wished for a loss of life, there were some who admitted they were relieved to see the storm do away with communities that the government itself had struggled to eliminate. I personally heard comments that were widely distributed via WhatsApp and read them online. 

The Government Is At Fault

The government is squarely to blame for the proliferation of these communities. Our nation’s leaders allowed this situation to get out of control by refusing to act when these shanty towns were in in their infancy stage. 

In a bid to get a handle on this situation, many have called on the government to go in and bulldoze remaining communities. But, it’s not that simple. 

This is an incredibly complex matter and one that is very sensitive because this is people’s homes that we’re talking about. Let’s not forget that there are elderly people and young children living in these communities, as well as people who have been living there for years. Do we really support the government moving in with bulldozers, destroying their houses and leaving them homeless?  

What do you think would happen next? Our problem is that we only think in the now and we get so emotional that we do not give consideration to consequences. There are consequences when someone is displaced. 

I know many will argue that because many of the residents are squatting on the land and others are undocumented, they should be prepared for those consequences. The fact is, not all of them are squatting. Many of them live on land that is owned by Bahamians, who in turn rent to them, allowing them to stay on the land. 

The government needs to target those landlords and either fine them or shut down their operations. In the cases where there are undocumented individuals, the Department of Immigration should do its job and arrest those individuals.  

Our nation’s shanty town issue also exposes a greater problem: the lack of affordable low-cost housing in this country. 

No Other Choice

I do not, for one second, believe that people have big dreams about living in shanty towns. They live there out of necessity. They live there because they cannot afford anywhere else to live. And quite frankly, they live there because many landlords flat out refuse to rent to Haitians. 

There is a great deal of discrimination against Haitians who are seeking rental accommodations. I have had property owners tell me to my face that they do not rent to Haitians, point blank period. 

In The Bahamas, we do not have a department or some other authority that people can go to, to file housing discrimination complaints. I can’t count the amount of newspaper ads I have seen over the years that have offered apartments for rent but stating that “females need not apply.” One can only imagine what Haitians go through. 

Secondly, there are Bahamians who find it difficult to come up with the required first and last month’s rent, in addition to the security deposit. Look at the Abaco and Grand Bahama residents displaced by this recent storm. Many have asked rental property owners to forego the deposit and last month’s rent and allow them to move in with just the first month’s rent. Why? Because they lost everything and cannot afford it.

So, imagine the poorest of the poor having to come up with that kind of cash. 

Squatters’ Rights

Squatters, believe it or not, also have rights. Many of the people living on these properties have been there for decades. Generations of families have passed through the land and they could have some legal claim. 

The government estimates that these Abaco shanty towns, for example, had a population of 3,500 people living in 1,000 homes. That’s a lot of people, and that’s just one island. 

So, you cannot just bulldoze them off the property.

It’s more complex than that. There are people who have been living in these shanty towns for decades. They have raised families in these homes. They have nowhere to go and quite frankly many of them cannot afford to move. 

I think those who have been on the land for generations and can prove it should be allowed to remain on the land. We cannot simply force them out. However, they must be ordered to rebuild their houses in accordance with proper building codes.

There needs to be an airtight strategy to rid our nation of these areas, while providing housing for those who will be displaced. There also needs to be a strategy to rehabilitate the areas. 

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