By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
THE government is tasked with finding alternative housing for nearly 1,000 households in shanty towns across Abaco as the Shanty Town Action Task Force (SATF) recommits to the self-imposed deadline of clearing unregulated communities on that island on or before July 31,2019.
Despite the government’s charge that it will not subsidise the relocation of residents, local officials over the weekend observed the ambitious feat will require significant public investment to meet targets.
Preliminary numbers from the SATF’s Abaco census revealed there are 912 homes in the six unregulated communities surveyed, with the Mud and Pigeon Peas representing 62 percent of that figure.
The figures were released by SATF Abaco chairperson Maxine Duncombe, who said data on 52 households was still incomplete.
Labour Minister Dion Foulkes led closed door meetings with Abaco’s task force on Saturday at the government complex in Marsh Harbour, and established sub-committees to coordinate alternative housing and relocation, demolition works, special needs assistance, animal rescue, legal matters and public relations.
Mr Foulkes acknowledged the lack of alternative housing in Abaco during an interview with The Tribune, but noted he did not want to preempt the recommendations of the Relocation and Restoration Committee tasked with presenting viable options to the government.
He stressed the government would not be creating any housing programmes to facilitate relocation of shanty town residents, reiterating Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ commitment to a national housing programme that would be available to all eligible Bahamians.
Mr Foulkes said: “There is a lack of alternative housing here in Marsh Harbour, Dundas Town, Murphy Town, Treasure Cay area, very little available rental units. In New Providence, we do not have that problem. We had a lot of available units in New Providence.
“(In New Providence) the majority of the shanty towns were either already relocated or in the process of being relocated (before the court injunction). So the process was working in New Providence and I anticipate it will also work here in Abaco.”
Judicial review of the government’s decision to eradicate shanty towns is being sought by 177 shanty town residents from both New Providence and Abaco, and the Supreme Court previously ordered the government and utility providers to halt any planned evictions, service disconnections or demolitions until the court hearing.
The government’s New Providence SATF was dissolved due to looming court action, but it has continued to mobilise in the Family Islands. On Saturday, Mr Foulkes said the landowner of Exuma’s only shanty town community had voluntarily cleared the property located on the outskirts of George Town.
The SATF Abaco census was started on June 13, and surveyed communities in the Mud, with 449 households; Pigeon Peas, 184; Farm Road, 146; Sandbanks, 80; L & H, 16; and Elbow Cay, 37.
A public-private partnership could be among options presented to Cabinet, according to Mr Foulkes, who acknowledged the relocation effort could present a lot of business opportunities.
He maintained the extent of private sector involvement would be deliberated by the sub-committee.
“The government is not making any special programme for this relocation process,” Mr Foulkes said, “there is no special consideration given to this exercise.
“The prime minister has been very clear on that. We are going to do housing developments throughout the country but it will be made available to every Bahamian who qualifies.”
On Saturday, Marsh Harbour Spring City Township Chairman Roscoe Thompson said he was discouraged by the pace of government efforts which appear to be considerably slowed by the court injunction.
Mr Thompson questioned whether it was possible for Bahamians to bring action against the government for not conducting due diligence when granting or renewing work permits - a step he feels could reduce the number of residents in the Mud and Peas.
“I’m discouraged in a way with what’s happening in our township with the Mud and the Peas,” he said. “And what’s taking so long to get the residents out of the area, to move them? I’m disappointed in the government in their stance on this issue. It doesn’t just go back to Minnis, it goes back to Perry Christie, it goes back to Hubert Ingraham, it’s just a continuous ball. It just seems a lot of times it’s a lot of hot air or a lot of talk.
“Don’t get me wrong, we have to do it in a humane way and do it the legal way, but there are ways we can address this situation that we seem to be avoiding.”
However, Mr Thompson noted alternative efforts were hampered by the severe lack of rental units, which has affected teachers and other government officials assigned to the island.
Mr Thompson said it was clear the government will have to seriously consider a low-cost housing scheme, but stressed it would have to actually be low-cost to accommodate applicants on or below the poverty line.
He suggested lot prices that started at $5,000 to make it easier for low-income applicants to build a home that satisfied building codes.
Mr Thompson, a member of the Relocation Subcommittee, said: “I think it’s going to come to a point that the government is going to have to find some area where they’re going to have to develop land and open it up to all Bahamians. Is it going to be a $20,000 piece of property - it can’t be. It’s going to have to be where you fit into a bracket that you make between $7,000 and $12,000 a year.
“I don’t think they’ve really even looked at it in depth.
“Look at Spring City,” Mr Thompson continued, “that was supposed to be low income housing. How is $900 a month low income on a mortgage? They’re going to have to look at it more in depth, I don’t know what the solution is but for the government to sit here and say that they aren’t going to put any money into it, at the end of the day they will have to.”