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…Cummings Lodge squatters say, just like the government, they need a better way
…urge alternatives to demolishing their houses, willing to pay for land
By Lisa Hamilton
Some 190 Guyanese are expected to achieve their dream of homeownership through the Central Housing and Planning Authority’s (CH&PAs) low-income home construction project ongoing in Cummings Lodge, Georgetown.
However, while the project will put smiles on the faces of many, a small group of Guyanese who have been squatting on the land set aside for the project are fearful of what the future holds for them. In previous days, the Village Voice News visited the location which was abuzz with construction work.
Amid the bustle, just a few wooden houses dotted the area. Some were dilapidated- having been constructed with random pieces of wood, while others were fairly well-constructed with clean surroundings, kitchen gardens and more.
Speaking with those who resided in these houses, three realities were consistent: they were aware that they were squatting and had been asked to leave; they felt that squatting was their only option due to financial or social challenges; and they wanted an affordable solution, in keeping with the law, that could result in land and homeownership.
Under the former APNU+AFC Government, works had begun to develop the specific Cummings Lodge area for residential housing. When some persons got word of this, as in many cases, they began squatting in the area. Some have left, new ones came while others have remained over the years. At different periods, they were cautioned that squatting is illegal and that there are plans to develop the area. When the new administration took office, the warnings continued.
From August 2020 to April 2021, different engagements were had with the squatters such as the issuing of Contravention Notices, call-in notices, meetings with the Community Development-Relocation/Resettlement Unit and a final warning issued on April 3, that firm action would be taken if the informal settlers did not vacate by April 10. The Ministry of Housing and Water has also noted that some squatters were offered alternative shelters but this was refused. The Village Voice News was therefore upfront when it asked these squatters why they remained in the area and what led them there in the first place.
“I start squatting here after me and me children father did pay for a land upfront and me and he started getting problems and I decided to move out and I come and build me own place,” said Lisa, a woman who lived in a dilapidated structure with six of her eight children. She has been squatting at the location for two years, three months.
As she spoke with the Village Voice News, moments earlier, a toddler fell through one of several loose floorboards at the house, injuring herself. Lisa’s children of different ages, hung around nearby during the interview. For a living, she buys random items for resale while the ochro, calaloo and other plants in her yard space help to feed her family. “I can’t afford to go and live anywhere else but I de expect if Housing moving we they would do something better for we,” she said.
Indeed, the woman said that an offer was made to relocate her and her family from the location to a next but though she is a squatter, she said she knows that would not be a permanent solution. The woman said that such an offer would simply be moving from one squatting area to another.
“Housing de come and give we a paper last September telling we leh we move and then they tell we stay. Now they call we up again and they tell we they want we move urgently and they gon relocate we opposite the [Police] Station. But I want to know whether they gon relocate we just so or they helping we build a house,” Lisa questioned. “I would glad if they could give me the land and leh I pay for it and the same house weh they building for other people I at least could have paid the same money and get the same land and house. Because what’s the use of moving me from here to carry me in front the Station and there is not a housing scheme?”
Similarly, a teacher from the ‘A’ Field Sophia Primary, Ms. Primo, who squats across from Lisa, wanted to know whether the proposed movement would be permanent or whether she’d have to spend her remaining years before retirement bouncing about without a place to call home. “Everybody would want the best for themselves. For me, I came at the back here because of situations. I understand it’s illegal but there are times that persons find themselves in situations that they cannot help. I didn’t murder a person, I’m just living on a piece of lot,” she said, noting that she was living there for over a year.
Outside her home was neat with a mini flower garden, tools were hung in order, there was a black tank for collecting water and a vegetable garden. Inside was also well-put-together with a tiny kitchen, a kitchen table, a book shelf and several household items. Primo was previously living in the same structure but on the road way in Cummings Lodge. She had cut down big, tall trees herself and fetched mud to clear the location for her house. Perhaps considering her sacrifice, members of the Authority helped move her out the roadway to the current location.
She too believes that the offer should be made for the squatters to pay for the land they are residing on. “To tell me you’re going to move me and put me somewhere else it upsets me. It makes me uncomfortable, it makes me feel as if I’m not part of this country, I’m not a Guyanese…I’m teaching for over nine years and I thought the Government, generally, should have created a scheme that teachers should have been able to live…[for] so much teachers, there is no place that I know of that teachers were given,” she expressed.
Those squatting at the location, as expected, have no access to running water or electricity but they make do. Further up the road, Troy Gilbert, his partner, Samantha and her two school-aged children were living in a neatly-constructed wooden house for some four years. Gilbert does construction work while his partner is a security guard. They also rear chickens and sheep.
“Me and this girl Samantha that I’m dealing with, due to she husband and these things…she and he had problems and he put she out and these things. So, I picked she up and we start moving around and I had nowhere else to go so I decided to come here and build this house here,” Gilbert explained.
Speaking to the April 10 deadline hanging over their heads, he said: “I don’t know what more to do at this moment, they got me
frustrated.” Gilbert also suggested paying for the land he is on should the proposal be made to him.
To get a better understanding, the Village Voice News also contacted a former CH&PA official who said that the area was allocated to allottees under the PPP/C Administration prior to 2015. Infrastructure work began in the latter years under the APNU+AFC and squatters came along the way. Since then, he said that some squatters were approached and asked to leave due to the developmental plans. While he noted that it is common for squatters to rush to lands when they get word of planned development, more should be done to ensure that poor Guyanese who cannot afford to pay for a mortgage are given the opportunities to own their own land and home.
“The reality is that the conditions to access a mortgage, the average man cannot access a mortgage. For example, if you look at those people [the squatters], where do you think they’d be able to access a mortgage? They can’t. Therefore, Government should come up with different approaches to house those with little or no affordability. The current approach of just giving out a house lot would not work,” the official who asked not to be named said.
He acknowledged that successive governments, including the one under which he served, have failed in this regard. According to the ministry, construction at the location must forge ahead to meet Guyana’s need for housing. Works on the low-income houses began in late March 2021 and are expected to be completed within the next four months. Homes built under the program will be two-bedroom elevated houses, measuring approximately 20×30 square feet. As construction moved forward and the grim deadline neared, the squatters silently watched on wondering whether there would be room for them.