This commentary, continued from last week’s edition, is the second of a two-part series.

 

The debate on the equity and inequity of gentrification is heated and controversial. The following are some pros and cons of gentrification.

The pros include increased investment and economic opportunity; increased economic value of neighbourhoods; increased property value; economic development; increased local government revenue; increased consumer purchasing power; and the stabilisation of declining areas.

On the other hand, cons include demographic shift and displacement of the poor, especially blacks and other minorities; disruption of the traditional make-up of a community; changes to community culture; increased property prices beyond that which is affordable to residents at the lower rungs of the economic ladder; community resentment and conflict; a loss of affordable housing; and division within a community.

 

Land as asset

Up to the mid-1950s, the Virgin Islands had a reputation as a little sleepy hollow, with the land having a low value, especially outside Tortola. Local landowners were unaware of the actual potential value of their landholdings, particularly islands, beachfronts, and hillside plots with breath-taking views.

However, external land speculators clearly understood the potential value of the land. They were thinking long-term and playing the long game. Local landowners were playing checkers while the speculators played chess. Speculators were poised to exploit and take advantage of the unsuspecting local landowners.

Consequently, many speculators befriended (be aware of wolves in sheep clothing) local landowners, bamboozling and mamaguying them, among other things. They offered the landowners measly sums of money — which nevertheless may have been more than some owners had held in their hands ,at any one time before.

Before long, many prime islands and pieces of beachfront and scenic lots were quickly gobbled up. In many cases, the sale didn’t improve the former landowners’ quality of life and standard of living markedly. And no sooner was the ink dry on the contract document than the adversarial and discriminating behaviour commenced: the fences erected, no-trespassing signs posted, and hurdles to beach access put in place.

 

Gov’t shares blame

Nonetheless, all the responsibility doesn’t rest with the new landowners/speculators. Government must also shoulder some, if not all, of the blame.

Moreover, the land is an appreciating asset, but too often, it was exchanged for cash to purchase non-appreciating assets like cars, boats and so on. However, in time, the land is gone, the money vanishes, the useful lives of the non-appreciating assets are depleted, and the former landowners hold an empty bag.

Some may say that I’m a dreamer like the fictional character Walter Mitty in James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Well, my family on Cooper Island was indeed playing checkers while the speculators were playing chess. It sold a prime beachfront property at Manchioneel Bay, Cooper Island, for peanuts, and the money and land are long gone with nothing concrete to show for the sale/giveaway.

One speculator was bold enough to sell their initial purchase plot and came back wanting to buy more land. To put it mildly, they were told to cart their a—.

A local calypsonian belted out that those who sold to the Little Dix Bay money done and done broke. Manchioneel Bay money done too, and long-time.

I’m confident there are other similar local experiences. From personal experience, the walk-by, drive-by, sail-by or fly-over scenario is real talk.

 

Benefits of owning

Land in the VI is a limited, scarce and non-renewable resource. It is also a tangible asset that appreciates and is in high demand. As such, owning land in the VI, a tiny locale, comes with many benefits, including peace of mind, joy, pride of ownership, and freedom of owning a piece of the rock.

Land is also a financial asset that can be used as collateral for acquiring loans, and landownership is a strong multigenerational wealth builder that helps maintain and sustain national traditions and cultural distinctions.

Moreover, local direct land ownership provides Virgin Islanders with a controlling interest in the territory’s political, social and economic governing structure. If they do not control the land, they are powerless and may play a secondary role in their homeland.

 

VI economy

The VI is a small, resource-poor territory. Its economy is service based, driven by and buoyed by tourism and financial services — and heavily dependent on external investment. Post-slavery, the VI’s economic activity was made up of small-scale agriculture, fishing, charcoal production, and livestock rearing, as is noted in Michael O’Neal and Bill Maurer’s paper “Twenty-five Years of Ministerial Government: The Socio-Economic Context.”

American tourists, shut out of the Cuban market due to the Cuban revolution in 1959, sought another Caribbean playground. Thus, the genesis of tourism blowing up on a large scale in both here and in the United States VI.

The birth of tourism in these islands drove the need for land to construct tourist facilities, resulting in increasing demand for land, rising land prices, and the draw of external land speculators.

The government had to develop landownership policies to calm the rising speculation fever, but additional procedures are needed. Moreover, VI government investment was instrumental in launching the tourist economy following input from people including Dr. Carleen Laughlin (who produced 1962 report for the VI government), Dr. William Phillips (a United Nations economic advisor), Dr. Mary Proudfoot (from the constitutional review commission of 1965), Dr. Norwell Harrigan and Dr. Pearl Varlack. The rise of the tourism industry — including Little Dix Bay and other land facilities, as well as cruises and bareboating — relegated the peasant economy to a secondary role. Today, tourism and financial services are the twin pillars of the VI economy.

As such, land is needed to grow and sustain the economy. Consequently, wise, sound, practical and balanced strategic and tactical policies on land use and local ownership must be developed, codified and executed to meet the economic needs while retaining land ownership in Virgin Islanders’ hands.

 

‘Be vigilant’

Further, Virgin Islanders should benefit from their landholdings. As such, they should, to the maximum extent practical, choose leasehold over freehold in land transactions. In leasehold, even with long leases, the lessor retains ownership of the land.

Beneath the VI coat of arms lies the word “Vigilate,” which meant “be vigilant.” The VI must be vigilant on local land ownership.


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