The devastation of successive natural disasters over the past decade has tested the resolve of Dominicans. Although comparatively few in the Caribbean family are total strangers to natural disasters, the demand placed upon this generation of Dominicans to plan a massive rebuild multiple times during the past five years is among the most heart-wrenching regional stories; just the same as the success they’ve had in their rebuild is among its very best.A look over the Bellevue Chopin Housing Project in Dominica as of January 2020 (Photo courtesy: www.Housingdominica.com)
Affordable housing at a glance
2015’s Tropical Storm Erika left devastation in its wake. The road to recovery for the nation’s housing stock after Erika would not be easy, with 16,000 – almost one in four Dominicans – held to be adversely affected by it.
Following the storm, the government of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit pursued a housing revolution. In September 2016 it contracted Montreal Management Consultants Est. (MMCE) and announced the launch of the Bellevue Chopin Housing Project. It’s a project that provides a snapshot into Dominica’s housing revolution, billed as a “Modern Medium-Income Residential Community” to replenish the housing supply lost in Petite Savanne village as a result of Erika. But then in 2017 the nation had to reckon with Hurricane Maria.
For Prime Minister Skerrit the need for his government to expand the housing revolution was doubtless in mind when he live-streamed during Hurricane Maria the roof of his own home being torn off alongside that of many others in the surrounding streets. Almost 23,500 houses in Dominica were destroyed – around 90 per cent of the nation’s total housing stock. Once again, Dominica looked to a rebuild, but faced down a huge bill for it.
One key advantage the Skerrit government had was that unlike after previous natural disasters, such as the 1979 Hurricane David that caused widespread carnage, there was the capacity to use revenue from the nation’s successful CIP, first introduced in 1993 as an economic lever for use in rebuilding the country’s residential supply.
The government has been guarded about precise numbers of this big build, but with Prime Minister Skerrit declaring in 2018 that he expected 52 per cent of the nation’s revenue in the financial year ahead to come from its CIP (amounting to EC$ 406.6mn out of EC$ 788.7mn), it’s easy to envision the substantial capital behind these works and the immense value of the CIP to the country of 74,000.
Rebuilding with Urban Planning Principles
Dominica had a rare opportunity within this period to rebuild communities with contemporary urban planning and design principles at their core. By no means does the absence of such principles deny a community the chance to progress and improve (many of the great capitals of Europe lack such contemporary features but remain highly livable and thriving cities) but a major rebuild effort – however harrowing the reason it is required – provides the possibility of wiping the slate clean; to do away with old problems like lack of green space and high congestion that can hamper the livability and functionality of a community.
Sound residential urban planning is not just about beautification and enjoyment of a neighbourhood; it involves pursuing designs of communities by utilising existing resources and providing for easy and efficient access to community hubs.This can be achieved by building in a way that looks beyond the quality of the structures themselves and factors in the environment. Although the old village of Petite Savanne holds many happy memories for Dominicans who lived there in years gone by, it was an area prone to frequent landslides. Today, the redesign of the neighbourhood means that the risk of landslides has been addressed.
The Bellevue Chopin Housing Project was given the green light for construction of over 350 residential units plus a new commercial centre, farmers’ market and multi-purpose playing field. Additions such as underground power cables offered the dual benefit of being resistant to adverse weather while also beautifying the streetscapes.
Projects Beyond Bellevue
As well as the landmark achievements of Bellevue, Dominica has a number of other housing projects in development, including Castle Bruce, La Plaine and Grand Fond. These projects have varying completion dates but collectively they embody Dominica’s resolve to Build Back Better (BBB), confident in the nation’s capacity to turn the page on the successive natural disasters that brought the country to its knees.
The Rising Wealth Gap Reality
Dominica’s housing revolution is unquestionably an achievement, but it could yet give rise to new challenges down the line. While this construction drive has been propelled by need, in setting this political precedent the Skerrit government (and any others that follow) will have to reckon with an electorate that looks upon the real estate market with a keen awareness of the government’s capacity to engage in large-scale residential projects, and the expectation that it will be repeated whenever the voting public deems such works key to their vote.
Presently the nation’s CIP is enjoying acclaim and bringing benefits borne out in bricks and mortar, but the government could have a delicate balancing act in years ahead in seeking to maintain the popular support of its CIP. There have been scandals associated with previous incarnations of Dominica’s programme; any more could spell trouble, as could further significant expansion in the nation’s rich-poor gap. Many citizens are obtaining affordable housing but other constructions have been devised to attract CIP citizens, like the luxury residences at Secret Bay where homes are on sale for US$ 4mn or more.