The Power of ‘Good Deeds’: The Benefits of Titling in Jamaica’s Urban Informal Settlements

Aleem Mahabir

Jamaica possesses the highest proportion of urban residents on informal land holdings within the Latin American and Caribbean region, surpassed only by Haiti. This is not surprising when considering that 350,000 parcels or 40 percent of all occupied land lack formal registration in the form of ownership documentation. Thus, some 20 percent of the national population, equivalent to approximately 600,000 people, reside in squatter settlements mostly located in urban areas.

Urban informal settlements typically exhibit low-income levels and high rates of violence. Attempts to improve conditions via social interventions often fail to produce noticeable and sustained impacts. CAPRI’s report “Testing, Testing: Challenges to Measuring Social Programmes for At-risk Youth” noted there was no measurable change in levels or rates of youth-involved violence, despite J$387 billion (or US$2.5 billion) being spent on social interventions over a ten-year period. The problem may be that these interventions often address the many symptoms of urban blight, rather than tackling one of its major drivers—insecure land tenure.

The lack of legal ownership recognition in the form of written documentation prevents informal property from being sold on the formal housing market for financial capital or used as collateral for loans. As such, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto famously described informal holdings as “dead capital”,  as they offer little, if any, monetary value to those who occupy it.

This arrangement precludes income generation and wealth building opportunities for informal Jamaican households, severely limiting their economic potential—which one land surveyor estimates amounts to J$200 billion (or US$1.6 billion) in untapped property value alone. This sum does not include possible earnings from potential entrepreneurial activities and local-area investments that security of tenure would facilitate.

The scale of the problem leads to negative reverberations throughout Jamaican society in the social and political spheres as well. Unable to sell their land legally, informal settlers cannot engage in the practice of residential mobility: moving to better housing environments across their lifespans. Often, multiple generations of a family are stuck in the same community. And while some residents invest in home improvements, not all feel incentivised to do so due to lack of savings and/or potential displacement.

The prevalence of insecure land tenure facilitates chronic poverty and violence. Without being subject to formal regulations, houses are built close together on labyrinth-like lanes, enabling the easy conveyance of criminality. Lack of access to basic services and formal jobs means that these communities come to depend on state welfare and the informal sector. This augurs well for political patronage to flourish, as party representatives offer residents favours and financial rewards in exchange for votes. With these incentives in place, development remains stagnant, despite political promises of urban renewal.

Alleviating this chronic cycle requires mass land titling—issuing ownership in the form of legal titles for occupied land, where feasible. Such initiatives have been successfully attempted in other countries, most famously Peru. They pioneered the first mass titling effort in the developing world, with around 1.2 million urban households being issued titles from 1996 to 2003. The data subsequently showed stark improvements in numerous indicators including property value, credit access, and housing quality—75 percent of those with titles improved their homes versus 39 percent without.

All these factors contributed to poverty reduction, increased labour market participation, and positive spillover effects on social stability. Further, property rights and their financial benefits were shown to reduce the allure of armed groups, diminishing their power and influence. It is therefore possible that mass titling could induce similar effects on Jamaica’s urban gangs.

Successive Jamaican administrations have implemented titling initiatives as far back as the 1970s. However, the pace at which titles are issued has been too slow to effect systemic change. While reformative measures such as the Systematic Land Registration Programme (SLRP) produced over 9,000 titles from 2021 to 2023, and sets a target of 20,000 by the end of 2024, hundreds of thousands of potential beneficiaries are still being left out.

The roll-out of electronic land titling, alongside the digitization of cadastral systems, signals progress, but the process must be scaled up and accelerated. Adopting cost-effective survey methods such as drone and satellite imagery, AI models for mapping and database management, and the implementation of blockchain technology for increased transparency, should be considered to streamline processes and reduce bottlenecks. Further investment and capacity-building can be leveraged via relationships with international development partners who have funded past land titling initiatives, and are in support of expanding them. Baseline studies and research efforts—like the OneCity Project being carried out by a consortium of local organizations and headed by CAPRI—will provide the evidence to clarify and comprehensively understand the links between insecure land tenure, development, and urban governance, identify gaps, offer insights, and inform the most effective titling strategies.

Embracing mass land titling can precipitate a profound shift towards equity and opportunity for Jamaica’s most vulnerable citizens, and the country as a whole, by propelling economic growth, diminishing urban blight, and curtailing armed violence. Greater and more inclusive access to property titles will likely instigate multiplier effects across various economic and social sectors, enhancing individuals' capacity to uplift their living conditions and empowering people to better optimize the life chances of themselves and their children. Given the limited impact of numerous social interventions in informal settlements, mass titling can serve as the vital spark needed to ignite much-needed transformative change.