SINT MAARTEN (POND ISLAND) - Adequate and affordable housing for the residents of St. Martin is an urgent matter requiring immediate attention to ensure the population’s safety in the face of climate change. Through the Island(er)s at the Helm research program and in collaboration with Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and the Royal Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV-Leiden), the University of St. Martin (USM) is looking into the challenges and opportunities related to designing safe housing, especially for low-income households.
Social housing is in short supply, requirements can be overwhelming, and often they do not meet the population’s needs. Consequently, many people on the island are left without access to adequate housing, which is considered to be a human right. As a result, some residents had(?) no choice but to build their own homes.
They built the units mostly on undesired plots, such as hillsides that were left vacant for a long time, or even in their backyards to rent them for much needed income. Although the conditions of self-built housing are far from ideal, they are often the only housing option for those with little income and who find themselves barred from social housing.
To gain a better understanding of how hurricane and climate proof homes should be designed, USM is hosting architect and doctoral researcher Ms. Aga Kus of TU Delft, who began interviewing residents earlier this month. Working with two local bilingual research assistants, Kus is set to gather data on different types of housing construction including traditional jollification, formal contracting and informal settlements on Pond Island, Dutch Quarter, Belvedere, Cole Bay, and Philipsburg.
By documenting testimonies from before and after hurricanes Louis (1995) and Irma (2017), Kus hopes to identify practices which can inform designers and policy makers on the needs and concerns of local inhabitants. Research Assistants are Kimberly Watamalejo and USM student Marlenny Richardson.
While repair and rebuilding support has been provided to some inhabitants(?), those who did receive the assistance have taken the challenge of fixing their properties upon themselves. However, concerns regarding the safety of these units are rising, especially with the upcoming hurricane season.
Architects, builders, and researchers have acknowledged the urgency of the problem. Yet, despite their efforts, many inhabitants of the islands still lack access to appropriate housing. Ms. Kus’ research aims to enhance the safety and affordability of housing by studying conventional building traditions and self-built housing practices to enhance material circulation and collective design for the future housing proposals.
“The challenge of providing housing on the Islands is increasing due to population growth and rising prices, and then exacerbated by natural hazards caused by climate change,” Kus was quoted saying in a USM press release.
“However, self-built housing units offer valuable insights for housing design on the Island. These units are developed gradually, making them affordable and functional, which is lacking in many social housing projects around the world. Additionally, some low-income residents build their houses collectively through jollification, decreasing costs and strengthening community bonds. Moreover, inhabitants often circulate materials by reuse or repurposing, which reduces environmental impacts. These qualities could serve as guidelines for designing houses in the future,” she stated.
Adhering to USM research protocol, which promotes social research on both sides of the island, Kus took a peek at self-built housing development in French Quarter by interviewing senior women who actually participated in the physical construction of their homes.
These recalled the days of outhouses, the introduction of concrete blocks as a common building. material and the opening and closing of hardware stores across the border, where wood and zinc could be purchased. Additionally, Kus visited traditional wooden homes which survived hurricanes.
“If the gale does not stop at the border, neither does the sharing of knowledge-practices and experiences among the people of St. Martin, especially now when facing climate change challenges. The same goes for ethnic diversity. Many migrant residents are newcomers to the island, and they bring with them building strategies from all over the Caribbean”, said USM President Dr. Antonio Carmona Báez who accompanied Kus in some of the interviews, serving as an interpreter for Spanish speakers.
“We are happy with Ms. Kus’ presence at USM and the respect she has demonstrated to the island and its people. She is an ethical researcher who is working with the local population and local experts in developing bottom-up solutions,” Carmona concluded.