Behind the News: Housing crime and landlords

Police officers from the Special Response Unit patrol the Mead Rd housing unit in Nabua, Suva. Picture: RAMA/FT FILE

The development of public housing started in Fiji in the late 1950s when there was a demand for affordable homes for low-income owners.

Then crime level was low and society embraced its values.

Many successful individuals and families today find their beginnings in urban housing communities, where they and their children were born and raised.

Some of these individuals have now grown up and moved on to greener pastures.

They’ve carved names for themselves in the field of law, business, education, medicine and sports, among others.

Some continue to live in public housing neighbourhoods, eking out an honest living, while others have unknowingly, if not deliberately, allowed them to be lured into crime and sucked in as key actors in its senseless activities.

Because of poor choices, peer pressure and wrong associations, many ‘future leaders’ have reinforced the popular perception that public housing estates cultivate indiscipline that fosters crime in its many forms.

This week, we saw another brawl brought, in real-time, to our work and living places by the power of social media and high-speed internet connectivity.

Videos of such bold display of nightmarish thuggery bring back vivid memories of last year’s Nabua street brawls.

This bad blood that exists between some of our housing neighbourhoods has its roots spanning over decades.

Unaddressed, they seem to have manifested signs of depression and the unceasing breakdown of societal values that once held communities and families together.

In the most recent case at McFarlane Rd in Raiwai, one begins to wonder how our authorities or the owners of housing estates will deal with the issue if they ever have an intention of seeing it contained.

Police confirm three youths were admitted to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital after they were injured in the Sunday brawl.

At the time this article was written, two youths had been charged but were yet to appear in court.

Without a doubt, the latest acts of thuggery have now driven fear and insecurity among households within the Raiwaqa-Raiwai corridor just in the same way it had created anxiety among residents along Mead and Sukanaivalu roads in 2021.

What is needed is a concerted effort that encourages collaboration from various stakeholders that make up our public housing communities.

Any intervention will have to tap into the affected community’s own strengths, because the root causes of what we witnessed a few days ago could be many, complex and deeply entrenched.

Many are quick to point out that the police force needs to be more involved and vigilant.

It is indeed true we need the police to provide safety, law and order and a sense of security in the communities we live in but the truth is, the police cannot tackle our youth street brawls alone, or crime in general for that matter.

We will need a ‘whole of community approach’!

Many studies have been conducted in urban housing projects around the world to find out interventions for controlling crime and managing public low-cost housing communities.

The same should be done in Fiji, with the participation of key stakeholders, to develop the appropriate crime control and reduction programs we need.

Research papers seem to agree that physical factors such as the “lack of surveillance opportunities, housing layout and facilities and access,” among others, make criminal activities thrive and detection harder.

They also recognise that social factors including the lack of employment opportunities, inadequate social support services and a lack of character-building activities for youth, “create the economic and psychological motivations” to engage in criminal acts.

Furthermore, social problems make the resident population more vulnerable, especially disadvantaged women, children and minority groupings.

Some of our housing estates have playgrounds, sports pitches and buildings but many of these have been poorly maintained.

Quickly they have become the perfect backgrounds for graffiti exhibits and mischief-making.

Experts in the area of criminal justice note that the resources of the police, courts and prisons put together cannot effectively address crime rates.

On the other hand, the principles espoused by sports have the ability to instil in young people the values necessary for personal development, sharing, fairness and respect for each other.

Sports has been known to enhance the learning of important life skills.

They empower individuals to be cooperative, mentally resilient and dedicated.

Then there’s the landlord, perhaps the most important stakeholder of all.

Public housing is not only about managing property and finance but managing tenants too.

Tenants are human beings and landlords cannot just put people on their property expecting financial return while turning a blind eye to tenants’ plight and criminal activities.

It is true landlords cannot monitor its tenants 24/7.

However, it must demonstrate that it is committed to working with them, using creative methodologies, to bring about desired changes in the space where families live their daily lives and fondly call ‘home sweet home’.

Tenants’ reservoir of talents, creativity and experience can be mainstreamed into a helpful management tool for use by property owners.

The landlord must help develop a sense of belonging among its tenant community.

Both must consult each other, trust each other and understand each other’s role and responsibilities.

Working with municipal authorities, the landlord should make sure streetlights are working at night to remove dark spots where idle youths loiter unnecessarily and engage in criminal behaviour.

Vacant blocks within the property, especially those in backyards can be converted into communal gardens.

The housing area needs to be an interesting place to live in, with parks, benches, swings for children and shops.

And once these are provided, owners must educate their tenants to protect the amenities provided for them.

Landlords must take interest in the wellbeing of their tenants because happy families create crime-free and law-abiding communities.

Residents and landlords should engage in periodic street cleanups, mural paintings on naked walls, tree and flower garden planting activities et cetera.

During tenant recruitment phase, stringent screening and selection should be done to control the quality of tenants, ensuring that family background and family density are considered.

Sitting tenants can form a committee to help screen and select to-be tenants.

These committees can help develop housing protocols or regulations and can act as neighbourhood watch zones.

The landlord can organise public holiday programs for housing estate families to forge a sense of common identity and communal ownership of the property they share.

This builds community goodwill and a sense of unity.

There should be a regular inspection of housing estates to ensure that drains, switches, gates, door locks and louvres are working.

Personal hygiene should be encouraged and waste must be disposed properly.

When a landlord ignores its tenants and only engages with them when collecting monthly rentals, it immediately loses the opportunity to show its resident population that they matter.

This in turn, creates in tenants the feeling that they are unwanted, unwatched and free to vent out their frustration in the way they like.

Decisions on security needs and changes should involve residents.

Neighbourhood watches, if present but defunct, should be revived to increase surveillance and boost crime reporting without putting individuals at risk.

Whistleblowing must be encouraged and information received must be treated with confidentiality.

The landlord and tenant must and should work together to monitor activities within housing property and problem reporting mechanisms should be put in place and followed.

The bottom line is, all key stakeholders must play their part.

Otherwise, our public housing communities will continue to regress into places of distress, discontentment and unfathomed lawlessness.

Until we meet on this same page same time next week, stay blessed, stay healthy and stay safe.

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