Cayman’s hidden housing dilemma

Sophia Bush stands in front of her fire-blackened home in central George Town. - PHOTO: JAMES WHITTAKER

Allen Hank Bodden stands on the threshold of his home – a ramshackle patchwork of timber and tin, mounted on cinder blocks. He built it himself from pieces of plywood he collected on beaches across Grand Cayman after Hurricane Ivan.

A generator provides intermittent power and a large plastic cistern ensures a semi-reliable supply of rainwater. Hurricane straps secured by an anchor rod help keep the roof secure in case of a storm.

A sign warns “beware of the dog,” though the threat is undermined by the sight of a playful mutt skipping contentedly on a long, loose chain among scattered furniture and appliances.

“We were paying rent and I couldn’t afford it any longer so I built my own place,” says 62-year-old Mr. Bodden, who lives here with his wife. “I built it myself with no help. It took a long time, maybe two months.”

Scrapped together from collected and donated materials, Mr. Bodden’s home is a remarkable feat of resourcefulness and MacGyver-esque ingenuity. It is not unique in this part of George Town.

Hundreds of self-made homes, some without a power or water connection, have sprung up over the years on the winding side streets that feed off Eastern Avenue.

Many were built before the advent of modern planning legislation in the Cayman Islands, others have been quietly added as extensions to existing properties forming sprawling family homesteads.

Allen Hank Bodden in front of his self-built home in central George Town.
Allen Hank Bodden in front of his self-built home in central George Town.

Matthew Leslie, who grew up on these side streets, estimates there are around 2,000 people in the Cayman Islands living in unfit, potentially unsafe housing, many of them in clusters around the Rock Hole, Windsor Park and Swamp areas of George Town.

“This is our answer to poverty in Cayman,” he says. “People live here for years and don’t even know this side of Cayman exists.”

Mr. Leslie, manager of the Cayman Islands Brewery, has, through his large social network, emerged as a community first responder in emergency situations. When a fire ripped through three homes in Cruz Lane earlier this month following an alleged arson attack, he coordinated community donations and found temporary accommodation for several people left homeless.

He did the same last year for a much larger family who saw their adjoining timber homes in Windsor Park burn to the ground in a matter of minutes.

“What worries me is that next time we could be talking about a fatality,” he says.

“We have to look at these houses and these tenement yards a lot more closely and see what we can do. If someone falls asleep and leaves a cigarette burning, that’s a whole block that could go up in flames.”

Linford Webb surveys the wreckage of this brother’s home on Cruz Lane. His own home was also damaged in the same fire last month.
Linford Webb surveys the wreckage of this brother’s home on Cruz Lane. His own home was also damaged in the same fire last month.

Rock Hole

In Cruz Lane, a charred and ragged curtain still hangs from the window frame of a solitary wall, still standing amid the wreckage of the fire. Next door Linford Webb, 55, is making some repairs to his own home, also damaged in the blaze.

“We were about 20 when we built these houses,” he says, as he surveys the rubble where his brother Vann Webb and members of his extended family lived until the fire. “We were among the first to build in this area. I still feel safe here. This house has been around a long time.”

Edlin Moore, an electrical contractor and political field coordinator, who has lived in the area for decades, says many of the homes were built in an era of lax planning enforcement or had been discreetly developed as additions to sturdier properties.

Those seeking to assist tread a difficult balance. Concern over the state of some of the housing is tempered by recognition that many people have nowhere else to go. “My personal opinion is that government should start to take a serious look at some of these homes,” said Mr. Moore.

“You have to take into account that a lot of those people that live in these housing don’t have the means and ways to refurbish. It would have to be the government that takes that initiative and makes sure these homes are safe.”

The homes here are varied. Some are sturdy and neat, flower baskets hanging in the awnings of A-frame roofs. Others seem vulnerable and temporary, patched up with whatever materials happen to be available.

“This is a forgotten part of George Town,” says Sophia Bush as she walks a well-worn path between breadfruit trees and pink-flowered coral vines to the blackened, patched up home she shares with her 21-year-old son.

Her younger children are scattered in safer accommodations with godparents and family members.

There’s been no power supply to the building since the neighboring property, which she inherited from her parents, burned to the ground in 2013. The structure was finally demolished last year when Canadian entrepreneur Tim Best, who is attempting to bring an Ice Palace development to the capital, helped assemble a volunteer crew to bring it down.

Ms. Bush has salvaged some furniture from the wreckage in Cruz Lane to continue the running repairs to her own fire-damaged property.

“I don’t need anyone to build me a mansion, but I’d really like some help to get this place fixed up and the power back on,” she said. “We can fix these places up ourselves if we have the materials.”

Amid the struggles, the area bustles with life. The ringing bells of approaching bikes chime in the narrow lanes, people relax on outdoor sofas. Sometimes at night, Sophia’s son entertains his friends by pulling wheelies in the old and rusted wheelchair that used to belong to her father.

“I like this neighborhood. It’s rough, it’s tough, but I lived here all my life. I don’t know anywhere else,” she says.

An advocate for her community, Ms. Bush says she has asked, without success, for new street lighting and a community officer to deter a handful of drug dealers and addicts that give the area a bad name.

“We’ve got it hard here,” she says, “Sometimes I feel like giving up but I know there are people far worse off than me.”

Matthew Leslie has become a community first responder in cases of fire and other emergencies.
Matthew Leslie has become a community first responder in cases of fire and other emergencies.

Dog City

On Watlers Drive, another winding tributary to Eastern Avenue, known locally as Dog City, a network of brightly painted plywood forms the façade of a maze of homes under rusted zinc roofs.

Power lines snake across cramped alleys to provide a jerry-rigged electricity supply to a row of cabin-style homes.

A woman rents rooms, lights included, for $300 a month.

She remembers swimming to safety through these alleyways as the storm surge swept through Dog City during Hurricane Ivan. Random boats deposited by the storm are still scattered amid banana and mango trees around the neighborhood.

In one yard, multiple rooms feed off a timber corridor that provides shade from the sun.

If one room catches fire, she acknowledges, all of them would likely burn. She exhales deeply. “Boy that would be a pretty big disaster.”

Tina Choy, a fire prevention officer with the Cayman islands Fire and Rescue Service, says a key concern is the lack of smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in many homes.

“Cayman does have a number of wooden structures throughout the three islands. Working smoke detectors and serviced fire extinguishers are key and the first step in the right direction toward fire safety in the home,” she said in response to questions from the Compass.

Social Concerns

Concerns run beyond the obvious fire risk.

Michael Myles, government’s at-risk youth officer, said such buildings are spread across the island, from Hutland in North Side to East End and West Bay.

“Many of the children and their families I work with, live in substandard housing,” he said. “Another issue arising out of this type of housing is that children are becoming sexualized faster. They are often in the same room with their parents while they engage in sex. A lot of this behavior is played out in our schools, oftentimes towards their peers.”

Government allocated just over $550,000 in the current 18-month budget for “minor housing repairs and other assistance,” and also provides rental assistance through the Needs Assessment Unit.

The primary mandate of the National Housing Development Trust, which built 94 homes between 2010 and 2013 is home ownership, though it occasionally provides temporary accommodation in its units for displaced families.

Julio Ramos, general manager of the Trust, said, “We are mindful that not everyone would qualify for affordable housing as there are individuals that do not earn enough to qualify to purchase a house and there are those that are affected by social issues … Social housing has been and continues to be an issue in Cayman that needs to be addressed at a government level.”

For Mr. Leslie, the issue of unfit and unsafe housing seems to only register a blip on the public and political radar in the aftermath of a catastrophe like the fires in Cruz Lane or Windsor Park. He believes a more concerted and sustained effort is needed.

“Right now the only time anyone gets assistance is after there is a disaster. We need to establish a fund and clear it up – repair the homes that can be repaired, and move those that can’t. Caymanians don’t need to be rich, but they deserve to be comfortable and to live somewhere that is safe.”


  1. In Florida there is a system of city code inspectors. They first fine the owners up to $500 a day for minor infractions like peeling paint on a window, a torn window screen or grass too high.
    These fines pile up on homes whose owners cannot afford them. Then the city forecloses these liens and demolishes the houses. The family being left homeless.

    In my view a terrible way to solve the problem of poorly maintained homes.

    Here is a little suggestion, many homes are being remodeled all the time. A kitchen torn out because it was a little old fashioned, a bathroom for the same reason. Maybe the central air system is a little old.
    Same goes for furniture.

    Rather than this stuff being thrown on the dump could it not be recycled to those in most need and who have almost nothing?
    Maybe an area cold be set aside near the dump for “good enough to keep using” stuff.

  2. This is really sad that in one of the wealthiest Islands of the Caribbean , and the people have to live in these situations .

    I think that this issue should be 80 % blamed on the Government bureaucracy and incompetence , and the other 20% on the individual .
    But it’s hard for any individual to overcome the Government bureaucracy.

    You can be educated or not but have many years experience but in that job , but Government still see the need to have that position filled by a work permit . How can any one succeed against those odds ?

    Then Government allocating money to help the poor and needy , and the head of that program treating the needy people one-way with that money , if you qualify and can pay that money back . Then how would this money get to the needy ones ?

  3. A very good suggestion for recycling Mr Linton , but there should be a building where one can donate all used items to for the needy to purchase at penny on the dollar cost of used items . Then that would be a win win for the dump and the people.

  4. Perhaps Mr. Linton has hit on something.

    There are many “Architectural Salvage” companies in the US that regularly acquire building materials and architectural pieces from buildings being torn down or demolished. Perhaps such a venture would be a good partnership between government and private individuals. Such a business would be a ready recipient of building materials, outdated furnishing as fixtures that could be resold to those seeking low cost materials or items with a vintage charm.

    From personal experience, I know it was difficult to carry brand items to the dump simply because they did not fit into the design scheme we had for our recently built home. Doors, windows, bathtubs and sinks all were carted off to be replaced by other newly purchased items that we felt better suited our use of the home.

    I’m sure there are many home owners and building contractors who would feel better about tearing out and replacing perfectly useful items if they knew there was a good use for them, other than to act as another layer of trash in the local landfill.

  5. I certainly agree with all of your comments, but hate to say that each and everyone needs to be careful when you offer things like materials, windows and furniture to persons who you think are in need; and do not put these items by the roadside..
    You may not know it but the wolves in sheep clothing who will come to you asking for materials and furniture and other things are not Caymanians, and what you give to them is loaded in containers and shipped quickly overseas, to their homes in other country.
    So with a good heart you may think you are helping poor families in Cayman; you are not. All these things, windows, doors, appliances, and furniture is shipped away off island.
    If you have these necessities to give away my suggestion is to contact someone from the MLA office in your district, and advise them what you have, that they may find suitable persons in need to give them to. That is the only sure way I believe of helping. You cant even ask the churches assistance because most of them are in on the material and furniture binge leaving island. How sad.

  6. This is not a problem in the Brac. The “powers that be” in the Brac are spending money left and right doing repairs of up to $10,000.00 for each home and depending on who you are they are allocating more than that to upgrade peoples homes here. This was started as the Hurricane Paloma Fund and it is continuing. No idea where the money is coming from. They have repaired the houses that have had no occupants for nearly 20 years and the owners have died BUT the properties are owned by the “elite” Brackas in the government and elsewhere so they get preferential treatment. Nepotism at its best in the Brac as always.

  7. We have poor people, now that we understand this, here is a possible solution. We bring in thousands of shipping containers every year, many are not returned to the US. A lot of third world countries and even others are turning these water proof, easily converted to housing units, into stable housing. For a few thousand dollars and some skilled labor (HMP Northward work projects possibly?) we can provide housing to the less fortunate. Two of these containers with roofing added can be a very comfortable and safer accommodation for a family of 4-5 people. Might be worth looking into. The recycling idea is also a worthy one. Mr. Leslie, thank you for your efforts in the community. Hopefully you are receiving all the assistance you can get. Churches, might be time for you all to step up to the plate and contribute as well.

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