EDITORIAL – ‘Matchstick homes’: A clear and present danger in Cayman

The remains of the burnt-out home in ‘Old Yard’ stand behind Archie’s Bar, off Shedden Road, where three people were injured. - Photos: Jewel Levy

A dozen people lost their home and belongings following a suspicious early-morning fire that tore through their “Old Yard” rooming house behind Archie’s Bar on Shedden Road just before the New Year.

Three people were injured – but it could have been much worse – no one died … this time.

Throughout history, fire has been one of mankind’s most useful tools and one of its most deadly hazards. As we write, the so-called “Thomas fire” is ravaging hundreds of thousands of acres, and destroying thousands of structures, in Southern California.

A few days ago in New York City, 12 people, including four children, died in a blaze that was started in their Bronx apartment building by a 3-year-old boy playing with the burners on the kitchen stove. Disaster struck the same borough again this week, when an early-morning fire injured nearly two dozen more people.

And no one is likely to forget anytime soon last year’s holocaust that devastated London’s Grenfell Tower and killed at least 79 people.

It is all too easy to imagine a similar tragedy taking place in Grand Cayman’s over-occupied, run-down and jerry-rigged homes clustered in George Town and across the districts.

In 2015, a hodgepodge of wooden residences in Windsor Park caught fire and burned to the ground, leaving 17 people homeless.

A scathing review of the Cayman Islands Fire Service released that same year found a woefully understaffed fire inspection department, and questioned fire safety measures required for newer structures and hotel refurbishments, amid a lack of evidence of a “systematic, risk-prioritized and planned” inspection program for other buildings open to the public.

A Compass reporter looking into code enforcement at that time found officials passing the buck among departments rather than accepting full responsibility for ensuring buildings were up to code.

Little seems to have changed since then.

On Wednesday, Deputy Director of Planning Ron Sanderson told the Compass the Central Planning Authority has a five-year window to inspect any development that requires planning permission, but that “there are many structures on the Island that never received planning permission, never received inspections and are exempt from enforcement.”

He said that as far as he is aware, there is no particular government agency that has a remit for rental properties, other than tourism related accommodation such as short-term rentals and hotels.

Fire officials told the Compass that the “Old Yard” house was an illegal rooming house and that the fire department has no legal charge to inspect single-family residences – even when they are rented or leased to non-owner occupants. (The fire service employs a total of three fire inspectors. Two others are qualified inspectors but work in other posts in the fire service.)

Since the 2015 fire, no discernible progress has been made in rectifying the clear and present danger posed by substandard housing in Cayman.

Despite our “first-world” reputation and income streams, there is no shortage of third-world shacks and shanties in Cayman, complete with plywood walls and extension-cord wiring.

People, no doubt, live in such homes because they are the only dwellings they can afford. But affordable rents cannot come at the expense of minimum health and safety standards.

Simply put, government is dangerously derelict in its responsibility to inspect, identify and condemn unsafe housing unless the structures are remediated to comply with code requirements – fire and otherwise.

To prevent future conflagrations – and possible deadly tragedies – officials from relevant departments must step up to ensure that every dwelling in these islands is safe for human habitation.

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  1. “hodgepodge” is a new word in my vocabulary.
    I thought that one of the Fire marshal’s roles is enforcing the fire code. Isn’t it his role to protect human lives by condemning dilapidated structures?
    Does CIG have programs to help low-income people repair and upgrade their own homes if those homes violate minimum habitability standards?

  2. I have an idea. Every new development permit should come with a clause that one local house/dwelling is repaired or upgraded or brought up to the minimum habitability standards. If the owners of a residential property that is in need of an upgrade/repair are elderly, disabled or true low-wage -earners with a steady job, they would qualify for such assistance. So instead of a paying a certain fee to the CIG, a developer spends the same or fixed amount of money helping real people in need by fixing their houses. They have expertise and ability to do the quality repairs in a timely and efficient manner. Those houses must be professionally evaluated in advance to avoid repairs where the entire building must be condemned. In the end everyone wins.
    The land supply is limited, and if you want a piece of Paradise, that would be the price to pay.

  3. A great editorial is one which has the power to save lives. This is one such editorial. A timely and eloquent plea for a needed reform. “Solving” homelessness through the existence of a two tier, virtually “optional” life safety code smells like a systemic obfuscation of extreme poverty which endangers lives/ Not just endangering lives lived in such shanties, but also of the heroic Cayman people, who by their altruistic nature will try to selflessly rescue them.