The trouble with the little piece of land on Bonaventure Road began when Martha Hurlston was just 5 years old.
Her daddy bought it for $10,000 in 1990. He had built a little wooden home on the property when he discovered the man who had sold it to them didn’t actually own it.
“He kept asking for the papers and kept getting excuses,” she said.
Eventually he went to the Lands and Survey Department and discovered he had been conned.
Out of options, the family continued to live on the land. It was several years, says Martha, before the rightful owner did show up demanding to be paid.
As she remembers, her mother turned to a local legislator, who helped negotiate with the owner on their behalf, to ensure they could continue to live there.
At the time, she believed the property was being put in their family’s name, though it later transpired the land was registered to the Crown.
Nonetheless, various family members have been able to live on the property, on and off, in a variety of temporary structures for the last 30 years.
It was not until Martha, with the help of some friends, moved a donated mobile classroom to the site and converted it into a home for herself, her children, her disabled sister and her elderly mother, that questions started to arise. Now, she says, government is asking that she vacate the land or purchase it.
She is out of work since the pandemic and the family relies on what her mother gets from the Needs Assessment Unit and the money her 20-year-old son brings in from his shifts at a hotel. Purchasing the property is out of the question and she says she has nowhere else to go.
The complex history of the land ownership is complicating ARK’s efforts to help Martha and her family.
The shelter isn’t hooked up to the utilities infrastructure and power comes from a generator that only runs in the evenings. Water comes from storage tanks attached to the unit.
Temporary accommodation has been found for Martha’s mother, sister and son, but she still lives at the site with her 7-year-old daughter.
“Right now, we are living as rough as it gets,” she told the Compass when we visited the property last month.
“I feel very bad to know that I have to raise a 7-year-old like this.
“It’s really heartbreaking. What do I tell her? Hopefully we’ll get things sorted and you will live in a real house, but it’s really hard.”
ARK has funds to help families in this type of situation, but the charity can’t invest heavily in improving the condition of the home without knowing if Martha and her family can stay on that site.
“Normally in this kind of circumstance, we just put a plan into action right away and renovate the property and make sure they have power and water and a good kitchen and bathroom and beds, and everything that a family should have,” said Tara Nielsen, the charity’s founder.
“Being that we have this big issue with the land, we can’t put those plans into action right away.”
Cayman’s Hidden Housing Crisis
Martha is working with a lawyer, who has offered her services pro bono, to see if there are any rights that have accrued to the family as a result of their occupation of the land for the last three decades. The concept of ‘squatter’s rights’ is an established principle in UK law but it is difficult to establish and there are a variety of conditions that must be met.
Another option, says Nielsen, is to negotiate an agreement with government for them to stay.
“We have to secure this land for them,” she said.
If that issue cannot be resolved, she said, the next best option would be to renovate the home and move it elsewhere.
Martha feels the same.
“I would like to try to get the land sorted first, and then I know where I stand. But to be frank, it is a trailer house. If I upgrade it a bit to make my living situation a little more comfortable and I have to leave, I guess I put on wheels and I go.”
Nielsen says moving from the land is a “worst case scenario” for the family. She says there are many struggling families who hold on to their land because it is their only asset. Martha is currently out of work. Her sister is disabled and her mother is in her 70s. She gets money from her son, but it is not enough to support the extended family.
Nielsen said securing the land and making the structure safe and secure with access to power and water would mean they had somewhere to live without the monthly struggle of paying rent in Cayman. She said it would give them roots and security and the chance to build towards a better future where they did not have to rely on the help of the NAU or organisations like ARK.