One Great Hour of Sharing gifts help deedless residents secure their longtime homes
By Pat Cole | Presbyterian News Service | Photos by Rich Copley
LOUISVILLE — Even before flooding from Hurricane Maria destroyed their home’s contents in 2017, Waleska García Castro and her family faced a human-made threat that could have caused them an even greater disruption.
This family, along with others residing near the Martin Peña Channel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, did not have a deed to their dwelling, and they were looking at the possibility of displacement.
This threat stemmed from plans to dredge the polluted channel and make other improvements to the waterway. Consequently, property values would likely increase dramatically in this community near San Juan’s financial district, airport and universities. The land would be ripe for speculation and gentrification, and the deedless residents could be forced to leave. Some families have lived in this community for five generations.
García Castro and other community members are implementing a strategy that will enable them to remain in their homes and enjoy the benefits of the revitalized canal. One Great Hour of Sharing gifts are supporting this effort.
The community formed the Martin Peña Channel Land Trust, which has acquired title to a 200-acre tract that is home to 1,500 families. While the trust owns the land, individuals can obtain deeds that give them surface rights to their homes.
The property protections give García Castro a feeling of “security” and “tranquility,” she said. “Our community is secured for future generations.”
García Castro lives with her parents and a niece. She works as a nail technician and is a land trust board member. “I have been here all of my life,” she said. “These are my people.”
While determined to keep their homes, community members said they do not oppose the channel’s revitalization.
“We want to get the channel back, but we don’t want this to be at the expense of our displacement,” said Lyvia Rodríguez, executive director of the land trust. “We want to be in control of our future, and we want to be here.”
The land trust, she explained, “will ensure that a new generation of residents have the opportunity to live along a restored Martín Peña Channel.” The community will own the land in perpetuity, but residents may transfer ownership of their houses through inheritance or sale. In addition to securing land rights, the land trust aspires to tackle other problems, such as sporadic electrical service, mosquito infestations, inadequate transportation and food insecurity.
The community is still reeling from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria. “In the hurricane, over 1,000 houses lost their roofs, and 75 houses were destroyed,” said Mariolga Juliá-Pacheco, special projects coordinator for the land trust. “We were able to supply tarps, first aid supplies, food and water.”
While land trust leaders are excited about improving the community’s quality of life, Juliá-Pacheco said there is still much work to do to ensure that residents acquire surface rights deeds. She emphasizes that the One Great Hour of Sharing grant is helping to accomplish this. A community facilitator, whose salary is partially paid by the grant, is helping families through the tedious process of acquiring deeds for their homes.
Without this guidance, some families would struggle to prove their eligibility for a deed and complete the paperwork needed to obtain one, Juliá-Pacheco said. “You may have been living in your house without papers for 60 years, and suddenly you need to have them. It’s a long process. You need accompaniment.”
All three Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ministries supported by One Great Hour of Sharing gifts — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Self-Development of People — are working alongside the land trust.
Juliá-Pacheco hopes the work of the land trust will be a model for other communities in Puerto Rico. The threat of gentrification, she noted, looms large as new construction projects emerge in the aftermath of the hurricane. Some Puerto Ricans are afraid they can no longer afford to live in the communities that have been their home for years, she said. “It’s really a big fear in communities across the island.”
Yet the support of One Great Hour of Sharing has helped assuage these fears for families protected by the land trust, Juliá-Pacheco said. “We are grateful for the generous giving and for this grant.”
In most Presbyterian congregations, the One Great Hour of Sharing offering is received on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday.
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