Hurricane Dorian destroyed whole neighborhoods and towns in the Bahamas and many Bahamians will be challenged to find their homes and belongings in the rubble that remains. But rebuilding the Bahamas will be made even more complicated because many residents don't officially own the land where their houses stood. For many, the deed is held by a family member who has been deceased for many generations.
Tenure insecurity is a problem in the Bahamas, where 'ownership' has been passed down from generation to generation without accompanying paperwork to make inheritances official. When a natural disaster destroys their property it can be almost impossible to re-establish any 'rights' over property. Another factor is that rebuilding permits and aid often require not only identity to be verified but also property ownership rights and title.
Even before the Bahamas was hit by Hurricane Dorian, the country* lacked robust land administration with dependable record-keeping like those kept by other wealthy and established nations. Land tenure is a law system that determines who has ownership rights to land and who can use it, for what means and how long. The Bahamas, and particularly the Abaco Islands where Hurricane Dorian did the most damage, is less administered than other comparable nations.
"Much of the land and property ownership in the Abaco islands is informal due to combination of history, cultural and necessity," says James Kavanagh MRICS C.Geog, Director RICS Global Land & Resources Group for RICS. "The centralized land administration authority in Nassau can seem a world away."
Land and property registration in the Bahamas is ranked at 181** in the world underlining the level of tenure insecurity many island residents suffer and increases the risk of being homeless after their homes are destroyed.
The Bahamas is not unique with its undocumented informal land tenure (although it is unusual for a high income nation to have such levels of informality and opacity in its land administration systems), up to seventy percent of the world shares this predicament with much of the at-risk communities located in areas that make them vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This problem adds to their vulnerability as more severe storms and flooding become the norm.
The extensiveness of informal land tenure is rooted in the high cost of administering estates – it can only be done in a court of law. Land informally passed down from generation to generation is referred to as generation or family land.
"Family land describes a remnant of inattention to legal processes and requirements for the inheriting of land and arises where families have not administered the estates of deceased ancestors for generation after generation," explains Tex Turnquest, Valuation Surveyor with TR Associates Ltd. Based in the Bahamas. "It is a form of tenure that affects large tracts of land mainly in the less developed islands of The Bahamas where ancestors are still the recorded owner."
Much of the land on Great Abaco Island is home to residents without secure land tenure - this is true in other islands in the Bahamas as well. In cases of family land, title is potentially held by the descendants as tenants in common – the actual owner has not been determined through legal procedures, although families may keep good track of family members.
Now that much of the island has been destroyed, establishing tenure rights for residents will be an important first step in rebuilding. The lack of a structured administrative database with formalized legitimate land ownership and established boundaries, makes it very difficult for them to access post disaster relief and rebuilding funds.
RICS has worked with a coalition from over 30 not-for-profit member organizations to develop the International Land Measurement Standard (ILMS) to help establish consistent due diligence protocols for land and real property surveying, acquisition and transfer. ILMS combines international best practice around the essential land and property data components (eight including valuation) that need to be collated as part of an informed process to establish tenure rights and reduce risk during the transfer and acquisition due diligence process.
"Much of the land and property ownership in the Abaco islands is informal due to combination of history, cultural and necessity...the centralized land administration authority in Nassau can seem a world away"
Director of RICS Global Land & Resources Group
The hurricane destroyed towns, blew the roofs off houses in wealthy resorts and left the island bare of infrastructure. The recovery phase would be greatly aided by established tenure rights and security, which would help provide transparency during rebuilding and not displace vulnerable populations. An established, transparent and effective land and property administrative database would allow administrators to verify ownership of land as a first step to rebuilding and repairs.
"Natural disasters are increasing in ferocity and frequency across the world. One of the first steps toward recovery is the re-establishment of legitimate land and property rights and ownership and this can be greatly aided by having an efficient system in place in pre-disaster," says Kavanaugh. "ILMS is a very robust and easy to use due diligence protocol which can help establish the basic information that is required from a land administration to enable a functioning and active land and property market to be established."
As mentioned above, as communities begin to rebuild, land owners need to provide proof of title to access emergency funding. This would allow for increased transparency into who is getting funding and build confidence in the administration providing this funding.
Foreign aid relies on this transparency – benchmarking projects to compare costs between projects can provide peace of mind for those investing in the reconstruction of areas impacted by the hurricane. RICS has developed a framework that can help project owners and governments compare costs between projects through the International Cost Measurement Standards (ICMS).
Requiring transparency through benchmarking provides the tools for the project owner to keep investors and the public informed and engaged with the project's progress.
Over time, as infrastructure is rebuilt, property ownership rights are re-established and records are made transparent, the islands will begin to attract foreign investment into commercial properties again.
In this global market, foreign investors expect international best practices to be followed. Different national property measurement standards adhered to by local regulators can result in variances from market to market by over 20 percent, affecting the ability of the lender, investor, owner and tenant to compare assets and potentially impacting value. RICS has developed a set of standards (referred to as the Red Book) to ensure valuations meet international standards and allow for consistency and confidence by foreign investors and locals alike.
"In any market, transparency is key", said Michael Zuriff, Head of Regulation for the Americas. "Value matters - investors, lenders, home buyers, and governments can have more confidence in valuations when they're performed to international standards".
RICS has been working in the Bahamas with specially-trained qualified professionals who represent the gold standard in the industry, both from their qualifying education requirements and the continuing training, development and regulation that they receive as part of their ongoing qualification requirements.
Qualified professionals who work in the region follow the Red Book and participate in the RICS Valuer Registration Program. By participating in this program, Registered Valuers are subject to a range of proactive regulatory activities, from desk-based analysis of the valuer's work, including policies and procedures, to the potential for a review of the valuer's valuation files to ensure compliance with the standards. This is how RICS has been building confidence – foreign investors know that RICS Registered Valuers provide the preferred standard for valuation work in the region.
As the Bahamas rebuilds the areas most impacted by the hurricane, this is an opportunity to build a world-class land and property administrative system to balance the needs of residents and foreign investors. Striking the right balance will ensure the nation is indeed open for business.