Confronting Haiti's housing woes

Haiti's cash-strapped government has been criticized for both the size and location of new housing units, built to resolve the lack of post-earthquake permanent housing there.

Swoan Parker/Reuters
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton (2nd R) visits the Mission of Hope Leveque Housing Community and Agricultural and Technical Research Training Center in Leveque Tuesday. Clinton flew to Haiti on Saturday to join the country's president, Michel Martelly, at an official commemoration of the third anniversary of the earthquake that decimated the capital and killed more than 250,000 people.

The bright green, orange, and blue box-shaped tiny buildings beckon like neon signs on a dark night.

Partially built and the size of a tiny motel room, the two-room structures are a huge improvement over the tattered tents and tin shacks where 347,284 Haitians still linger three years after the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

But as Haiti's government moves to resolve the biggest reconstruction issue - permanent housing - officials are facing a lack of funds to solve the problem and getting criticized over the size and location of the houses that are being built. Some even question whether the government should be in the construction business.

"It's better than a tent, but it's not the real aspirations of the people," said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner who worked on housing issues after the quake. "I think it's a bad idea to give a product like that to the people. They want respect and you are downgrading them."

But Patrick Rouzier, housing adviser to President Michel Martelly, said the 344-square-feet houses are more than dignified. They consist of two-rooms, a kitchen and bath.

"We cannot cross our arms and say we won't do anything for the people underneath the tents," said Rouzier, a businessman. "We saw what (hurricane) Sandy and the other guy, Isaac, could do. Do you still say, 'Listen, since we don't have the money to give them houses, let's keep them in the camps?' I rather help them and at least for the next hurricane season they won't be in the tents."

At a cost of $48 million, the 3,000 houses being built on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets are only part of the government's housing fix. The plan also includes revitalizing quake-damaged neighborhoods and urbanizing slums and undeveloped areas.

Internationally, there has been a low success rate for the type of contractor-built, government-sponsored post-disaster projects the new community represents. The reasons are complex, say housing experts, and include issues of poor or nonexistent housing policies, tenant selection, remote locations and the costs to expand the starter homes. What seems logical is very difficult to replicate in a way that creates thriving new communities occupied by formerly displaced families, the experts say.

Even before the quake left more than 300,000 dead and wiped out 410,000 homes across Port-au-Prince and its surrounding cities, Haiti's housing stock was substandard. The poor lived mostly in deplorable slums scattered around the capital. Houses that didn't pancake in the temblor were later tagged as green for inhabitable, yellow for repairable, or red for demolition.

But after promising to help Haiti "build back better," donors hesitated to pour money into permanent construction. Instead, they financed repairs for homeowners, rental subsidies for tent dwellers and the construction of 160,000 temporary shelters for a half-million people.

Nowhere are the failed promises of reconstruction as glaring as in the empty model homes sitting inside Zorange, a public housing village near the Port-au-Prince airport. Designed mostly by foreign architects and builders, the homes were promoted as part of a housing expo championed by former President Bill Clinton. But the project never received the donor financing or Haitian government ownership to match Clinton's enthusiasm.

"It was hoped that either a private sector or maybe an investor, or maybe a large donor would pick up and scale up one of these models. But this is where the money has run short," said Jessica Faieta, the United Nations Development Program's deputy regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Not far from the failed expo is one of the few donor-financed permanent housing projects that did happen. The 400 houses, also in Zorange, were financed by the Inter-American Development Bank for about $8 million, with construction overseen by the government.

The houses, however, remained unoccupied for about eight months before quake victims like Marie Therese Pierre were identified by a government agency and allowed to move in. For Pierre, the sparsely furnished two-room house with a kitchen and bath, is a big upgrade from her poorly constructed Cite Soleil house that fell in the quake.

But like other tenants, Pierre, 67, worries about being able to pay the $35 to $47 monthly rent, depending on the model's size.

"This can't pay rent," she said, pointing to the coffee brewing in an oversized pot that she sells.

 The new homes being built are also rentals. Haiti's still unreformed property laws prevent the sale and transfer of government land.

This has raised other concerns among critics of the project who say its desolate location about 10 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince makes it difficult, if not impossible, for incoming tenants to scrape a living.

Others, like Dr. William Pape, worry about the public health implications of having so many people clustered so closely together. Founder of the region's largest HIV/AIDS research clinic in the hemisphere, Pape has expanded his focus to the capital's slums in the wake of the disaster.

"I think the intention was good to bring them there, but we could have done better," said Pape, who has visited the site. "The ventilation is not good. I think people are sitting in cubicles; it's almost in a prison. It should have been conceived better because when you bring people from their old shacks to a new place, they should see that their situation is improving."

Rouzier said people's situation will improve. As a model for decentralizing the overcrowded capital city, a new school, sporting center and $10 million industrial park to generate employment are being built at Morne-a-Cabris, named after a nearby mountain.

"Nobody did this before. It's not like we have a book that we can just open," he said. "We will make mistakes, but I rather a bad action than no action."

In recent months, donors have commended the government for devoting units to housing, and creating a strategy document to address the country's housing deficit.

With the lack of land and money still huge hurdles to providing some 500,000 houses over the next 10 years, some say the State should decide whether it's better to build new public housing or invest in infrastructure, such as sanitation.

"This city is expected to double in population in 17 years," Maggie Stephenson, senior technical adviser with U.N. Habitat in Haiti said about the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. "So the earlier strategic investments happen the better."

One place where investments soon will happen is in the post-quake mountainside slum of Cannan, a few miles west of Morne-a-Cabris.

Clement Belizaire, director of the government's camp relocation and rehabilitation program, said $20 million in roads, water treatment and lighting projects will soon be installed in the makeshift area, where tens of thousands of displaced quake victims live in illegal shanties.

The project is just one of the undertakings of Belizaire's office, which is charged with clearing out six camps and rehabilitating 16 neighborhoods associated with those camps.

Recently, the office launched a pilot project to rebuild 19 two-story apartments for low-income homeowners in Morne Hercule, a community in Petionville. Belizaire hopes to replicate the project in other neighborhoods but he concedes that a lack of funding remains a huge issue.

"All of the big money is gone so we have to spend every single penny with a lot of wisdom."

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