Four years after the January 12 2010 earthquake, questions haunt the four main post-disaster housing projects built by the governments of René Préval and Michel Martelly. Who lives in them? Who runs them? Can the residents afford the rents or mortgages? Are the residents the earthquake victims?
By some estimates, the catastrophe killed some 200,000 people and made 1.3 million homeless overnight. But the new projects do not necessarily house earthquake victims, over 200,000 of whom still live in tents or in the three large new slums called Canaan, Onaville and Jerusalem.
An investigation by Haiti Grassroots Watch involving over 20 interviews and many visits discovered that, even though there are newly housed families, many – probably the majority – are not necessarily victims of the earthquake. Several others are plagued with lack of services and persistent acts of vandalism, theft and waste.
Homes Too Expensive
One of the first projects approved by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the Expo cost over US$ 2 million in public reconstruction money. Foreign and Haitian construction and architecture firms also spent at least US$ 2 million more. The objective was to provide models for the agencies and businesses engaged in post-earthquake housing construction.
Everyone agrees the Expo was a failure. Few visited the site and fewer still chose one of the model homes – many of which were very expensive by Haitian standards – for their project.
According to David Odnell, director of the government’s Unit for the Construction of Housing and Public Buildings (UCLBP), one of three government agencies involved with the housing question:
There were some really odd examples. Some of them had nothing to do with the way we Haitians live or think about housing. It was a completely imported thing.
Today, surrounded by weeds and goats, the fading and cracked houses are home to dozens of squatters.
A young pregnant girl who said her parents are “renters”, explained:
All the houses have new owners. They have been taken over.
The young woman who said she was “owner” of the girl’s house sat nearby with a child. Both women wanted to remain anonymous, but she was happy to share her story:
I didn’t follow any procedure got get this. I just took it. My brother was the security guard here. Nobody asked us to pay anything and nobody said anything. And in any case, who would we pay?
According to at least four residents as well as a government consultant, the squatters are all people who already lived in Zoranje. Many of the units are now being rented out.
In a November 2013 interview, Odnell, an architect, agreed:
Yes, that’s possible, and you know why. There is a void…and there is no authority there. But [the project] is not exactly a waste. I could call it poor planning, because the houses can always be recuperated.
Odnell’s counterpart at the government Fund for Social and Economic Assistance agency (FAES), Patrick Anglade, said much the same thing:
Aside from the inauguration week, the project has been forgotten. Nobody goes over there because nobody was really managing the project. The entrepreneurs left and nobody promoted the houses. It’s a problem that can be solved, but we have to figure out how to do that.
Another new project sits practically across the street from the Expo: 128 apartments built by the Venezuelan government for US$ 4.9 million (according to its figures) during the Hugo Chavez presidency. They are usually called “Kay Chavez yo” – “The Chavez Houses.”
Earthquake-resistant, sporting two bedrooms, a bath, a living room and a kitchen, and painted in bright colors, today most of the homes house people who simply broke down the doors and moved in. Only 42 of the 128 have “legal” inhabitants: families invited by the Venezuelan Embassy. Empty for 15 months, some were vandalized. Fixtures, toilets, sinks and other items, including water pumps, were stolen.
Inhabitants are already making adjustments: changing some doors, adding windows, building gates and fences.
Surrounded by neighborhood men, Jules Jamlee sits with on a broken chair across the street from a home that is being expanded with the addition of an extra room. Like his friends, he is insistent about his right to “his” home:
The president knows very well that we are revolutionaries. He might make threats but he knows we don’t agree with them.
The housing development still lacks water and residents complain that the lack of adequate water means that the toilets don’t work well. Many residents instead use nearby weedy areas for their physiological needs.
When Haiti Grassroots Watch visited in June 2013, journalists learned that six out of ten residents polled said they walk to get water by bucket. Four said their toilets did not function.
Known as the 400% or “400 in 100” project because Martelly promised 400 homes would be built in 100 days, the nearby US$ 30 million project, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank, was inaugurated on February 27 2012. The development has three kilometers of paved streets, a water system (which lacked water until just recently), an electrical system, street lamps and a square with a basketball court.
But not all of the new residents are earthquake victims. Many are public administration employees. There was a rush to fill the houses at the beginning. And there are other complications, because the houses are not gifts. Residents must pay a five-year mortgage.
The mortgages are between US$ 39 and US$ 46 per month. The contract says that “non-payment by the renter/beneficiary for three consecutive months will result in a 5% penalty for each unpaid month” and that “non-payment could lead to expulsion.”
The contract has caused a great deal of grumbling. Yves Zéphyr, an unemployed father of two who has lived in the development since November 2012, noted:
The president did not give us a house. He is selling it to us. They are too expensive. What can a person do in this country where there is no work? How can one find 1,500 gourdes (US $39) each month?
FAES admits it faces a challenge:
We are not achieving 100% payments, not even 70%. At least 30% are behind.
A small poll by Haiti Grassroots Watch gives an idea of why some people are behind. One-half of ten residents questioned said they are unemployed.
When the project was launched, the government received financing to prepare the land, build the houses, and set up the electricity system, but not for the actual services necessary for a housing development, like water, septic system cleaning, a marketplace, schools, a clinic and affordable transportation to downtown. The UCLBP's Odnell explained:
We have space for all the necessary services. They were all in the initial plan, but we couldn’t achieve all of them. In the end, we could only build the houses. We were only able to put in the water recently, once we looked for and got the necessary financing.
While many residents say they are happy with their new homes, there were also problems. Some roofs leaked every time it rained, and residents said that electricity was very rare. Some of the houses had been vandalized before residents moved in: tin roofs and toilets had disappeared. The septic systems for some of the houses are also causing problems.
Up to the Challenge?
The Haitian government recognizes that it faces an enormous challenge. Some 150,000 earthquake victims still live in about 300 camps and another 50,000 live in the new sprawling slums Canaan, Onaville and Jerusalem. Half of the camps have no sanitation services and only 8% are supplied with water, according to an October 2013 report from the UCLBP and the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM)/Shelter Cluster. Residents of over 100 camps are in imminent danger of being evicted. In December, 126 families were forced to leave their homes and shacks in Canaan, near Village Lumane Casimir.
According to the government, the housing deficit will only continue to grow as people leave the countryside and smaller towns and move to cities.
According to the UCLBP’s new Policy of Housing and Urban Planning (PNLH):
Haiti needs to meet the challenge of constructing 500,000 new homes in order to meet the current and housing deficit between now and 2020.
The new policy is ambitious but vague. The language of the document implies that the government will seek to resolve the deficit in partnership with the private sector. While this kind of orientation should not necessarily be rejected out of hand, already with the Lumane Casimir Village and the 400% and Chavez Houses projects, it appears that the government is no longer going to build social housing that is within reach of the majority of Haitians.