©Louis-Joseph Olivier/AFP/Getty Images
In Douillard, on the edge of Cité Soleil, one of the most notorious slums in one of the world’s poorest countries, life was never easy. Poverty and gang violence were the order of the day. Then, the 2010 earthquake made matters worse.
The rubble that could have filled London’s Wembley Stadium two-and-a-half times may be gone, along with the tarpaulins that mushroomed in many of Port-au-Prince’s empty spaces. But more than five years since the goudou goudou (earthquake) drove hundreds of thousands of residents into tent camps, housing remains one of Haiti’s biggest problems.
Even before the earthquake, the country had an estimated housing deficit of 700,000 homes, says USAID. The catastrophe only exacerbated the shortage, leaving 1.5m people homeless. Despite ideological differences, donors — from the US government to socialist Venezuela — were united in the rush to provide housing relief.
Agencies have been handing out support subsidies of $500 a family to cover a year’s rent. “Some camp residents have the unrealistic expectation of receiving free housing, or free land to build on,” says Grégoire Goodstein, head of mission for the International Organisation for Migration, although he stresses that the majority of those affected were able to handle their own relocation.
Today, only 79,000 people remain in camps. However, according to a senior USAID official, “despite that success, housing remains a major challenge in Haiti. There’s still a shortage of quality housing; a lot of people are living in substandard housing; and that 700,000 deficit remains.”
Some improvement projects are under way. Off Delmas 32, a main thoroughfare in Port-au-Prince, builders are finishing a block of 18 “co-proprietary” apartments funded by international organisations including the World Bank. It has taken more than five years since the earthquake to get this far in one of the most affected zones. The buildings have been constructed with deeper foundations, using concrete and techniques to absorb future shocks.
You need to use longer timeframes when it comes to measuring results
They include access to water — previously not available — and encourage more responsible collective habitation, with shared garbage collection. But aid agencies have found that overcoming suspicion to work with local communities and meet their needs was painstaking work. “You can see progress. But here you need to use longer-term timeframes when it comes to measuring results,” says Fenella Frost, who heads the UN Development Programme disaster risk reduction unit in Haiti.
Among those struggling with the system is Marylène Fleche. She has been in a wheelchair since breaking her spine in the earthquake. She was relocated to a fading pastel-coloured home in the 750-house showcase complex of the village La Difference, in northeast Haiti, far from the disaster zone.
La Difference is about 45 minutes’ drive from the country’s second-largest city, Cap-Haïtien, and was financed by USAID and inaugurated by Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state.
“First, they told me the house was free; now they want me to pay $34 a month for five years in order to keep the house but I have no money and cannot work” says Ms Fleche.
Her case reflects both the challenges of ownership and the expectations of foreign donors given Haiti’s realities.
“After the earthquake, humanitarian aid arrived, all willing to build houses for the victims, but all without planning,” says Odnell David, the director of the Haitian government’s housing division. “In a market economy, this doesn’t work. We cannot develop the sector by providing free housing to people,” he adds. “People have to pay something, even if it’s symbolic.”
Despite billions of dollars in international aid pledges and some achievements, there is some scepticism about what has been delivered.
The US government initially talked about assisting in erecting 15,000 houses, but has so far built 900. And the 750 houses in La Difference are of poor quality, with cracks and leaks, prompting USAID to propose debarment of the US contractors it employed.
“We learnt the lessons from the mistakes of others. We are using better construction materials, methods and planning,” says an infrastructure specialist with one of the aid organisations building 240 houses nearby, in Terroir Rouge.
“So we hope to deliver a good product for Haitians.”