In response to Deborah Sontag’s investigative report on the state of housing for earthquake survivors in Haiti, I wanted to expound on why building permanent homes is so challenging and revisit the idea of transitional shelters (T-shelters) and repairing damaged homes as ways to provide shelter for the homeless after a disaster.
In countries like Haiti, between one-third and one-half of the urban population lives in informal slums, essentially trespassing on government or private property. Many of these shelters are well below the minimum humanitarian standards to which aid agencies adhere. While working in informal settlements in Port-au-Prince, World Concern found that many people preferred the cramped quarters of a one-room shelter for large, extended families over the option of moving out of the city, away from jobs, transit and markets. In other words, moving people to outlying areas where large pieces of land might be developed for housing is not the best solution.
T-shelters are intended to last three years, with the understanding that a permanent housing solution will not be available before that time. It is important to note that the alternative is replacement tents every six months, which would cost approximately the same amount over the same time.
World Concern was one of several agencies that focused our work on repairing more than 2,000 damaged “yellow”-coded houses. Where houses could not be repaired, World Concern developed T-shelters with a permanent foundation, providing homeowners with a solid beginning on which they could build earthquake resistant housing within their own means.
An independent report prepared for USAID concluded that, of the 894,588 people who fled to camps in the days after the earthquake, more than 85% had returned to their homes by May 2011. This report concluded that there are many in the camps who are “hoping to take advantage of the aid; not necessarily renters.” This same study showed that yellow and green houses had a return rate of more than 95%, including renters.
One of the key contributions of foreign aid was the removal of more than 5 million cubic meters of rubble from the streets, walkways and private properties of Port-au-Prince. More than 50% of homes would not have been accessible without this work, and the cleared roads have enabled construction crews to rebuild more quickly.
Demolition of condemned buildings is not only expensive, but it’s a time consuming process. Many of these buildings are multi-story rental units or larger homes of wealthy families. Some of the latter have left town or even left the country, leaving a condemned building with no hope for new opportunities. Other landowners want the demolition to occur, but are not willing to accept single family units on their plot of land, preferring rather to wait until they have enough funds to replace the multi-story complex they once had. Land rights are an important part of democratic rule of law. If a former landlord refuses to rebuild, or to accept the affordable housing solutions offered by aid agencies, that is their prerogative.
It also takes time to work with the government to implement aid. Before the earthquake, Haiti did not have an urban redevelopment plan, so agencies have worked with the government to ensure an enforceable strategy is in place, rather than willy-nilly construction which creates a new hazard for the future. This strategy, while slow, is seen as the only way to prevent the cycle of calamity repeating itself again.
After the 2004 earthquake in Banda Aceh, it took more than five years to replace 140,000 homes. After two years, Port-au-Prince is only just shy of the same average rate of construction, with most of the heavy lifting already done.
While there is much more to do, the dream of safe housing is much closer for most Haitians than it was before the tragic events of 2010.