Years After Haiti Quake, Safe Housing Is a Dream for Many

By Deborah Sontag of the NYT:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Since theearthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, a scrappy 12-year-old boy named Givenson Fanfan has been sleeping on the rock-hard floor of a tent pitched in a fetid camp dominated by a 50-foot tower of trash. He dreams of a bed.

In a hillside community, Terilien Brice, a 63-year-old grievously injured in the earthquake, lives like a shut-in inside his condemned house, which was marked with a red tag that is supposed to mean “no entry,” not no exit. He feels helpless.

Dieu Juste Saint Eloi, 68, in contrast, secured a one-room shelter with plastic sheeting for walls, but his clan of 12 squeezes into it. And it perches on a ledge above the ruins of his spacious home, into which his granddaughter keeps tumbling and breaking bones.

Unexpectedly, though, his 29-year-old son, William Saint Eloi, hit the housing jackpot. Isolated all his life because he is deaf, he now has a new home and community because two can-do Christian charities have taken deaf disaster victims under wing.

Two and a half years after the earthquake, despite billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, the most obvious, pressing need — safe, stable housing for all displaced people — remains unmet.

In what international officials term a protracted humanitarian crisis, hundreds of thousands remain in increasingly wretched tent camps. Tens of thousands inhabit dangerously damaged buildings. And countless others, evicted from camps and yards, have simply disappeared with their raggedy tarps and rusty sheet metal into the hills.

There are many visible signs of activity across the country now — public plazas cleared of lean-tos, state-of-the-art repairs in selected areas and housing developments under construction. Tens of thousands of Haitian families have found enduring solutions to their housing crises — by rebuilding themselves, by getting reconstruction assistance or by securing one of the relatively few new houses.

But to spend a week exploring the disaster zone is to discover striking disparities in living conditions, often glaringly juxtaposed: Givenson’s dead-end camp adjacent to a quarter that is a beehive of construction; William Saint Eloi’s good fortune next to his family’s trials; a devastated community revitalized on one side of a ravine but not the other.

In the absence of an overarching housing policy, Haiti’s shelter problem has been tackled unsystematically, in a way that has favored rural over urban victims and homeowners over renters because their needs were more easily met. Many families with the least resources have been neglected unless they happened to belong to a tent camp, neighborhood or vulnerable population targeted by a particular program.

“It’s the project syndrome — one neighborhood gets incredible resources, the next is in total limbo, or one camp gets rental subsidies, the next gets nothing,” said Maggie Stephenson, a senior technical adviser to U.N.-Habitat in Haiti. “We have to spread the remaining resources more equitably. Equity is essential, and so are durable solutions.”

A World Bank document estimates that more than $400 million in “large-scale permanent solutions” — new houses, home repairs and infrastructure reconstruction — are planned, under way and in a few cases completed.

To date, though, small-scale temporary solutions — transitional shelters, mostly in the countryside, and yearlong rental subsidies in the city — have soaked up a lot of the shelter reconstruction budget.

One-room transitional shelters dominated the international effort initially. T-shelters, as they are called, were intended to move people out of the camps while permanent housing was being built. But they took much longer to erect and cost far more than anticipated: at least $500 million for 125,000 shelters not built to last, said Priscilla M. Phelps, housing adviser to the now-defunct Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.

“They are mainly made up of wood, and, in this climate, they will be eaten by termites and rot in three to five years,” said H. Kit Miyamoto, a seismic engineer working in Haiti since the earthquake. “All the money spent on T-shelters will be melted away.”

At the same time, while more than 200,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, international aid has led to an estimated 15,000 repairs and 5,700 new, permanent homes so far. Most of the new houses are outside greater Port-au-Prince, where it was easier to obtain land, and some have yet to be occupied.

A high-profile project of 400 new houses in Zoranje, for instance, is still largely empty five months after President Michel Martelly cut the ribbon on it. About 25 families — all of government workers — had moved in by the end of July; the rest were delayed because the complex had not yet been connected to water.

Mr. Martelly’s focus has been on reclaiming six prominent public squares by relocating tent dwellers to rental apartments. Cash grants subsidize a year’s rent only, and the relocation program, run by international groups, has been labor-intensive, with at least a third of its cost going to overhead.

Some Haitians criticize the approach, now being used to clear some smaller camps, too, as sweeping the enormous homelessness problem from view and delaying its resolution.

But Giovanni Cassani, the coordinator of humanitarian camps in Haiti, said rental subsidies and temporary shelters, some far sturdier than others, were “definitely better than the camps.”

“Anything is better than the camps,” he said.

‘Where Will We End Up?’

Etched into a hillside, Givenson’s camp lies in an area called Golgotha, after the hilltop where Jesus was crucified — “a place of great suffering,” one resident explained. Before the earthquake, Golgotha was the dump for the adjacent neighborhood, which was hit hard by the disaster.

“My house was crushed,” Givenson said recently as he tossed a deflated soccer ball. He was home alone when the shaking started, but his father ran down the mountain to scoop him up and carry him to safety. His big toe was injured, he said, but that was it.

Givenson, his father and his father’s girlfriend fled to the dump during the emergency. Two and a half years later they are still there, in the deteriorating camping tent his father purchased then.

They are among the 390,000 Haitians in the 575 remaining camps; this does not include what humanitarian authorities say are the tens of thousands forcibly evicted from camps over the last two months who also remain homeless.

The camps are in abysmal condition, with many, like Givenson’s, on sites at risk of landslides or flooding. Tents and tarps — “From the American people,” many say — are tattered. There is one shower for every 1,200 people, and one functional latrine for every 77.

Asked where he went to the bathroom, Givenson scampered down a steep incline and urinated into a trash-filled ravine at the bottom, not bothering with the 10 flimsy outhouses that serve the 800 or so above.

Small for his age but self-assured, Givenson, unlike many adults in the camps, is not resigned to his fate. He demands answers. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Everything that’s happening around here with the reconstruction, we can’t seem to get a piece of it.”

Givenson’s former neighborhood bustles with masons as homeowners rebuild with international help. But Givenson’s father, an ironworker, was a renter. For the moment, his family’s fate is nobody’s concern.

Leading the way to his tent, Givenson stepped deftly over feces and skinny dogs prostrate in the heat. He pushed open a rusty sheet-metal gate spray-painted “Radios fixed here” — “my little business,” he said. He ushered visitors inside. A bare bulb dangled; it was sweltering.

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