Durable Housing Solutions Hampered by “the Project Syndrome”

August 21, 2012

Last week Deborah Sontag of the New York Times reported in depth on the lack of sustainable housing solutions in Haiti since the earthquake:

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.”

Sontag notes that $500 million was spent on transitional shelters that were “not built to last”, meaning “All the money spent on T-shelters will be melted away,” as H. Kit Miyamoto, an engineer working in Haiti, told Sontag. Meanwhile, although some 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.

Though many are quick to tout the decrease in camp population as a sign the housing and displacement crisis is being met, it is clear the number of new housing solutions can only explain a fraction of the camp population reduction. The lack of adequate housing has led 33 international organizations to sponsor the Under Tents campaign. Working with Haitian grassroots groups, the campaign seeks to win housing rights for the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who remain displaced or living in unsustainable housing.

Of particular concern is the sustainability of the government and international community’s flagship IDP relocation program, called “16/6.” Under Tents writes:

The extent to which Martelly’s plan constitutes a “durable” solution remains to be seen. First, the plan relocated just 5% of the IDP population. Second, human rights advocates worry this “relocation” has not ensured basic human rights such as access to water and sanitation services. Third, the plan offers families a rental stipend for just one year. In the absence of work opportunities, families’ ability to pay rent one year from now is dubious. Advocates have also raised concerns that residents of the original six camps were not told about the plan or given input into how it would affect them.

The plan was also the subject of a report for the Toronto Star by Catherine Porter. Although the project originally aimed to clear out six camps and rehabilitate 16 neighborhoods for those camp residents to return to, as Porter explains, “The plan for new houses, though, is modest. In total, only 1,000 new houses will be built in eight neighbourhoods by the 16/6 program.”

Rather, most beneficiaries of the “16/6” plan will receive a rental subsidy and move into potentially dangerous housing in neighborhoods that have yet to see major reconstruction since the earthquake. Porter continues:

I spent two mornings walking around Fort National, investigating what a $500 rent subsidy would get.

A sign greeted me from the main road, tacked to the side of a tin shed: Une Chambre a Maisson a Affermer. Room for Rent. I called the number. A man named Nobert led me through a warren of narrow alleys to the bottom floor of a big concrete house. The room was like a prison cell: three metres by three metres, one window with no glass, a wire dangling from the ceiling with no light bulb.

Like most apartments in the slums, there was no stove or running water. Nobert took me back up the hill to the shared privy — a hole in the ground of a shed. For this, he was charging $375 (U.S.) for the year. “I’m renting eight other apartments already,” he said, “all of them to the IOM.”

As Sontag explains in the Times, a significant impediment to the creation of new housing has been the lack of a more comprehensive policy, and instead a focus on individual projects such as “16/6”:

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.”

One of these projects was the subject of a front page Washington Post article this past weekend, which praised a USAID-financed reconstruction project in the Ravine Pintade neighborhood (and echoed many of the same points as a press release on the USAID website three months ago). The $8.5 million project, “gives a hint of what is possible on a small scale,” writes David Brown of the Post. But it also suffered from the exact problem mentioned by Maggie Stephenson in the quote above:

However, there was only enough money to rebuild one side of the ravine. The north side was chosen because CHF and PCI had “strong existing community relationships” there, Khachadurian said. As it turned out, that asymmetry was the source of recurrent trouble during the 17 months of reconstruction.

Peter Van Buren wrote a scathing response to the Post article. Van Buren is the author of the book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Van Buren spent a year leading State Department reconstruction teams in Iraq before writing his book, after which, according to his website the State Department “began termination proceedings against him, reassigning him to a make-work position and stripping him of his security clearance and diplomatic credentials.” Van Buren notes that the “default media plan at State is to follow anything negative in the press with a planted puff piece,” which he considers the article in the Post to be. He also posts a number of questions that he submitted to the Washington Post Ombudsman, among them:

Brown’s article, which ran on the front page of the Post and continued inside, quoted only two people connected with the project by name, the project manager paid by USAID and one engineer paid by USAID. Why were there no quotes from any of the Haitian residents of the new dwellings? Why were there no quotes from any local Haitain officials? Did the WaPo editors cut out such quotes? Did they not ask Brown to obtain such quotes? How did Brown fact-check the details given to him by the USAID-paid people? DID Brown fact check those details?

As I learned in Iraq, building things is relatively easy given massive amounts of money. The real magic is sustainability. Brown tells us “Groups of houses share 23 septic tanks and 100 bucket-flush toilets, which can be locked for privacy. Twenty solar-powered lights illuminate streets.” What plans and whose money are in place to repair and maintain that technology? Who/how will the septic tanks be drained or pumped out? What happens when the first solar light needs replacing? Will any of this be there working a year from now? If so, under what plan? The article calls the work in Haiti a “renaissance,” a pretty dramatic word that is empty, meaningless and damned temporary unless there is a sustainability plan in place.


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