Building permanent housing remains Haiti’s biggest challenge following the 2010 earthquake


For Islande Lima, the one-bedroom house that came with indoor plumbing and a second unfinished bedroom was supposed to be a fresh start, a chance to live in dignified housing after losing her home in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

But soon after she moved into the newly constructed house just days before Christmas 2013, reality began to set in: The house was tiny; the windows easily flew off latches; the doorknobs wobbled.

“The houses weren’t well built,” said Lima, 33. “The doors, the windows — they aren’t good. The slightest wind and the windows fly off.”

The fading pastel-colored homes, inaugurated by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Haiti’s current and immediate past presidents nearly three years ago, were supposed symbolize the new Haiti, the centerpiece of restoration after one of the hemisphere’s worst natural disasters.

But five years after the 7.0 earthquake killed 300,000 people and drove more than 1.5 million into squalid tent cities, the U.S-taxpayer-financed Caracol-EKAM housing development, is emblematic of the housing problems that have plagued the post-quake response.

Just a fraction of the permanent houses promised for Haiti have been built; homes were more costly than planned; and, the quality of the materials used in the 750 Caracol homes have been deemed so subpar that USAID officials say they are considering taking legal action against contractors. Not long ago, one U.S. government official called the project “excellent homes built to very high standards.”

“From the moment we arrived, the house started cracking,” Lima said as she stood on her front porch, while pointing out the fissures circling the fading blue paint. “All of these are cracks.”

Even more disconcerting is the fact that this project is not alone in its failure.

Some 170 miles south of Caracol in the Haitian government-financed Lumane Casimir Village on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, families displaced by the quake also live in poorly constructed houses in a development that’s only 30 percent completed. And just 477 of 1,280 of the completed homes are occupied almost two years after the homes were inaugurated. The Dominican contractor, HADOM Construction, has yet to deliver on not only 1,720 houses but a promised market and factory. Company officials did not respond to Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald requests for comment.

“They worked poorly,” Odnell David, a Haitian government housing division director, said — recalling countless unsuccessful meetings with HADOM officials to repair and complete the homes. “There are houses that since 2013, the contractors haven’t made any improvements to. There are houses that we said, “No, we will not accept them.’ ”

The abysmal records have led the U.S. and Haitian governments to conclude maybe they should have never been in the housing reconstruction business to begin with. And not because there wasn’t a need.

Even before the earthquake flattened 105,000 houses and severely damaged another 208,000-plus in Port-au-Prince and its surrounding cities, Haiti’s housing needs were estimated at between a half-million and 700,000 homes.

“The earthquake exacerbated that, but there was no way that the problem could be resolved just by having donors build houses,” USAID Mission Director John Groarke said in a Miami Herald interview.

“We at USAID faced enormous challenges in building our own houses, and this is one of the reasons why both we and the Haitian government have turned away from that model,” he said. “We want to help Haitians build their own houses. That’s really the only way the massive need is going to be met.”

The focus is now on housing financing and assisting the Haitian government with building roads and other infrastructure in quake-struck communities and slums as a catalyst for Haitians to build themselves. Still, the U.S. and Haitian governments’ housing woes are symptomatic of the problems that have dogged Haiti well before the earthquake: so much international aid, so little to show for it.

The United States, which pledged $2.7 billion to help Haiti recover and rebuild, had initially set out to construct 15,000 houses. But by August 2013, the massive undertaking had been reduced by 80 percent to 2,649, with the number of beneficiaries shaved from as many as 90,000 to 15,900. The cost of the units had also doubled after the Haitian government insisted on not only larger homes but flush toilets.

Instead of costing $9,800, the per-home price jumped to $33,007.

Even though the houses grew from 275 square feet to 475 square feet, Lima and others say they are still too small.

“You bathe and use the bathroom in the same tiny space,” said Lima, whose mortgage payment is about $21 per month. “When you have a family, a mother, a father and two children, it’s not normal for everybody to be sleeping in the same bedroom.”

David Gootnick, director of International Affairs and Trade, said in an October 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report that USAID’s infrastructure projects had mixed results. His testimony drew from a June 2013 GAO report that showing USAID’s efforts in Haiti were marred by delays, costs overruns and concerns about sustainability.

“Delays occurred primarily because of difficulties in securing land titles and coordinating with partner donors,” the report said.

In the end, USAID built only about 900 houses — 750 of them near the U.S.’s flagship $300 million reconstruction project, the Caracol Industrial Park, about 45 minutes from Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien, which was unaffected by the earthquake.

The contract on the CARACOL-EKAM housing site was awarded to CEEPCO, a Haitian-American firm, and THOR, a small African-American firm based in North Carolina. THOR subcontracted with the Haitian firm Group Jean Vorbe to actually build the houses.

CEEPCO was awarded not just the design contract but a separate construction management contract on the site to monitor THOR’s work. And while there was a USAID staffer assigned to the project, there was no independent project manager, which a USAID official told the Miami Herald was “a little bit unusual.”

The lack of an independent expert to protect U.S. interests was raised at the Oct. 9, 2013 congressional hearing by U.S Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pennsylvania.

“Don’t you think, then, there could be a cost savings, there could be time savings if there is actually a representative of the U.S. as a project manager on site making certain that we are getting what we pay for, or a series of managers?” Marino asked Gootnick, who directed the question to USAID.

At the hearing, which took place a year after Clinton visited the housing site along with Haitian President Michel Martelly and former President René Préval, Gootnick said “they are excellent homes that are built to a very high standard.”

His sentiments were echoed by USAID Acting Assistant Director Elizabeth Hogan, who at the same hearing said, “We’re very happy with the quality.”

Six months later, USAID’s auditors strongly disagreed. In an April 2014 report by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, auditors found that tests and quality control activities weren’t well documented and that records weren’t well kept.

“Despite the required attention to quality, many houses had noticeable problems,” the report said. “Inconsistencies in the placement of toilet tanks could eventually lead to damage; the second varnish coat to prevent wood damage on the windows and doors at several houses was not done and the doorknobs at many houses were weak and easy to tamper with.”

During another congressional hearing last month, Hogan said the agency had launched “an active investigation” into the construction of the houses. “We will not tolerate anything less than what we have contracted for in terms of quality and safety,” she told lawmakers.

The USAID official, speaking to the Herald on background because of the possibility of litigation, said the deficiencies began surfacing during the routine one-year warranty check. At first, the defects, like improperly secured water tanks on top of houses, appeared to be minor and easy fixes. But soon they grew to be “systematic and blatant deficiencies.”

In October 2014, a year after the first residents moved in, USAID issued an almost $4.5 million contract to Tetra Tech EM, Inc. to “assess existing structures and infrastructures in Caracol Ekam and develop a remediation plan.”

“We didn’t expect this and we’re really disappointed in these two contractors,” said the official, noting that similar issues have not been found in other USAID-financed housing projects. “We are considering our legal remedies. This is unacceptable. We are very, very unhappy.”

CEEPCO owner Harold Charles referred questions to his attorney, Carol O’Riordan.

O’Riordan said the company designed the homes and developed the site “within stated parameters that were provided.” She also pointed to the April 2014 audit, which said that “CEEPCO issued citations to the contractor.”

“CEEPCO consistently advised USAID, as a construction manager is supposed to do, of issues the owner of the project needed to be aware of,” she said. “CEEPCO issued thousands of pages of reports to USAID about what was happening and what wasn’t happening.”

Subcontractor Jean-Marie Vorbe declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation. He, however, provided a March 16, 2012, architectural peer review study that bashed the housing project as being “substandard, inadequate and anything but ‘culturally appropriate.’”

THOR officials told the Herald that any problems are the result of design flaws by CEEPCO. Still, they said, they have been waiting for USAID to provide a punch list so they can take corrective measures even though the warranty has expired.

“We hired the largest contractor in Haiti as prime contractors to oversee the construction. We oversaw and supervised their work,” said THOR owner and founder Richard Copeland. “Those houses are built to last for 30, 40 to 50 years. To say it’s not a good quality product would be unfair to the product.”

Copeland and two other company executives said the houses were built to spec despite raising concerns about some design aspects, such as problems with the roof.

“Even if it wasn’t a good spec, we have to build what was planned,” Copeland said. “We are waiting for the list to see how many doorknobs, what you want to do about the roofs? How can they sue us without giving us the opportunity to correct — what we call cure in our business — the problems?”

He called USAID’s actions “a witch hunt” designed to throw them under the bus.

“Houses sat empty for months because they hadn’t worked out who the beneficiaries were,” he said. “The houses were subject to the elements, and the doors were flapping, shutters were flapping, months after months. And now we are supposed to go back and they are calling it warranty issues? It’s simply not fair.”

Jake Johnston, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic Policy, said the issues raised in the audit and GAO report about the Caracol-EKAM are consistent with what he’s seen in USAID’s post-quake infrastructure activities in Haiti — a failure to supervise their contractors.

“USAID didn’t have the staff or engineers to do things or provide oversight and ensure things were moving forward,” he said. “It can be a finger-pointing battle over who made the mistakes, but where the mistakes happened ultimately is with USAID.”

The USAID official acknowledged that the agency has to do a better job at oversight. Hogan, in a conference call this week on USAID’s efforts to help Haitians rebuild their lives, acknowledged that not everything the agency has tried has been a success.

“But certainly our successes have far outweighed our mistakes,” she said.

Those mistakes, say residents who have coined the village “La Différence,” are still hard to ignore.

“When the rain starts, you can’t sleep,” said Woodline Joseph, noting that the village floods. “You have to grab a broom and start sweeping.”

Special event

South Florida’s Haitian community will commemorate the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake at 4:30 p.m. Monday. The event begins with a silent march starting at the Toussaint Louverture monument at North Miami Avenue and 62nd Street and ending at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59th Terr. Participants are asked to dress in black or white, and bring candles. The event is sponsored by the cultural center and Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami). For more information call 305-756-8050 or 305-960-2969.

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