Tens of thousands still living in tents 5 years after Haiti earthquake

The Morne, a Cabrit housing development in Haiti, was built for victims of the earthquake. But the government has had a difficult time attracting residents to the development on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
The Morne, a Cabrit housing development in Haiti, was built for victims of the earthquake. But the government has had a difficult time attracting residents to the development on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Jackson Morrisseau learned that he was approved for a new constructed government-sponsored house on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, the retired father of two thought he finally found deliverance after losing almost everything in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

But months after moving into the small yellow house, Morrisseau, 60, is having second thoughts.

He’s thinking about moving out. His wife and two school-age daughters don’t live with him, they remain in a temporary zinc shack closer to the city, not far from their quake-flattened house.

“Over here is very far, that’s probably why all of these houses are still empty,” Morrisseau said about hundreds of vacant houses inside the Lumane Casimir Village at the foot of the Morne-à-Cabrit mountain, 12 miles from the international airport.

“Hunger will kill you out here. Even if you have money to spend, there is no place to spend it.”

Morrisseau and others living in the social housing complex say that despite upgrades like electricity and indoor plumbing, life inside the development is anything but ideal. A promised market and factory still haven’t materialized, the water isn’t drinkable and roofs are leaky. To get anywhere takes time, money and difficulty.

“I came looking for an improvement,” said Sonia Joseph, who has been unable to send her 16-year-old developmentally disabled daughter to school because of the distance. “After I moved in, however, I didn’t find an improvement.”

The 344-square-feet houses are about the size of a standard hotel room. They were billed as a chance for the government to provide Haitians with dignified housing after the earthquake — a shift from ramshackle slum developments made with improvised building materials that quickly collapsed in the 7.0 disaster.

But problems with the Dominican contractor — shoddy workmanship, incomplete units — and the ongoing battle to attract tenants and collect rent from those who are there, has the government changing strategy. Dominican firm HADOM Construction did not return emails seeking comment.

“The needs are so immense,” said Odnell David, a Haitian government housing division chief with the Unit for Housing Construction and Public Buildings. “For you to address the housing problem in Haiti, you also have to address all of the other problems in Haiti — employment, investments, education. All have to run parallel.”

Rather than build houses, David said, the government has decided it’s better to create the environment to motivate people to construct their own homes. It’s a philosophy that the government is also pushing with foreign donors, who like the government, have struggled to make good on promises to build tens of thousands of new homes to get Haitians out of the tents.

“A lot of minor interventions are still being done in Port-au-Prince, where you will see that they are still building houses to give to people,” said David, noting that while such ventures are appreciated, they would not build Haiti’s struggling economy.

“What we are saying is you need the government to invest, the people to invest and the private sector to invest to be certain you will have durable development,” he said. “If you don’t have this combination, we will always remain in the same situation.”

Five years after the disaster, the number of Haitians living in tents or underneath tarps has dropped from 1.5 million to 79,397. The number of tent cities has been drastically reduced from 1,555 to 105 sites, according to the latest figures from the International Organization for Migration.

But even as Haiti sees a decrease in the camp populations, helping Haitians rebuild their lives with a proper roof over their heads remains a huge challenge, said Gregoire Goodstein, IOM Haiti Chief of Mission.

While aid organizations, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, have repaired hundreds of thousands of damaged homes to help Haitians leave the tents, IOM has primarily focused on rental subsidies. Funded by donors and pushed by the government, the program subsidizes up to a year’s rent for tent residents.

But as successful as the program has been in helping close camps, there have been some who have flat out rejected the assistance.

“There have been entire camps that didn’t want the rental subsidies,” Goodstein said, recalling how residents at one camp blocked staffers’ access inside. “They didn’t want to be registered, they didn’t want for us to know their numbers because they had been promised housing, everybody will get a house.”

Such holdouts, Goodstein said, have made it difficult to shut down camps.

Recently, the UN-affiliated aid agency has embarked on a new strategy: building permanent housing. The focus, Goodstein said, is on those who are most vulnerable and remain underneath tents. To get them into houses, the agency launched a pilot program to rebuild 36 two-story houses for quake victims who could prove they own their homes.

In exchange for the rebuilt house, each resident agrees to house a quake victim in the empty unit for up to two years, rent free. It is also following the Haitian government’s program of building basic infrastructure like roads for those living in temporary shelters.

David, the housing director, said there is no one solution to Haiti’s housing woes. But the problem can’t be ignored.

“The bidonvilles are still here,” he said, referring to the slums. “There are still people building their little houses in precarious areas and the government still lacks sufficient means to address the problem. It’s not a problem that can be addressed in two years, five years. It’s a problem that requires a process to be followed by one government after another and then you will see the impact in 30 years.”