Haiti's struggle to build better homes after quake

Innovative building technology is one hope for the future in Haiti, where more than 500,000 people still live in temporary camps two years after a devastating earthquake.
Pirist Dugard, 31, places rock on a tarp covering his tent at a camp set up for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, in what used to be an airstrip in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 4, 2012. More than 500,000 Haitians remain in camps two years after the quake. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

Two years after the devastating earthquake, more than 500,000 Haitians are still living in temporary camps rife with crime and disease.

The quake in January 2010 displaced 1.5 million people, which means that two-thirds have now found some sort of housing.

A Habitat for Humanity housing project for 500 families in Leogane near Port-au-Prince, on Nov. 11, 2011. (Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images)

For the rest, many of whom were renters before the quake hit, it has been a long wait, one that has been harshly criticized at times. But the delays also reflect the challenges of finding the best ways to put up  new homes — whether they are traditional or innovative — while taking into account the needs and desires of Haitians themselves.

"Things right now are where people hoped they would have been a year ago," says Priscilla Phelps, a Washington, D.C., consultant who served as housing adviser to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.

Haitian lawmakers allowed the commission's mandate to expire in October and Phelps has since been hired by the World Bank for a similar position in the office of Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille.

"I think things are finally getting organized," she says. "There's still a long way to go. There's still not enough funding. I think in terms of how to go about it, I would say that there's been a huge amount of progress."

Against the odds

It's progress against significant odds. Pre-earthquake, Haiti didn't have what we would consider an affordable housing infrastructure. ("Poor people basically housed themselves," says Phelps.)


Are you satisfied with Canada's response to the crisis? Take our survey.

There was no local planning system to speak of and virtually no quality standards for buildings.

Land tenure in Haiti is also complex and confusing — finding out or proving who owned properties can be exceedingly difficult.

But one of the bigger hurdles has been trying to wade through the multitude of suggestions on how to do the actual rebuilding.

Some involved wood or traditional concrete blocks. Others look to newer techniques. For example, the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, named after the two former U.S. presidents who head its fundraising, is providing just over $1 million to GaMa Enterprises, a Haitian franchiser that wants to manufacture steel-frame housing kits.

Others creative ventures involved dome housing, converted shipping containers, plastic houses with components that snap together, and projects that would recycle earthquake rubble

"There's huge opportunity to build in different ways" says Phelps.

One she considers particularly promising uses a polystytrene wallboard with metal woven into it. The walls are plastered and resemble a traditional Haitian home in appearance.

Another idea involves blocks made of a similar polystyrene that are snapped together using metal connectors. The dimensions of the blocks are similar to those of traditional concrete blocks, which have been a fixture in Haiti.

The benefit of these are that they "wouldn't introduce a huge challenge in terms of how people design houses," Phelps says.

Be realistic

While she sees potential for creativity, not all the proposals seem ideal.

"Some of them might work, but most of them aren't that cheap, and so when your funds are so limited, as they are in Haiti, I'm just not sure how realistic some of those solutions are," says Phelps.

Converting shipping containers into housing has been one proposed solution, but Phelps doesn't consider it ideal in this situation.

While not a "total skeptic" of the idea, she says it's not cheaper, and it's not practical to get containers into some of the communities where they would be needed because road conditions are so poor. 

No matter the option, their odds of success increase if the needs and desires of Haitians are taken into consideration in the planning process.

That philosophy was front and centre when the Mennonnite Central Committee of Canada began its planning for a project that will provide hazard-resistant permanent homes for 100 families in the community of Cabaret, north of Port-au-Prince.

Familiar style

Susanne Brown, disaster response co-ordinator for the MCCC, says the organization decided not to build temporary houses, but permanent ones in a style Haitians are used to.

That means one-storey homes with concrete walls covered inside and out with plaster, tin roofs, a porch, a huge water cistern and a yard, something that is very significant in the Haitian lifestyle. People "live as much outside as inside," says Brown.

Construction on the Haut Damien Housing and Livelihoods Revitalization Project starts this week and Haitian workers have been trained for the construction.

That $1.8-million project is receiving more than $1.4 million from the Canadian International Development Agency.

CIDA is also contributing nearly $5 million toward a project by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and nearly $1.3 million toward a project by Habitat for Humanity Canada.

Habitat for Humanity Canada is in the very early stages of repairs and retrofits to nearly 700 homes in Simon Pele, a low-income, high-density area of Port-au-Prince.

"The exact solution that is used may differ from house to house," says Randall Sach, Habitat for Humanity Canada's director of international programs.

Looking for jobs

Habitat for Humanity Canada is also focusing on construction training, and trying to help residents build small businesses to provide jobs.

"Haitians themselves will tell you that what they need more than houses is jobs," says Sach.

While the shorter-term need in Haiti is housing, Phelps and others want to look beyond providing walls and roofs, and offer long-term hope for a better future in a country where that has been in short supply.

"I really think as trying and as slow and as complex as it is, I think if we end up finishing the reconstruction of the housing, and we haven't left Haiti with at least an emerging system for building better housing, building better neighbourhoods … we will have totally failed," says Phelps.