Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Transitional housing slowly getting built in Haiti

By Frank Bajak, Associated Press
April 30, 2010

PAPETTE, Haiti — Unlike the vast majority of earthquake victims still crowded into squalid camps, the simple farmers of this hard-hit village have reason to hope as hurricane season looms.

Transitional housing now rises on the foundations of cinderblock homes pulverized by the Jan. 12 quake, framed in pressure-treated yellow pine, roofed in rustproof paint-coated galvanized steel and anchored in newly poured concrete.

The Dutch relief group, Cordaid, expects to finish 150 of the dwellings with sturdy tarpaulin walls by next week in this village overlooking a mango-lined lagoon. They are among the first of more than 130,000 semi-permanent shelters that international relief groups hope to put up in the earthquake zone in coming months.

But construction of the shelters — more than a tent but less than a house — has been excruciatingly slow, with barely 400 or so completed.

Two major factors impede the rollout: the crawling pace of rubble removal in Port-au-Prince, where a third of the city is still buried in quake debris, and Haiti’s vexing land issues.

Relief agencies can’t build shelters in the jammed tent camps that sprung up after the quake on every available inch of public land in Port-au-Prince, as well as on the private property of schools and businesses.

Nor can they build on most plots where the homeless previously resided because about 80 percent of them were renters, and the agencies fear the intended recipients would only be evicted by landowners.

Papette farmer Andre Senvoy, 57, the rare Haitian who holds title to the tract where he has been living, grins as apprentice carpenters hammer together his new shelter next to the makeshift corrugated steel shelter he fashioned from the remains of his quake-shattered home.

“The people in Port-au-Prince need to pray more so they can also get lucky,” Senvoy remarks, a straw hat shading his gray-stubbled face from a blistering midday sun.

Because of land ownership issues, only a few dozen transitional homes have gone up in the capital, where more than half of the 1.3 million homeless still live in tents and flimsy structures fashioned mostly of tarps and bed sheets.

For now, the place where the most transitional shelters are slated to go up is a dusty relocation camp 45 minutes north of the capital at Corail Cesselesse on land that Haiti’s government appropriated March 19.

Relief organizations don’t like relegating the displaced to relocation camps far removed from friends, families and jobs. But agencies have scoured the capital and its suburbs for available land with paltry results.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which leads the shelter coordination, has yet to build a single transitional dwelling.

“I’m very sorry to say that after weeks and weeks and weeks of trying, we still don’t have anywhere to build,” Red Cross spokesman Alex Wynter said. “We have a pipeline, some kits in our base camp. But we still don’t have anywhere to put shelters.”

Instead of building, relief engineers are working full time trying to identify how to put shelters up in quake-ravaged neighborhoods without exacerbating land disputes.

“If you don’t do this correctly you can create riots,” said Alex Coissac of the International Organization for Migration.

Landlords have good reason to fear the worst. The shelters — though modestly sized, ranging from 12 to 18 square meters (120 to 180 square feet), and without plumbing or sanitation — can be made into permanent abodes without much work.

They amount to palaces for many here in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, where squatter settlements were already strewn across the capital before the quake, and the fragile legal system was burdened by multiple claims for the same parcels of land.

Cordaid lead architect Henk Meijerink expects many Haitians to line the outside his $1,500 shelters with chicken wire and plaster, obtaining greater durability and insulation against the tropical heat.

“We have found that upward of 65 percent of transitional shelters get improved into permanent shelter,” said Chuck Setchell, an urban planner and shelter expert at the U.S. Agency for International Development who has worked on other disasters.

Construction has not yet begun at the Corail Cesselesse relocation camp. It will take about a month to finish the first 500 shelters because the land must first be leveled and graveled, Coissac said.

Even in Papette, not everyone who lost a home is getting a new one.

Joanne Deldeiserser, 27, sits forlornly on a bunched up blanket at the foot of a nearly finished Cordaid shelter, sharing gruel with three filthy toddlers naked from the waist down.

It belongs to a friend in whose quake-cracked home Deldeiserser and her children are living.

“I asked them to make me a house like this,” she says, gazing up at the fresh-smelling pine skeleton. “(But) my name was not on the list.”

That’s because she and her husband, a farmer killed in the quake, were living on rented land.

“I’m sitting here at the mercy of God, hoping he’ll do something,” she moans.

Associated Press Writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.

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