Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Still Homeless in Haiti

New York Times Editorial
May 14, 2010

Of the more than 1.5 million Haitians left homeless by the Jan. 12 earthquake, about 7,500 have been moved from the most dangerous areas of crowded tent cities to new resettlement sites. The conditions in those tent cities are grim. Thunderstorms are fierce, and the plastic sheets and tarps distributed after the disaster are fraying, along with the people’s patience.

Meanwhile, the demand for secure housing keeps growing as people who fled the capital, Port-au-Prince, move back, because that’s where most of the aid is.

Why is it so bad? The reasons are partly understandable and partly maddening.

When the United Nations, donor countries and aid organizations rushed to Haiti’s aid, the first priority was water, food and medical care. With the rains coming, they raced to distribute emergency shelter materials to more than a million people, and, almost miraculously, they succeeded. They also sent engineers out to mark structurally sound homes with green paint. Many people still aren’t going home. They are afraid of more quakes, or can’t afford rent, or have no jobs to return to.

The biggest problem — the worst frustration to relief organizations ready and eager to build homes — is the lack of land to build on. Haiti’s government has been far too sluggish in finding and acquiring sites to build new housing.

Property ownership and land titles were a messy business in Haiti in the best of times, and now, with records destroyed and many landowners reluctant to cooperate, the problem is excruciating. Some communities take a not-in-my-backyard stance toward indigent newcomers because it seems obvious to them that new “transitional” settlements will likely be permanent.

Central to the ambitious plans for rebuilding Haiti is the goal of creating new population centers outside the cripplingly congested capital, with new jobs, schools and clinics to go along with new housing. Aid organizations can help in this by moving their rebuilding and redevelopment efforts out to the provinces to give displaced people the reasons and opportunity to relocate.

They can’t get started until President René Préval and his team make up their minds about where new communities will go. They need to acquire property, by eminent domain if necessary, to meet the urgent need to safely shelter the displaced and to ease the pressure on Port-au-Prince.

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