Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Building Homes a Struggle in Haiti

By Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald
September 13, 2010

As the government drags its feet on housing decisions, a slum sprouts in Haiti’s city of the future.

CORAIL-CESSELESSE, Haiti — It was promised as the place where those displaced from the Western Hemisphere’s worst natural disaster could begin to rebuild their shattered lives as they await the birth of a new city.

Here, 12 miles north of a quake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, on a sun-beaten gravel plain, thousands left homeless by the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake would live in tents, then three months later move into studier shelters. Eventually, they would own permanent homes as part of a newly developed community offering government services sorely lacking in Haiti: running water and electricity. New factory jobs would follow nearby.

Six months later, only a few plywood temporary shelters are up, and most of what was promised in Corail-Cesselesse has not been delivered. Instead, hundreds arrive daily with no control, grabbing private land around the emergency relocation camp. Rather than resemble a new Haiti, Corail is beginning to look like the old one as the barren mountain slopes and land surrounding it mushroom with thousands of shacks made of blue and gray tarp, and even cement block.

“Everyday, it is multiplying,” said Frandy Roberts, 24, who moved into a flimsy white tent in April. Since then, he has watched as Corail threatens to become a menacing slum.

With more than 40,000 squatters now calling the once vacant land around Corail home, Haitians and foreign critics blame the international community for the “disaster” here. They say it was forced on the government of Haiti despite strong opposition from President René Préval.

“There is a tremendous responsibility from the international community for creating this monster,” said Jean-Christophe Adrian, country manager for the United Nations Human Settlements Program in Haiti. “It is addressing a minute number but creating a huge problem.”


Adrian said Corail, officially home to 7,000 quake victims, is an example of what happens “when Hollywood and the Pentagon get involve in humanitarian aid.

“It doesn’t work,” he said.

The reference is to both actor Sean Penn, who moved into a tent and took over the operation at the Pétionville Golf Course, and Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, who served as the commander of the joint U.S. military operation in the early days of the emergency response. Both were among several who pushed the government to find suitable land to relocate homeless quake victims living in areas considered to be at high-risk of flooding and landslides.

“They were completely wrong in evaluating the risks. Second, they were so desperate to show something concrete they’ve done here, that Corail was one of them,” Adrian said. “That was really the wrong decision, creating Corail. All of this land that’s supposed to be used for the future of Port-au-Prince now has been invaded.”

Penn said that the Corail-model is not the problem. Rather, it is the failure of the various U.N. organizations and nongovernmental organizations to follow through on the promises made to the families who voluntarily relocated, and to organizations like his, who assisted in the relocation.

“We were working toward an emergency relocation but only as part of a larger ongoing commitment and as agents of those who committed to it, and who later forfeited on their obligations,” Penn told The Miami Herald by telephone from Michigan, where he’s filming. “It’s sinful.”

Darryl Wright, a spokesman with U.S. Southern Command, said the U.S. military’s job was to help assess high-risk camps, and builidngs’ structures.

“This was done in conjunction with the United Nations, [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], the government of Haiti and the World Food Program,” he said. “As of June 1, the task force no longer existed.” But the international community is not solely to blame. The Haitian government must also shoulder responsibility, some critics say.

Eight months after the quake killed an estimated 300,000 and left at least 1 ½ million homeless, Haiti still has no housing minister, policy or approved strategy.

Also, despite the signing of an executive order in March giving the government the right to seize 17,297 acres through eminent domain, the government still does not yet own the land.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who co-chairs the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, said the government doesn’t need to own the land right now. It just needs to ensure that available land is identified. “What we need, is to be sure . . . nobody can use it without permission from the government,” he said.

But people are using the land without permission.

“The owners are seeing their land squatted on, and they don’t have the capacity to fight the squatters or the pirates who are selling the land,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner involved in reconstruction planning.

Voltaire, who is also a presidential candidate in Haiti’s Nov. 28 elections, said the government needs to go from “decision-making to decision-taking.”

The government, he says, is “so full of priorities that they can’t choose” where to focus.

For weeks, Voltaire said, the commission he heads has been awaiting a decision from both Préval and Bellerive on a two-part housing strategy it submitted. The strategy involves putting transitional shelters on demolished lots and helping people return home by providing them with a financial-assistance package to repair their quake-damaged homes.

In exchange for between $2,000 and $30,000 in assistance, building materials or a combination of the two, residents would have to agree to inspections of the work, and use certified workers trained in earthquake-resistant construction.

The second part of the strategy involves the planning of three future communities on the outskirts of the capital, including where Corail is located. The Inter-American Development Bank has designated money to hire a firm to do an urban layout, but the process is time-consuming. Voltaire fears that by the time it is done, “you can have 200,000 squatters” living in the hills around Corail. Bellerive said the government has various rebuilding strategies, including Voltaire’s.

“Housing is not only a matter of land and construction, it is mostly a question of financing and management. How are we going to finance the construction? How are we going to guarantee the services for heavy concentration of population? We cannot rebuild slums,” he said.


Only 13,073 temporary shelters have been built throughout Haiti out of a goal of 135,000 by the end of next August, according to the shelter cluster. Fewer than 100 temporary shelters have been completed at Corail.

Even before the earthquake wiped out 100,000 homes, Haiti struggled with a massive housing shortage as its impoverished masses haphazardly built any how and anywhere. Few places show the complexity of rebuilding than Fort National, a slum community not far from the caved-in National Palace.

Préval has been dispatching government bulldozers and other heavy equipment to the neighborhood to remove rubble. He’s asked NGOs to redirect cash-for-work dollars to area residents to involve them in the clean up. And Préval has been championing the idea of replacing residents’ concrete shacks with multistory apartment buildings.

“We’ve always promoted the idea that people should be encouraged to go back home and that’s what Fort National is about,” said Adrian, the U.N. housing expert.

This summer, after being deluged with housing requests, Bellerive and Clinton endorsed the idea of an international housing expo of anti-seismic houses for Haiti. Some 380 proposals were received.

A jury will soon choose the best five models, which will be a living showcase in a planned community on government-owned land in Port-au-Prince. Quake victims will live in them, and the idea is to replicate the housing designs throughout Haiti.

But until that happens, frustrations continue to grow in and around Corail as residents wait on temporary plywood shelters that have been slow in coming.

“I am very frustrated,” said Jean Saint-Ange Darius, the mayor of Croix-des-Bouquets, where Corail is located.

“What you have threatening here is what you see in the mountains of Port-au-Prince.”

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