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The Housing Crisis in Haiti


There are at least 595,000 Haitians living in camps around Port au Prince (1). President Martelly has a program, called 16-6, which proposes to resettle residents of 6 large camps in 16 neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince. In total, if the program succeeds, it will touch 5000 families, or 4% of the camp population. I spoke to the director of 16-6, Clement Belizaire. So far, 190 families have been resettled from the first camp, Place St. Pierre, in Petionville. Belizaire expects the 1500 families who live in the first two camps, Place St. Pierre and Place Boyer, to be in their neighbourhoods by the end of November. He expects the process to speed up as it progresses. If Belizaire's estimates are extrapolated for all six camps, 4% of Haiti's current camp population will be in housing by March 2012.

The program does not build houses. It offers a rental subsidy – paid from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) directly to the landlord – of up to $500 USD per family, for one year. Families find their own rental units (and can keep the difference if they find a lower rent), after the IOM investigates the house. They are also to get $150 USD on moving in.

What if the families don't accept resettlement? “I don't think not accepting is an option. Let's do some rough numbers. Let's say I have 100 families in a camp, and 90 accept, 10 do not accept. Security-wise, ten families living in a big camp – they are really exposed to insecurity. They are highly exposed.”

The program will also rely on peer pressure. “The camps are divided into blocks. When you're in a block, and your neighbour doesn't want to move, you will not get your subsidy. We move to the next block when we finish with one block.”

A few people I talked to agreed that a family could find a room to rent for about $400-500 a year, so the subsidy seems to be at the market level. The more troubling question, which arises after the first year for the 4% affected by 16-6 as well as for the other 96%, is, can most Haitians find $400-500 a year? The minimum wage is about $5 a day, which is $1300 a year, so the rent is affordable at the minimum wage.

But when I asked the vice-mayor of Tabarre, Jean-Bernard Chassagne, about the affordability of housing at the minimum wage, he scoffed.

“How many people are making the minimum wage? What minimum wage are you talking about? The biggest employer in Haiti is the central government. Maybe 60,000 people. The places we're calling factories, that are receiving materials from the States or wherever, to do assembly, maybe 25,000. And we have a population of four million people that could work. So I don't know what you're talking about. Maybe 100,000 people working? Out of four million? That are making the minimum wages that you're talking about. That's why when you walk in the street you see what we call informal business.”

Chassagne raised another problem – that of vacancy. In his opinion, housing everyone currently in camps would require significant new construction. The current rental market cannot absorb everyone currently living in the camps.

Senator Steven Benoit thinks the main problem is money. “All they were asking is for $1000-$2000 US for them to rent a little space for them to live decently. I told President Clinton, a month ago, he agreed with me. This should be the priority… you can't build 100,000 houses in a month or in a year. The houses are there already. They can go and rent a house.”

Benoit thinks a small fraction of international aid money would be enough to solve the problem. “All I'm saying is take 100 million dollars (2), which is nothing, give each family about $2-3000 so they can rent a house, that's all they're asking for, they just don't want to take their showers or bathe their babies on the tarmac of the international airport. That's all.”

When I visited camp Mosayik (3), in Delmas 19, two members of the camp committee, Mona Auguste and William Louissant, gave me a camp resident's perspective. Mosayik is located on a piece of private property currently disputed between two claimants. Several hundred families have lived in tarps and makeshift shelters since the earthquake. For solutions, Mona and William point to the Haitian Constitution, which guarantees housing for all, and international law. Housing activist Sanon Renel agrees: “Change won't come from the politicians. The people need to mobilize.”

Camp Bicentenaire has been touted as a resettlement success story. It is on the national highway and has over 50 families, who were resettled from the camp at Port au Prince's stadium, Sylvio Cator, on July 15. With Port-o-lets – some overflowing and others fallen over – for the camp located at the median of the highway, and garbage dumped directly into a ditch by the highway side, the camp has had no real support from the government or the NGOs besides the 10,000 gourdes (about $250 USD) that each family got in a negotiated agreement to resettle. The camp has the same kinds of problems with security as it does with sanitation. According to Mathias Jordanson of the camp committee, there has been one visit from a government official since July 15, and he's aware of no further plan for the camp.

Bicentenaire is at least on public land, which means its residents are at less imminent risk of repeated eviction. Residents of the 60% of camps that are on private land are at even greater risk. The resettlement plans and programs have inadequacies, but the danger is that more people are going to be flat-out evicted before any resettlement plan or program, however inadequate, gets to them. Many of the authorities I talked to, including Belizaire, said “private property is sacred” and that private landowners have the right to tell camp residents to leave their land. If the government (and the international community) cannot arrange for a comprehensive program that includes jobs and health as well as basic services, evictions will continue to be the de facto resettlement program.

Haitian activist Patrick Elie suggested that the camps make visible the bigger economic and housing crisis – people don't have jobs, incomes, places to go, and the camps have put this right out in the open. If you look at how people were living in Cite Soleil, he said, it wasn't that different from the camps now. Interestingly, Belizaire of the 16-6 project said the same: “Even before the earthquake, considering their living conditions, I would consider them internally displaced people.” The billions in reconstruction money circulating in the NGO world could go to housing them, or it could go to re-displacing them. There has been far too much of the latter.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He is in Haiti from Oct 3-10.

Notes

(1) See the excellent Oct 3/11 report by the USF School of Law and IJDH, “Haiti's Housing Crisis: Results of a Household Survey on the Progress of President Michel Martelly's 100-Day Plan to Close Six IDP Camps”

(2) According to my calculations, at $2000 per family, it would cost about $240 million. Benoit suggested that those families that are not from Port au Prince are willing to return to their home towns and villages if they received enough of a rent and transportation subsidy. Donors pledged nearly $10 billion for reconstruction.

(3) Residents of this camp were nearly evicted last month. Amnesty International did an urgent action: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR36/013/2011/en/bd333281-ce20-4147-a4ae-9d0bc6b79db6/amr360132011en.html  

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