News and analysis
January 11, 2012

Lack of Housing Bedevils Haiti Earthquake Recovery as Cash Runs Low

Steffan Hacker/Habitat for Humanity International

Habitat for Humanity International has built 100 permanent homes thus far in Haiti, says a charity official, but ongoing land disputes have complicated its plans for more.

Flying into Port-au-Prince on a recent day, Wendy Flick noticed changes to the landscape that gave her hope for the earthquake-ravaged city.

Ms. Flick, who runs the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s relief program in Haiti, saw more green spaces than she had remembered. That meant more rubble from the capital’s destroyed buildings had been cleared and some tent cities closed. And she saw new clusters of homes.

Two years after a 7.0-magnitude quake left 1.5 million Haitians homeless, aid workers like Ms. Flick cling to signs like that. But the numbers alone tell a grim story.

Roughly 519,000 people still live under tents in emergency camps that have dotted Port-au-Prince since the disaster. By the end of 2012, that number is expected to drop by only about half, according to a coalition of groups that coordinates shelter. Just 11,393 homes have been repaired and 3,206 permanent units constructed.

Housing has proved the trickiest challenge facing aid workers in Haiti, as they grapple with disputes over land ownership and where they can legally build. And now, with hundreds of thousands of people still homeless, money is starting to dry up. Only about a third of the money raised by aid groups remains.

Charities like Food for the Poor and Habitat for Humanity International, which specialize in housing, have spent all the cash they received. The American Red Cross and other large charities still have money, but they are struggling to find effective ways to spend it.

Most Haitians didn’t own land before the quake and have nowhere to rebuild. Squabbles over land titles have scuttled projects. Critics fault aid groups for focusing too much on transitional shelter and not enough on long-term solutions.

Emptying Coffers

Over all, about two-thirds of the $1.7-billion raised in the United States and abroad by 47 nonprofits has been spent, according to a Chronicle survey. Fifteen of 53 groups have either run out of funds or have less than $200,000 left. In total, 60 aid groups and their international affiliates have raised $2.1-billion worldwide for Haiti’s earthquake victims, including $1.43-billion from Americans.

That is similar to the rate of spending after other disasters. But with so much work left undone, hopes of building Haiti “back better” seem increasingly out of reach.

Smaller building projects, and those in rural areas, have met with some success, but large-scale construction hasn’t happened.

The American Red Cross plans to put $187-million of the $486-million it raised toward housing. Mostly it is providing aid to other nonprofits; so far, it has committed $58.8-million to other charities to provide shelter. But while Red Cross money has given temporary shelter to 36,270 people, it has yet to build a single permanent home.

The Red Cross blames the slow pace on confusion over land ownership. Julie Sell, spokeswoman for the Red Cross Haiti assistance program, says fighting over land has brought a few projects to a halt after the charity identified a place to build and gave money to other nonprofits to carry out construction.

“We all wish that there were not so many people living under tarps and tents,” she says. “But given the significant challenges working in a place like Haiti, we have made significant progress, particularly in this last year.”

But critics fault the charity’s approach. They say the Red Cross, whose focus is on disaster preparedness and immediate emergency response, lacks experience in rebuilding and has not worked closely enough with local organizations and government officials, a charge the nonprofit denies.

Dominique Toussaint, chairman of Mobilize for Haiti, a nonprofit started by Haitian-Americans, says that last month his group pulled out of an informal collaboration on housing with the Red Cross and other charities, called the Haiti Reconstruction and Redevelopment Task Force, because of lack of progress. He said he’s talked with mayors in Haiti who offer to help arrange land for building but that nonprofits like the Red Cross don’t seem to take advantage of such opportunities.

“Groups are unfamiliar with the process of building in Haiti, but if they did more outreach, they would find that there are solutions,” he said. Nonprofits “have become accustomed to operating in a certain way that is very top-down; they don’t do much in terms of consultation.”

Large-Scale Woes

Others say they wish the Red Cross and other large nonprofits would put more pressure on Haiti’s government to free up land and resolve disputes.

“There are legitimate concerns about land and having title to the land, but many [nonprofits] are sitting at cluster meetings and throwing up their hands,” says Melinda Miles, who directs the Let Haiti Live project at the TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy group. “That borders on criminal negligence. They should put their voices together and exert influence on the Haitian government.”

Other nonprofit officials say critics vastly underestimate the challenges facing large-scale construction. Mark Andrews, vice president for Habitat’s earthquake recovery work, says his group has built 100 permanent homes so far and plans to build another 400 on the same plot of land. It would be difficult to overstate the complications his charity has faced, Mr. Andrews says.

First, Habitat planned to build permanent homes in a town called Cabaret. But several people said that the mayor, who gave Habitat the land, had done so illegally. Habitat moved the project to another town, Léogâne, where similar disputes erupted before the mayor there helped resolve them.

As soon as word got out about the project, 300 homeless families moved onto the land in hopes of being awarded one of the homes. Habitat can’t simply remove them, says Mr. Andrews, and the homes have already been assigned to other families.

“If you are doing a small project like an orphanage or a school, yes, the church community and those kind of entities can deed land,” he says. “But large-scale housing is a politically loaded issue, and every politician who has a stake in the land will be involved, and it’s just extremely complicated.”

Now Habitat, which received $36.4-million for Haiti recovery, is out of money. Unless the group gets more donations, it may be able to construct only another 100 permanent homes.

Donated Land

Food for the Poor, which, like Habitat, operated in Haiti for decades before the quake, also quickly depleted the $20.7-million it raised for the recovery.

That’s particularly discouraging because Food for the Poor has built 2,681 homes since the quake, says Angel Aloma, the charity’s executive director. He says that rich landowners, the church, or city mayors typically donate the land because they’re familiar with the group’s 25 years of work in Haiti.

Since October 2010, Food for the Poor has drawn on its general funds to help Haiti rebuild.

“We have the infrastructure and capacity to build,” Mr. Aloma says. “It’s frustrating not to be able to do more.”

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which received $2.6-million after the disaster, has also had some success in securing land.

Mouvement Paysan Papaye, which represents Haitian peasants, donated 20 acres in a town called Kolade, less than three hours from Port-au-Prince. So far, 10 homes have been constructed with the Unitarian group’s money. An irrigation system is being built, and the Haitians have received training in agriculture. Ms. Flick, of the Unitarian Universalist committee, says she is optimistic.

The European Union recently paved a road to a nearby village; this year, it plans to construct a road to Kolade—which, Ms. Flick says, will make it easier for villagers to transport their fruit to market. “It’s a small example, but if it could be replicated all over Haiti, the country could not only be feeding itself but be exporting food,” she says.

And yet, repeating such successes seems frustratingly unlikely. Much of the land in the area supported by the Unitarian group is owned by the government and the Catholic Church. Ms. Flick says she isn’t sure why more of the land isn’t being made available for ordinary Haitians.

“The land is fertile,” she says. “But it’s just sitting there.”

Noelle Barton and Peter Bolton contributed to this article.