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HAITI: Housing Exposition Exposes Waste, Cynicism

Weeds sprouting through the gravel at the Expo site. Photo: HGW/Jude Stanley Roy

ZORANJE, Haiti, Oct 2 2012 - The smells and scenes that greet a visitor to this eerily empty collection of over 60 brightly painted homes and buildings verge on the obscene.

Some of the houses are filled with piles of desiccated human excrement, their recently built living rooms and kitchens turned into public latrines. A few appear occupied by squatters. Paint is chipping. Doors have been torn from hinges, toilets and sinks ripped out.

This was one of the first Haiti reconstruction projects to receive approval, funding – over two million dollars – and the enthusiastic backing of former President Bill Clinton. Just months after the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake killed over 200,000 people and drove another 1.3 million into squalid camps, the Building Back Better Communities (BBBC) project got the green light from the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), headed by Clinton and then-Haitian Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive.

The idea was to “expose best practices for housing reconstruction by encouraging innovative ideas” with a “Housing Exposition” and to build an “Exemplar Community”, an IHRC document explains. The Clinton Foundation gave 500,000 dollars; the Inter-American Development Bank gave another 1.2 million dollars; the Deutsche Bank Foundation, the British government and even the Haitian government all contributed, according to officials involved with the project.

But 14 months after Clinton himself opened the Expo on this former farmland just outside the capital, most of the model homes sit empty. There are more goats than humans at the two-hectare site. Well over a dozen have been severely vandalised. All of them were built by Haitian and foreign firms which spent an average of 25,000 dollars each – over 1.5 million dollars altogether – to compete for contracts and in the hopes their model would be chosen for the Exemplar Community of 150 homes that was to be part of the project.

“All these houses had a security guard,” a young woman sleepily told visitors recently as she stood in the doorway of a little yellow house, built by Colorado-based RCI Systems and priced at 10,000 dollars.

A disheveled mattress lay on the floor behind her. “A lot of the guards left because they hadn’t been paid,” she said.

A four-month investigation by Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) confirmed that apart from admiration last July, the Expo and Exemplar Community project have been ignored, as have the architects, the construction firms, and the site and the houses themselves.

Expo-nential Errors, Waste and…

The Expo was dreamed up a few months after the earthquake during a meeting at Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, New York, according to architect and former Haitian government official Leslie Voltaire, one of its originators.

The government would hold a competition and forum where local and foreign contractors could propose housing solutions. At the end, the houses would be handed over to homeless families, who would have to keep them clean so that interested individuals, humanitarian agencies or private builders could visit at any time.

“It was a kind of win-win,” said Voltaire in an exclusive interview with Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW). “The builder makes a gift, but also has an example that can be seen by NGOs.”

The architecture firm John McAslan and Partners of London was brought in, and soon the plan expanded to include the “Exemplar Community” – a village of 150 homes built with an “Expo” model house to be chosen by a jury, the architecture and planning schools at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came on board to work on the Exemplar Community and recommend appropriate environmental, social and economic measures.

The Deutschebank Foundation committed 50,000 dollars, and on Aug. 17, 2010, the IHRC gave the green light, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) said it would prepare the site: about two hectares of very low floodplain land that had to be filled in with gravel.

“The zone is really low, so you have to fill in, at least one metre. And each cubic metre costs about, I think now it’s 25 U.S. dollars,” IDB urban designer Arcindo Santos explained.

None of the estimated 10 million cubic metres of earthquake rubble was used, the planner added, because “earthquake material wasn’t ready or available”. Instead, it took about 20,000 truckloads of gravel and fill dug from riverbeds and hillsides.

Voltaire decided to run for president soon after the project got started, so it was handed to the ministry of tourism and its minister, Patrick Delatour. The competition drew over 500 applications.

“In my opinion, the Expo was a success because we completed our mission, meaning, we organised a conference on housing and prototypes were constructed,” the former minister told HGW.

The architectural firm pulled in to oversee the competition John McAslan and Partners of London, agreed.

“The competition ranked as among the most successful in the world,” McAslan’s Nick Rutherford said in a telephone interview, because the contest generated what he called “affordable and sustainable houses”.

But the 60 or so models eventually chosen have an average price tag of 21,000 dollars and range up to 69,000 dollars – steep prices for humanitarian organisations, and even more steep for the population, most of whom live on less than two dollars a day. And many of houses are made with imported materials.

“Success” or not, the exposition did not take place in November 2010 as planned. Instead, the government decided to hold a housing conference in January 2011, and planned the Expo for later in the year.

“That was a kind of lollipop they gave contractors to keep them interested,” Voltaire admitted. “They were saying, ‘Nothing is happening!’ etc., so they (the government) did a conference.”

“It was the biggest joke I’ve ever seen,” deplored John Sorge of Innovative Composites International (ICI), a firm with offices in both the U.S. and Canada. “It was a hoodwink to promote the government… the whole Expo was a farce.”

And the Exemplar Community? Harvard and MIT teams made various visits to Haiti, and a Haitian delegation flew north for a retreat on Martha’s Vineyard Island, a swank vacation spot favoured by President Barack Obama. The effort produced an interesting bilingual report – but no community. The ball was dropped. The money needed wasn’t raised.

Read Part Two – Haiti’s Two-Million-Dollar Ghost Town

*Note: Most interviews for this article were conducted in early 2012.

Haiti Grassroots Watch is a partnership of AlterPresse, the Society of the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS), the Network of Women Community Radio Broadcasters (REFRAKA), community radio stations from the Association of Haitian Community Media and students from the Journalism Laboratory at the State University of Haiti.

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