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Structural engineer James Mwangi (seated), an MCC worker, and a team of Haitian engineers and masons pause while inspecting a building used both as a home and school that was later repaired. This structure is part of a project that includes home repair for 200 people living with disabilities. (MCC Photo/Silas Crews)

Structural engineer James Mwangi (seated), an MCC worker, and a team of Haitian engineers and masons pause while inspecting a building used both as a home and school that was later repaired. This structure is part of a project that includes home repair for 200 people living with disabilities. (MCC Photo/Silas Crews)

Many issues impact speed of building permanent housing in Haiti

Linda Espenshade
January 11, 2011


AKRON, Pa. – Rebuilding houses in post-earthquake Haiti seems like it should be a simple, straightforward task — clear away the rubble and build houses that do a better job of protecting lives from disasters.

In a country where more than 1 million people are still homeless after an earthquake devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince a year ago and in a country that is regularly battered by hurricanes, the concept is only logical.
 
The techniques for building earthquake- and hurricane-resistant houses are not difficult to learn, said James Mwangi, an engineering professor from California Polytechnic State University, who is spending his 2010-2011 sabbatical working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Haiti. He is from Paso Robles, Calif.
 
Some Haitian masons, contractors and architects already know the techniques and others quickly absorb the information that Mwangi gives in seminars and on the job site, he said.
 
But that’s where the simplicity stops and the complexity begins. The obstacles that stand in the way of rebuilding — from escalating prices to accessibility — keep people living in tent camps instead of moving into permanent housing.
 
One reason Haiti has been hampered in its overall efforts to build houses is because only about one-third of the $10.2 billion promised by the international community has been delivered, and of that amount, only 10 percent has been spent, said Alexis Erkert Depp, advocacy coordinator for MCC Haiti.
 
Land ownership is another major issue hampering reconstruction efforts, she said. Many people do not have proof of ownership of their homes or properties, either because they were never officially titled or because records were lost or destroyed during the earthquake. Donor organizations must choose whether to invest money in repairing houses with questionable ownership.
 
For MCC, this issue has not been a barrier. Instead accessibility has been a primary obstacle, said Susanne Brown, MCC Haiti disaster coordinator. “For me, the most difficult thing about repair of homes in Haiti is the inaccessibility of the home sites, the lack of transportation to deliver building materials, the lack of security for materials once delivered and the continuing rising costs of building materials,” said Brown, of Albuquerque, N.M.
 
Even before building can begin, rubble must be cleared. In July, a team of 20 people worked six full days to clear one property belonging to MCC staff members Adral and Marie Sylvain. Only then could the Sylvains begin to rebuild.
 
Large-scale rubble removal by the Haitian government has not happened because of a variety of issues, including lack of equipment, accessibility of rubble, and, especially, coordination, according to news reports. As of September, only about 2 percent of the rubble has been removed, said Erkert Depp, citing a statistic often used by international media outlets.
 
“It’s hard to build homes when there’s no place to build them,” said Erkert-Depp.
 
Building homes is also difficult when prices of construction supplies can double from one day to the next, Mwangi said. As the demand for stone and cement increases, prices are going up, making it difficult to complete projects within budget and to estimate the overall cost of a large project.
 
Location is another issue, said Mwangi. Before the earthquake, some houses were built on unsafe sites. Although he recognizes that people built there because they had no other options, building again in these areas is unwise. Even acceptable areas to build or rebuild can be inaccessible to truck delivery of supplies, forcing workers to carry concrete block, bags of cement and water to the site, Mwangi said.
 
Haiti has no national building code, said Mwangi, so the quality of the construction and the subsequent safety of the homes depend on the knowledge and ethics of the masons and contractors. When Mwangi conducts training with the tradesmen, he emphasizes their personal responsibility.
 
“We saw what happened here – 220,000 people died,” Mwangi tells the builders. “They are still around here; their bodies are still in all of these buildings.”
 
When he talks that way, Mwangi said, the builders understand the importance of rebuilding better. “They don’t need a manual; they can see it with their eyes.”
 
Mwangi is currently working with Haitian masons who are repairing homes for families of 200 people who are living with a disability. The project, done in cooperation with several partners, is estimated to cost $400,000, with MCC paying for half of it.
 
Before starting the project, Mwangi instructed the masons about how to make repairs as they worked on one house for a week. As they continued to use those techniques with other houses, Mwangi continued to teach as he inspected their work.
 
The completion of the first 30 homes of this project has been gratifying, Mwangi said. Almost every completed house became home not only for the family that lives there, but also for neighbors who lived beside them at the tent camp.
 
From one home that was repaired, a woman who is a nursing assistant during the day gives simple medical care to people who live in a nearby tent camp in the evening.
 
In spite of the difficulties in this and other construction projects, MCC has committed funds for the repair and construction of 516 homes. More are expected to be funded in the future.
 

“We are working day and night to make sure that the money (donors gave to MCC) is going to the beneficiaries,” Mwangi said. “We would want them to be out of the camp as soon as possible, but we can only do that as we can.”