Housing Exposition Exposes Waste, Cynicism
September 24, 2012 by Haiti Grassroots Watch/Ayiti Kale Je
Zoranje, HAITI, September 24, 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.
One of the first Haitian reconstruction projects to receive approval, funding and the enthusiastic backing of former President Bill Clinton and his foundation – over US $2 million from public and private sources – today is called by many participants and even some organizers “a farce,” “a disaster,” and “a waste of money.”
Fourteen months after Clinton himself opened the “Housing Exposition” just outside the capital, almost all of the model homes sit empty. Well over a dozen have been severely vandalized.
Rather than being inhabited by some of the 1.3 million people made homeless by the January 12, 2010, earthquake, the “Expo” site is today overrun by scores of goats, only too happy to find weeds sprouting throughout the several hectares that were filled and landscaped at the cost of US $1.2 million.
“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 US $10,000. A disheveled mattress lay on the floor behind her. “A lot of the guards left because they hadn’t been paid.”
The Expo was one of the first reconstruction projects approved by 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 an exposition and the construction of an “Exemplar Community,” an IHRC document explains. The project was also known as “Building Back Better Communities.”
The Clinton Foundation gave US $500,000; the Inter-American Bank gave another US $1.2 million; the Deutschebank Foundation, the British government and even the Haitian government all contributed, according to officials involved with the project. In addition, over 60 construction and architectural firms spent thousands of dollars preparing plans, importing materials, paying customs fees, attending conferences and building their model homes, which now belong to the Haitian government.
When Clinton and President Michel Martelly visited the site in June 2011, the former US president told journalists it was a “new beginning,” and when he and Martelly returned on July 21, 2011, for the inauguration, Martelly said it “deserves our admiration.”
But that’s all Martelly said before launching into an elegy about “Kay pa m” (“My house”), a new mortgage program aimed at Haiti’s tiny middle class. Since that date the Expo has been ignored, as have the architects, the construction firms, and the site and the houses themselves.
What happened to the project, which some organizers claim was a success but which architects who contributed the houses-turned-hovels roundly denounce as a failure?
Why are the houses still empty when over 300,000 earthquake victims remain homeless?
Who is responsible?
Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) spoke to all of the major players and to many of the participants* and discovered that, as one would-be builder put it: “Haiti is a country of irresponsibles. Everyone got paid, everyone worked, but no one’s responsible.”
Expo-nential Errors and Waste
The Expo was dreamed up a few months after the earthquake during a meeting at Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, NY, USA, according to architect 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.”
Architect firm John McAslan and Partners 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, with the appropriate environmental, social and economic planning. The architecture and planning schools at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came on board, the Deutschebank Foundation committed $50,000 and on August 17, 2010, the IHRC gave the green light.
Leslie Voltaire [seen at left, in the baseball cap, with Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive] spearheaded the project; McAslan launched the competition, but then handed it to another British company. (That firm – Malcolm Reading – eventually pulled out, apparently because it wasn’t paid at all or adequately. The firm declined repeated requests to be interviewed.) Voltaire said he and McAslan chose the site – an area called Zoranje on the border between Cité Soleil and Croix des Bouquets. Voltaire knows it well. He designed the government’s Village Renaissance housing project there in the 1990s.
The IDB offered to prepare the site, which ended up costing $1.2 million because it required a least a meter of gravel, according to IDB urban designer Arcindo Santos.
“The zone is really low, so you have to fill in, at least one meter. And each cubic meters costs about, I think now its $25 US dollars,” Santos explained. None of the estimated 10 million cubic meters of earthquake rubble was used, the planner added, because of “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 organized a conference on housing and prototypes were constructed,” the former minister told HGW.
Nick Rutherford of McAslan agreed.
“The competition ranked as among the most successful in the world,” 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 US$21,000 and range up to US $69,000, steep prices for humanitarian organizations, and in a country where more than two-thirds the population makes less than US$2 a day. And many of houses are made with imported materials.
Still, Rutherford said, “from our point of view… it’s been a huge success.”
“Success” or not, the exposition did not take place in November 2010 as planned, reportedly due to elections. 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), one of the exhibitors. “It was a hoodwink to promote the government… the whole Expo was a farce.”
Innovative spent “well into the six figures” to participate in the Expo and conference, he said, and its home has a price tag of $12,050, but the company, which has offices in the US and Canada, had gotten no orders at the time Sorge spoke with HGW. Today it appears workers in the area are using ICI’s model as a gym. Shiny exercise machines fill one room, and a hardhat can been seen hung on a handlebar.
“It was a horrible experience. It was a lot of time, a lot of money,” and he said, the firm has never heard anything from the government. “Silence.”
When the Expo finally did launch on July 21, 2011, Clinton and Martelly and other organizers attended and journalists were bussed out to the site, but few have visited after inauguration day. Even Voltaire admits the organizers at the Ministry of Tourism “lacked a certain know-how concerning how to attract people.”
One home appears to have a resident – an employee of Haitian firm Bureaucad S.A., one of the exhibitors. The man, who asked not to be identified, said his company had built the model – which is priced at US $12 500 – “because they thought the country was going to be reconstructed. Since that hasn’t happened yet,” he has been allowed to live there with his wife, son and a servant.
“Exemplar Community” with no community
Soon after the Expo process was launched, an “Exemplar Community” board of directors was formed, with Voltaire, former Secretary of Tourism and now Royal Caribbean representative Maryse Pennette Kedar, industrialist Gregory Mevs and others. They were to work with Harvard and MIT, the IDB and others to plan and build a model community.
Professors and students took three consultation trips to Haiti that included a community meeting and various surveys. The professors and others also held a meeting on Martha’s Vineyard.
“We had a good retreat with the MIT and Harvard groups to discuss new community creation in Haiti. Somehow the location of Martha’s Vineyard was chosen, President Obama’s preferred holiday spot, which provided a glimpse at the tranquility and order that Haiti is missing,” blogged Andy Meira, project director who was first on McAslan’s and then the Clinton Foundation’s payroll.
The resulting 180-page bilingual report – Designing Process [download it here] – makes recommendations related to choosing sites, employment programs, agricultural production, energy use and disaster preparedness. It also has strong warnings for the Zoranje region, which is a flood plain. By simply building it up with gravel, drainage remains difficult and “nothing will grow.” Because of the plain’s potential vulnerability to rain and eventual sea flooding, report authors write, “the next catastrophe is programmed.” The report ends with recommendations for an “exemplar” development that could be built at Zoranje – if various studies and precautions were taken – and replicated across the country.
But that community was never funded.
Instead, a different community was funded and then built just down the road from the Expo resembles all the other housing projects built in Haiti over the past decade. Rows of small houses, with a little bit of green space, inadequate drainage and – so far at least – no piped in water system. The development – called “400 in 100” because its reportedly 400 homes were supposed to be built in 100 days – was funded by the IDB.
“At some point there was just this incredible pressure to build houses,” Harvard School of Design professor Christian Werthmann told HGW a bit wistfully. “We submitted our report but it was never realized.”
On his website, former project director Meira touts the Expo and Exemplar Community, calling them the “most significant housing initiative in 2010.” but the Mexico-based consultant refused to speak to HGW. The Clinton Foundation also declined to comment, despite telephone calls and a written request.
“Not even a thank-you”
Like Meira a long list of organizers – including the IDB’s Arcindo Santos, McAslan’s Nick Rutherford, Harvard’s Werthmann and former Minister Patrick Delatour – call the Expo “significant,” “a good idea” and “a success.” And for each of them, it was. Each person and agency accomplished his piece of the project, attending conferences, writing reports, inaugurating events. And most of them, and their employees, got paid. But nobody carried the projects forward nor does anyone seem to be bothered with them today. Rather than housing earthquake victim families as the government promised, the model homes are empty.
“We’re going to sell some and rent some,” government housing reconstruction office Clement Belizaire told HGW. “Some of them will have state services in them. All of those houses will be used.”
Today, just one is occupied by a state agency. The model built by Haitian firm SECOSA now houses a police station.
In his interview with HGW, Voltaire admitted the Expo “a farce.” While calling the Harvard/MIT study “excellent,” he pointed out that perhaps the plan – his plan – was flawed from the beginning.
“Who was going to buy those houses?” he asked. “The Red Cross has money to do housing. World Vision has money to do housing. USAID has money to do housing. Maybe European Union, etc. They are the ones who should have come to the Expo… but the ones who have the money, where are they? They have their own housing [model] in their heads already.”
Today, Voltaire noted, nobody seems to be in charge. Not the state housing agency, not the housing reconstruction office, not the Ministry of Tourism.
“Clinton and Martelly are implicated in this thing,” he said. “They inaugurated it. They are the ones who should take it in hand. Martelly can’t just dump it like that. And Clinton can’t just dump it like that. And they need to write to the firms who put the prototypes there.”
But Voltaire is implicated also, according to a Ministry of Tourism document. As of March 2011, he was put in charge of “the management and follow-up of the Exemplar Community.”
HGW did its own follow up, getting in touch with seven of the firms, based in Haiti and the United States. Only one was building houses, and it had obtained that contract before the Expo started. All were dismayed with how the project turned out.
“It was a waste of money with no respect for the builders,” Gabriel Rosenberg of GR Construction said in a telephone interview. “From what I can see, [Martelly’s] ‘Kay pa m’ took the place of the project. We invested about US $25,000. We expected to sell those houses.”
Jim Dooley of New Hampshire, USA, said he got involved because he “wanted to help”. He and his partners formed the “Ti Kaye” (“Little House”) consortium and invested about US $68,000, he told HGW.
“At this point we have not sold one building,” Dooley said in an email. “We invested a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of money. And at this point absolutely no one has communicated one word. We would all feel better if we at least had some idea of what was going on.
“We were told that the model would eventually become a protective shelter and home for a caring and needy family. We can only hope that that is the future for this little building. We certainly designed it and built it with that foremost in mind.”
Haitian entrepreneur Winifred Jean Galvan said she and her Mexican partners at Pamacon S.A. spent US $27,000, part of that on customs fees. “We didn’t even get a break at Customs. We paid something like 30 percent,” she said, even though the $20,000 house was a gift to the government.
Galvan and Pamacon got involved because they wanted to “to provide people with a decent house” and “to make a living doing that,” she said.
Today the Pamacon model home sits empty. The paint is peeling and one wall is cracked, but so far it hasn’t been vandalized.
“They took our money, they took our houses… with no respect for us,” the 58-year-old businesswoman said. “We thought they would call, at least to say if they chose our house or not [for the Exemplar Community]. Not even a thank you. Not a goodbye. Nothing.”