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Cordaid NL
Resilience Haïti

Why housing projects fail – and how to succeed

Haiti is not the only country where many efforts to house the slum dwellers have failed. Why is that? Cordaid’s Mariana Vazquez, an expert in long-term development in slums, shares her perspective.

Join Cordaid at the UN Habitat World Urban Forum on April 8th to discuss social housing in Haiti.

‘Four years after an earthquake in Haiti that made 1,3 million people homeless and despite massive international efforts, 200,000 people are still living in tents. In some areas, houses have been built, but many stand empty and vandalized. For some reason, people preferred to stay in their old houses, in crowded rooms, without water or electricity and in highly stressful and dangerous circumstances, rather than in the houses built especially for them. And Haiti is not the only country where efforts to house the slum dwellers have been challenging.

Canape Vert, Haiti

Canapé Vert, Haiti

On the cost of living

‘An adequate house, as described in international covenants, is the one that considers an adequate standard of living. This standard of adequacy serves to underline the factors to consider that a house is “adequate”; two of these factors are the affordability of the house and the availability of the services essential for health, security, comfort and nutrition.

A proper house must be affordable and all services must be available. The affordability goes for the utilities, too: electricity, gas, water, waste disposal. Sometimes a housing project will provide people with an affordable or even a free house, but the bill for the utilities is too high for them.

Remember that people living in slums have never had water from a tap or electricity at the switch of a button. They are not used to paying for these things and often do not set money aside for this purpose.

On the location

‘An “adequate house” should also be close enough to social facilities, such as schools, health clinics and the police station and there should be public transport links.

Often, housing projects fail because the houses are built miles away from town, without good, affordable transport links.

These families are the poorest of the poor; they make a living selling fruit to passers-by. Who is going to pass by on a housing estate miles from town? No-one. And if the bus fare into town is higher than what they earn, they simply can’t afford to go and live in the new houses.

Traditional and cultural wishes must be taken into account

On suitability

‘Adequate housing also means that the house is suitable for the country; that it enables the expression of cultural identity and diversity of housing in that area. For example in Haiti, where I work, it’s hot. Houses need a gallery, a cool place that is essentially part of the house where people will spend most of their time. People also have traditional and cultural wishes that must be taken into account when developing a housing program. 

In many countries, there is not much contact between the people in government and the people in slums. This lack of contact is due to different reasons; sometimes it depends on the strength of institutions sometimes on their interest to work with the vulnerable families.

Although the solutions are more and more embedded on a local understanding, it is still common that some governments in the region tend to look to other countries for solutions that may apply in some cases but in some others they come up with houses that are unsuitable for the people who have to live there.

On the role of the government

´The problem is that the government feels it is up to them to come up with all the solutions, because the citizens can’t.
We found that this isn’t true. The citizens know their situation best, so they also know  what the best solution would be. But the government doesn’t know this because they never asked one simple question: ‘What do you think would work for you?’

Now, we see a cycle in which  governments provide solutions that don’t work and they don’t understand why. They think: we built these houses, why won´t they go and live there? They just go there, sell the windows and the toilets, and then go back to the slums. Why do we even bother?

And the citizens think the government is the opponent, forcing them to live in houses that aren’t suited to their needs.

On the multi-stakeholder approach

´This is what Cordaid has come up with to break this cycle. In this approach, we invite the government to take part in our housing project, not because we think they should provide a solution, but because they also want to contribute to a lasting solution and deliver housing where people want to stay.

Multi stakeholder approach in action

The multi stakeholder approach in action.

We invite the private sector to take part, not only as a sponsor  but as a committed and engaged stakeholder;  that can find out that these communities are worthy to invest on.

Our private partners are finding out that the families can pay the house back and they are also finding that by supporting these communities the private sector can embrace the responsibility to contribute with the society that it is part of.

We invite the NGOs to take part, because they are also responsible for the proper development and should make sure they work together  instead of competing.

And we invite the community members, because they have the capacity and are willing to take the responsibility for their development in their own hands. They are willing to participate in every step of the process so that the results of any housing program are well adapted to their needs.

The community has the solutions. We are just making sure stakeholders get to hear them

We aren’t asking any favors. We’re simply asking people to take their role and their responsibility. The community is the center of it all. They have the solutions, we are just helping to make sure the stakeholders finally get to hear them.

Since this is an invitation, some stakeholders say no. That’s all right. We work with the ones that say yes, that subscribe to the same goal. And we hope that if we can get several projects up and running, more stakeholders will want to be involved.

On finance

´Let me give you an example of how the approach works. We aren´t giving away free housing, we want to help people to create the means to be able to buy their own house. This is important for their self-esteem, but it also makes the project sustainable.

The problem is, the people in slums don’t exist in economic terms. They have never paid taxes, they have no bank account, and they have no credit record. This means they can’t get a loan for their house.

Our program is based on long term savings that are linked to bank accounts. The people have to take their responsibility and actually save the money. To make this easier, we have organized them into groups that support each other and save money together. As a group, they are more reliable and creditworthy.

We are also talking to the financial sector to persuade them to accept a savings record as a sign that these families are credit-worthy. This is a big step for banks to take but if they do take it, this would bring suitable housing within reach of a lot more people, which represents a market and a clear potential business for the financial sector. Thus, we all do our bit to come up with a solution that works for all.

On the way forward

´The good thing about the multi-stakeholder approach is that once people know how it works, they can use the same system to get all the programs that they identify as priorities, for example, education or health care. In the end, we hope this system will provide us with a series of best practices that can be transformed into public policy.´

How do you house 1,3 million people? Read more on Cordaid Urban Matters’work in Haiti.

About Mariana

“After studying law  in Mexico I  worked for seven years in a development organization based on community participation. I worked in Peru, in Chile, in my own country, on housing and related issues in slums. 

Then, in 2010, Haiti was struck by a huge earthquake. Some of my colleagues went to work there. Everything was about relief, short term aid. They called me and asked me to join them, as my expertise is in long term development.
I thought I would spend a year of my life working in Haiti to help people there, but almost three years later I’m still here. They say you don’t choose Haiti, Haiti chooses you. I think it chose me. I expect to be here for some time.”

Get in touch with Mariana