(All photography by Andre Lambertson)

takepart features

After the Quake, Luxury Hotels Rise Above Haiti’s Homeless

Despite an outpouring of aid after the devastation of Port-au-Prince, it’s the same old story for many of the city’s poor.
Apr 11, 2014· 11 MIN READ
Lisa Armstrong has written for Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and TheAtlantic.com. She teaches at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Richard François felt relief and a sliver of hope the day he moved his family into the house a few minutes from the homeless camp in the Champs de Mars, one of Port-au-Prince’s main public squares, where they’d been living. It was just a single room, but safer and more solid than the tarp-and-wood structure they’d called home for two years, after their house collapsed in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that devastated the city. François’ wife, Johanne, had given birth to their daughter on the street two days after the earthquake; he’d cut the umbilical cord himself, using a razor blade. The family had endured days with no food, and nights of terror as bandits and rapists roamed the camp, and storms that ripped their tarp roof away, leaving them soaked.

Then, in early 2012, the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that responds to mass displacement, offered an irresistible deal to François and the 4,600 others who had been living in the makeshift camp on the Champs de Mars: If they found homes, IOM would pay their rent for a year, up to about $500. The $500 wouldn’t allow for much; at the time, an IOM official said, “We're not talking about a house. We're talking about renting a room, space on the floor, with a roof, access to water, a communal kitchen, maybe a toilet.” Still, a solid room was better than a tent in a camp.

“IOM moved us to a place where we had water, a clinic, security,” says François, 26. “We were in peace.”

But François’ happiness soon began to fade. He couldn’t find a job, and there were still days when his family did not eat. Apart from the hunger, François knew that once the IOM stipend was exhausted, he would not have the means to continue paying rent.

Today François is back in Fort National, the ramshackle neighborhood he lived in before the earthquake, in a home made with zinc sheet walls and a tarp roof. He lives alone; his wife has had enough of living as a squatter and has taken their daughter to live with family.

In February 2012, the Haitian government, in conjunction with IOM and other NGOs, set about relocating the 420,000 people who were still living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), the international community’s term for people who lose or are forced from their homes but don’t cross an international border. The 16/6 plan, so named because the goal was to repair earthquake-damaged housing in 16 neighborhoods and relocate residents of six camps, plus the one in the Champs de Mars, has been heralded as a success. Government figures proudly proclaim that 90 percent of the people who were living in camps have been relocated. Yet François is not alone: It’s become clear now that the IOM stipends are running out and there is little in the way of programs for the 70 percent of Haitians who lack steady employment; many of them are, like François, back on the streets.

After the earthquake there was an unprecedented outpouring of support from Americans and aid organizations for an overseas aid mission—more than half a billion dollars was donated in the first two weeks. The Red Cross collected $28 million by text message alone in that time period. Just a few days after the quake, a massive relief effort began, crunched into the devastated airport. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush launched a nonprofit to help Haiti “rebuild its future through economic opportunities,” and Hollywood did its telethon thing.

Four years later, on the surface you can see progress in Port-au-Prince. The Champs de Mars, which was once a sea of tents, tarps, and filth, has been restored to a beautiful park—a success, thanks to the 16/6 plan—but officials from IOM and the government say they really don’t know whether the camp’s former residents are still in homes or are back on the streets. “Current government housing initiatives seem to focus more on preventing people from living in public squares than providing them with safe homes,” said Javier Zúñiga, special advisor at Amnesty International, in a 2013 report. Many thousands of Haitians are no better off than they were the day before the earthquake, and the tens of millions of dollars invested in projects intended to help create jobs and lift the economy isn’t helping those who need it most. If crisis is an opportunity, it seems the earthquake was an opportunity wasted.

According to the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti, just over $9 billion has been disbursed toward relief and reconstruction efforts in Haiti; 59 percent went to U.N. agencies, international NGOs, and private contractors, 40 percent went to the donor countries’ civil/military entities, and 1 percent went to the Haitian government. The problem, writes Vijaya Ramachandran, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C., think tank, is, “Despite commitments made by rich country governments and non-governmental organizations towards greater aid transparency…it is impossible to trace how the money was spent, how many Haitians were served, and what kinds of projects succeeded or failed.”

Before the earthquake, 27-year-old John Jeannot had a small business selling water, soda, and juice. Like François, he was relocated in 2012 from the Champs de Mars camp to a house but is now living in Fort National, in a zinc-and-tarp structure with a bright yellow door, faded yellow curtains, and two chickens tied up in the back. He suspects that IOM and the government have money that could have been used to create jobs but that they’re instead keeping for themselves: “The government and the NGOs are big eaters,” he says. “When they are walking, you can see how big are their pockets, and our pockets are flat.”

The World Bank Group contributed $26.5 million to a new Marriott in Port-au-Prince; construction workers at the site said they’re being paid significantly less than what the hotel company and a contractor claim.

About 10 miles up the hill from Fort National, three luxury hotels have recently opened in Pétionville, Port-au-Prince’s poshest neighborhood, and a fourth, a Marriott, is under construction. The hotels, with their ornate fountains, orchid- and palm-filled courtyards, and modish restaurants, where lunchtime salads and sandwiches fetch business-class prices of $13 to $18, are manifestations of an explicit strategy for economic growth announced by Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.

At the January 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual meeting of corporate and government leaders from around the world that’s like Burning Man for the 1 percent, Lamothe said that one key to rebuilding the country was tourism and that the government was investing in the industry to stimulate economic growth, with the belief that economic benefits would trickle down to the poor. “Our strategy is very simple,” Lamothe said at this year’s forum. “In order to fight poverty, we need to create wealth.”

Wealth for whom? one might ask. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund invested $2 million in Pétionville’s Royal Oasis, where rooms go for $250 a night and up. Its website stated that its $2 million equity stake in the venture would generate income that it would later plow into other projects and programs over the long term. The International Financial Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, contributed $26.5 million to the Marriott project.

Mari Snyder, vice president of social responsibility & community engagement at Marriott International, says the project currently has 201 full-time employees.

“The quake took away 50 percent of Haiti’s hotel capacity,” Snyder says. “Travel and tourism is a primary economic driver in developing societies, and that’s where we come in. Hotels are part of that equation.”

Robenson is a mason working on the Marriott. (His last name will not be published to protect against potential reprisals for speaking to the media.) He got the job last September but says it was not easy: “I spent many days going back and forth, three weeks, four weeks, coming here every single day,” says Robenson, 28. “I think at the end they were tired of seeing me and just gave me a job.”

Though Marriott says that masons like Robenson are employed full-time and paid $20 a day, Robenson says he only makes $7 a day and works two or three days a week, earning a maximum of $84 a month. “After my wife, two children, and I eat, there is nothing left!” he says.

It is impossible to trace how the money was spent, how many Haitians were served, and what kinds of projects succeeded or failed.

Vijaya Ramachandran, Center for Global Development

Several other construction workers said they were earning $7 an hour and working a similar schedule as Robenson. (Asked about the discrepancy, spokesperson for Marriott and Digicel, another major investor in the project, said their numbers had come from a subcontractor.)

Robenson’s success at finding work rebuilding Haiti is the kind of minor victory Haiti needed to replicate many thousands of times over. Fabien Sambussy, an operations manager at IOM, says the original goal of the relocation program was to allow people to find jobs. It was never meant to be a long-term solution: “It was just to buy time, get people out of the camp and give them an opportunity to move ahead.”

But Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a Boston-based human rights advocacy group, says that this is not what the government said of the 16/6 plan when it was launched. “It was supposed to be a sustainable housing solution to earthquake displacement,” says Phillips.

Sambussy says that among the dozens of relief groups and other donor organizations that descended on Port-au-Prince after the quake, IOM was tasked only with dealing with the emergency response to the earthquake and that the main issue, socioeconomic development, is something that will take time and should be tackled by the Haitian government.

Many Haitians try to earn money through informal jobs such as street vendors but lost all their goods during the earthquake and lacked the funds or access to capital to restart their businesses afterward. In its report, “Nowhere to Go: Forced Evictions in Haiti’s Displacement Camps,” Amnesty International wrote last year that the solution is job creation: “Many families now benefiting from the rent subsidy fear they will not be able to cover the expense the following year if the government, with the assistance of its international partners, does not put in place a programme to assist them [in rebuilding] their livelihoods.”

Sambussy echoed the Amnesty report. “The time scale of clearing the [IDP] camp in a school yard so children can go back to school, or getting a woman out of the camp where gangs and rapists are operating, it’s something that we can do from today to tomorrow,” he said. “But the improvement of the social economy of Port-au-Prince, we’re talking about how long? Five years, 10 years? Are we in the position to pay the rent for five or 10 years?”

Zette and her six grandchildren live in a wood-and-tarp makeshift house in Christ Roi, the same neighborhood where Zette once owned a three-room house, which collapsed during the earthquake.

Like Richard François, Zette, 56, moved to the Champs de Mars camp after the earthquake. Through IOM’s partnership with the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), an organization that supports rape victims, Zette and several other women were relocated from IDP camps. Zette’s eight-year-old granddaughter, whom she cares for, was raped in the Champs de Mars camp in 2011.

John Jeannot's rent subsidy ran out before he could find steady work or accumulate the capital necessary to restart the business he lost in the earthquake. Now he lives in this hut in Fort National.

Port-au-Prince had a housing shortage even before the earthquake, a situation that was dramatically worsened as 105,000 houses were destroyed and more than 200,000 were badly damaged by the quake. With the diminished housing stock, landlords were able to raise prices, and according to interviews with several landlords and many others, most now require that tenants pay an entire year’s rent before moving in—something that many in Port-au-Prince (or in Miami, Manila, or Helsinki, for that matter) simply cannot afford. The practice suggests one measure the government might have taken— enforcing a ban on rent-in-advance—though that might have proved difficult given its limited resources.

In addition to relocating people to surviving structures, IOM built 11,447 T-shelters—one-room homes made of plywood, with zinc roofs, for people in IDP camps.

My dream is to rebuild my business and with the money, I can leave this area. There’s no water, no electricity; it’s a dangerous area.

Myrline, 56, earthquake victim

Zette and her granddaughter were moved to a T-shelter in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb eight miles outside Port-au-Prince. She and another quake victim, Myrline, 56, who was raped four months after the earthquake and moved by KOFAVIV to a T-shelter nearby, said that the T-shelters’ plywood walls would swell when it rained, and the roofs leaked. (Due to the stigma attached to victims of rape, Zette and Myrline requested that their last names not be published.)

Though IOM had built the shelters, it had leased the land where they stood, and only for a year. At the end of the year, the landowner told Zette and Myrline that they had to pay rent. The women both had small businesses after the earthquake—Myrline sold coffee by the roadside, and Zette sold milk, candy, flour, and other food items—Myrline’s son became sick, and she says she spent all of her money on medical tests and doctors’ bills. Zette said she could not sustain her business, because it cost her too much to travel back and forth between her home and where she plied her wares, and she had no one to watch her grandchildren. She tried to sell the goods in the neighborhood near her T-shelter, but she says the people in the community chose to support their own, and did not buy from her.

The women could not pay the landlord, and one day last November, while Zette was out, he demolished her T-shelter and placed her belongings under a mango tree. The landlord told Myrline if she didn’t move, he would destroy her house next.

Myrline was provided with shelter after months of living in a makeshift camp of people who’d lost their homes in the quake, but she now lives in this tent. 

Myrline now lives in a tent in the Village Grâce de Dieu camp, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

“My dream is if [the government] can help me to rebuild my business and with the money, I can leave this area,” says Myrline. “There’s no water, no electricity; if I want to charge my phone, I have to come to Port-au-Prince. It’s a dangerous area. I have already been raped; I do not want to be a victim again.”

The government has been building houses for former camp residents not far from Village Grâce de Dieu.

“It’s the first time in the whole life of Haiti that there is a government for which the housing problem is considered a real problem,” says Harry Adam, executive director of the Unit for Housing and Public Buildings Construction (UCLBP), a government agency.

Village Lumane Casimir, a development of 1,500 small houses, is one of the government’s successes. As the sun sets here, young men—several of them amputees on crutches—play soccer in a dead-end street, and a woman sings as she washes clothes. Seide Jean, 29, and his friends move furniture from the back of a minivan into his new house while his two young daughters play outside. Jean and his family have been living in a camp since the earthquake. His wife is a policewoman, earning about $300 a month, so they have enough money to qualify for a home in Village Lumane Casimir: They had to pay $55 to get water and electricity connections, and though the rent is government subsidized, they still have to pay $270 every six months.

The 1,500 new homes at Village Lumane Casimir are viewed as one of the government’s successful housing programs implemented since the quake. It’s affordable for those with jobs, but about 70 percent of Haitians lack steady employment.

UCLBP also spent millions of dollars restoring homes in Jalousie, a shantytown built into the steep sides of a hill overlooking Pétionville. The view of Jalousie from the Pétionville hotels is breathtaking, with its previously stark, gray, concrete houses now painted pink, green, blue, yellow—an homage to Haitian artist Préfète Duffaut.

To those who say building houses rather than painting Jalousie should have been the priority, Adam says: “In the past three years, you know how many hotels were built in Pétionville? If you have people coming, spending money, investing, building hotels, would you leave that area [looking] like [it did]? It’s a choice. The choices are difficult, and you will never have everyone agreeing with your choices.”

He also acknowledges that UCLBP’s other showcase project, Village Lumane Casimir, does not meet the needs of all Haitians: “This project is not for the very, very, very poor. The government has subsidized programs for them, like welfare.” He said that Haiti was poor before the earthquake, so the problem of poverty cannot be solved overnight. When asked why the government hadn't put in place a plan to create more jobs, Adams referred me to the prime minister; his press officer and others did not respond to several emails.

François and Jeannot say they do not want charity from the government. All they want is jobs, but they know that while they may exist in Pétionville, those jobs are not for people like them.

“Pétionville is not for us. Pétionville is for the mulattoes, and we are from the masses,” says Jeannot.

François, who is a mason by trade and would therefore qualify for a job building the new hotels, nods and crosses his arms over the words written on his shirt: “Get Rich or Die.”

“The money stays up; the money doesn’t come down,” he says, pointing to Pétionville. “They share the money among them. Here we live in misery.”

Reporting for this article was funded in part through a grant provided by the Reporting Award from New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.