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Three misconceptions in the way of better housing policies

Luis Triveno's picture
Also available in: 中文

Photo by Dominic Chavez / World Bank

​While the need for housing is widespread, individually people have different needs—depending on whether they are single, married, senior citizens, families with children, or members with disabilities. Despite the best of intentions of policymakers, "a roof overhead" remains an elusive goal for a large majority of the world’s people. Most households cannot afford even the cheapest house that fits their needs and qualifies as “decent,” and no government alone can close this gap with subsidies. Nor are we on track to build the 300 million new houses needed to close the housing gap by 2030.

What’s missing? At least three misconceptions stand in the way of better housing policies: 
 

Let’s build the infrastructure that no hurricane can erase

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Hati after Hurrican Matthew
Hurricane Matthew destroyed an estimated 90% of homes in Haiti's Grande Anse department. Stronger public knowledge infrastructure can help better facilitate post-disaster recovery.
(Photo: EU Delegation to the Republic of Haiti)
The news from Haiti about the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew is a familiar story: more chaos, rubble, and loss of life from another natural disaster. Though recent improvements to Haiti’s infrastructure at the local level kept the death toll at 534—3,000 died in the 2004 hurricane; more than 200,000 in the 2010 earthquake—the number is still way too high.
 
Worldwide, natural disasters claimed 1.3 million lives between 1992 and 2012, with earthquakes accounting for 60%of disaster deaths in low- and middle-income countries, where the preponderance of sub-standard housing increases the risks. Today, 1.2 billion people live in substandard housing. By 2030, this figure will almost triple.
 
The good news is that most of those deaths and property losses can be prevented. In 2003, for example, within three days of each other, earthquakes of similar magnitude struck Paso Robles, California and Bam, Iran. The death toll in Bam was 40,000—nearly half the city’s population. Two people died in Paso Robles.
 
Even when destruction does take place, proper planning and measures can ensure a speedy recovery.

Retrofitting: A housing policy that saves lives

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Building earthquake-resistant housing in Peru. Photo: USAID/OFDA, Auriana Koutnik/Flickr
When a hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster strikes a poor country, families too often suffer a double tragedy: the loss of loved ones and their most valuable (and sometimes only) asset, their home. In the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010, which killed more than 260,000 people, 70% of asset losses were related to housing. Ecuador faces billions of dollars in reconstruction costs from last April’s 7.8 earthquake, which killed 900 and injured almost 28,000. If Peru were hit by an 8.0-degree earthquake, an estimated 80% of potential economic losses would involve housing.
 
And while nature’s fury does not distinguish between urban and rural areas, a large majority of disaster losses are concentrated in cities, where they disproportionately affect the poor. This creates a great challenge for low and middle-income countries.  In Latin America and the Caribbean, 200 million people—1/3 of the population—live in informal settlements, where most dwellings don’t comply with construction codes and home insurance is non-existent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, LAC’s informal districts also account for the majority of disaster-related deaths in the region.
 
Yet housing policies aimed at the poor tend to focus on supporting the construction of new units instead of retrofitting existing homes to make them safer—ignoring the fact that it is mostly buildings, not earthquakes, that kill people. As a result, the deficit in housing quality is still disturbingly high: millions of families remain exposed not just to disaster risk but also to high crime rates, eviction, poor housing conditions, as well as lack of access to basic services, healthcare, schools, and job opportunities.
 
To address these issues, countries will need to tackle the housing challenge from two different but complementary angles: they have to find ways of upgrading the existing housing stock, where the majority of the poor live, while making sure that new constructions comply with building regulations. After all, if floods or earthquakes do not distinguish between old or new homes, why should policy-makers? It is time for resilience to become part of the definition of “decent, affordable housing.”