PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It’s just two miles from where Dominique Tombeau lives today to the house he dreams about at night, but the road runs straight uphill.
Nine months after the schoolteacher’s concrete home collapsed in front of his wife and 4-year-old son, the family and three in-laws are stuck under a plastic tarp that pours down water when it rains. All he wants is to move up, to a working man’s apartment in the tree-lined suburb of Petionville. But every place he can even consider costs double or triple the $43 a month he used to pay in rent, even though he and everyone he knows has less money than ever.
Haiti’s brittle housing supply was shattered by the Jan. 12 earthquake, which destroyed an estimated 110,000 homes and apartment buildings. Since then demand has soared, as the more than 1.5 million people who lost their homes compete for new ones at the bottom end of the market, and a rising tide of foreigners from the U.N. and aid groups flood in from the top.
The result: There are not enough houses, and not enough money for people to rent the ones still standing. More than 1.3 million Haitians live in squatter camps, facing disgruntled landowners and violent evictions, with no international or government plan to move or house them. The prices have everyone stuck.
“The type of house most people rented before was not built well. Those houses were destroyed, and the ones that are left are too expensive,” Tombeau explained with the patience of a man used to walking teenagers through French grammar. “When they find a decent camp to live in, they decide they’d rather stay.”
Before the quake, visitors to Haiti who only knew of its poverty and desperation were shocked to see the homes available to those who could afford them. Glass and concrete palaces in pink, peach, yellow and white hang off the mountains above Port-au-Prince like oversized candies on a green fruitcake.
Some fell. The prices on those that survived defy belief. One senator put up his three-bedroom with panoramic views for $15,000 a month. (Its nine Rottweiler guard dogs are free.) Finding anything similar for less than $5,000 is a steal. Want to buy? A three-bedroom with guest apartment lists for $900,000.
With his education and entrepreneurial attitude, Tombeau would be a prime candidate to enter a Haitian middle class. But as things are, he could not afford such a house in a hundred lifetimes. All his income disappeared in a crash of concrete when his school crumbled on top of him and hundreds of students. Some 35 people were killed, and he spent six hours under the rubble with his left arm smashed and pinned to his side.
After days in a Doctors Without Borders clinic, the skinny 35-year-old moved his family to an empty space in front of Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive’s office. When officials began discouraging aid from reaching that camp, Tombeau took his $90 worth of donated tarps, wood and corrugated tin to the new camp on the side-street of Delmas 56, a rocky slope above a ravine behind a fast food joint and computer store.
The camp is called “Tet Ansanm” or “heads together,” a Creole phrase for unity that’s also an apt description of how much space people have to sleep.
Next door, behind a wall and guarded gate, is a two-story pink house now being used by the United Nations, which lost scores of buildings in the quake. On the upstairs floor is the five-person office of UN-Habitat, the primary agency tasked with the question of permanent housing.