Rebuilding Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake: a question of land ownership?

Lucie COUET, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

The January 12th, 2010 earthquake killed tens of thousands of people and turned Port-au-Prince into a city of tents. Over a million people ended up homeless and built makeshift shelters outside their homes, in their courtyards, on the street, or in camps. There was already a housing crisis prior to the earthquake, but three years later it has not yet been solved. Land tenure is at the heart of the reconstruction challenge. How can new housing be built if there is no clear administrative division of land? How can a capital be rebuilt if it has lost control of its own territory? The stakes are high and the required solutions are difficult to implement. In the meantime, people are not just sitting around and waiting: reconstruction is already underway, the city is doing the best it can.

A Historical Land Tenure Issue

Land ownership is a key issue in a country which is still over 50% rural and whose inhabitants keep migrating to the cities. It takes approximately two years for the process from the land survey to the final sale to be completed, and at the end of 24 months the new owner’s rights over the recently acquired land are often not guaranteed. When Haiti was a French colony, property handover registries were often just as piecemeal and provided no government guarantee of property rights. When the Haitian revolution took place, at the end of the 18th century, which ultimately led to Haiti’s independence in 1804, most of the colonist landowners were driven out of the country. Nonetheless, despite a redistribution of some plots, no land reform was enacted. Thus, today’s grey area in tenure goes back a long way. Over the last two centuries, no major land reform has clarified the situation, even though inheritance rules keep dividing land between heirs over and over again, every time someone dies. This has been fragmenting land which is, in addition, worn out and degraded because of the massive deforestation caused by farmers’ poverty. The lack of an overarching land policy has led to an entanglement which has grown more and more complex as the decades go by.

It is now hard to precisely define limits for land properties. The Directorate General for Taxation, which includes the Ownership office, finds it difficult to identify the lands which belong to the State, and even more so since its headquarters collapsed in January 2010. Some of its records were salvaged and are being re-classified, but the system is not yet computerised. Moreover, property handovers are seldom recorded: the land-surveyor - whose role is to define limits for a plot - , then the notary, most often simply guarantee the existing ownership and not all cases are sent to the Directorate General for Taxation. Additionally, most large properties are under a joint ownership regime.

However, often one of the family members lives abroad - this is the situation of 10% of Haiti’s population -, and a proxy is rarely drawn up for purposes of the joint ownership. Large land tenures are often poorly managed and unknown to State authorities. Concretely, a representative of the landowner - sometimes a self-designated representative - sees to the occupancy rights. Large land properties are fragmented and are not properly recorded, as is the case concerning State property. New occupants are not given any enforceable deed of occupancy, but they build on these plots. They are not eligible for bank loans or for a housing microcredit since there can be no mortgage as collateral. Banks have available funds for individual loans but cannot find potential customers with sufficient guarantees. There are pawnbrokers and moneylenders, but their rates on medium-term loans are steep. Therefore, individuals do not have significant housing investment capabilities and are limited to storing cash under their mattresses or receiving remittances from the diaspora. There are very few real estate developers: investing in housing is risky. The legal framework is mostly obsolete, the loan rates are high and tenure insecurity can jeopardise a project’s financial stability.

The Concrete Impact of Legal Insecurity

The primary consequence of this widespread tenure insecurity and of the Haitian State’s lack of control over its land is the increasing urbanisation of the most dangerous and remote sites. Port-au-Prince is in a cyclonic and seismic area; it is also prone to landslides and floods. Since there are no sanitized plots available, people are rebuilding homes on mountain slopes and near streams, further and further away from roads, electricity, drinking water, economic activities and services. In 2013, the Ministry of the Environment started building a wall along the biggest mountain to the south of Port-au-Prince, to mark a boundary for urbanisation and to protect the rural outskirts. Given the extent of the problem and the population’s lack of alternatives, this initiative seems doomed to failure.

A second phenomenon has driven the city to spread towards the North, to the edges of the flood plain. After the 2010 earthquake, a whole strip of land from the seaside to the foothills of the Matheux Chain was designated of public utility in the framework of a project for setting up agribusiness industries. At the same time, several non-governmental organisations started implementing a State-driven project to relocate the inhabitants of one of Port-au-Prince’s biggest camps to temporary housing units just to the South of this new public utility area. These measures were announced and, combined with the lack of available housing, impelled people to rush towards this newly designated public utility area. Thus, approximately an hour away from the city centre, with no drinking water supply and in the midst of a lunar landscape, dozens of thousands of people settled. The temporary camps gradually turned into a tarpaulin city, where everyone plants little stakes around their homes to mark the limits of their property. Or rather their aspiration to ownership. Occupants have reported being threatened by representatives of legal landowners, suffering violent attacks at night or rip offs; they have also reported excessive prices for these plots. Nonetheless they are still determined to stay in what they consider to be their homes. Some areas were recognized by the neighbouring municipality, or were given a police station. No prior planning was used as a guideline for the establishment of this area, which is now one of the city’s most burning urban issues.

At the same time, also in 2010, the capital’s historical centre was designated as a public utility area too. At the time, politicians wanted to renovate the urban centre where most ministries, the national palace, the parliament, the city hall and other landmarks are located. It would also allow for real estate operations to bolster the stock of housing and stores, which had been depleted by the earthquake. The declaration of public utility was not the most appropriate tool for this project and the process was cancelled, two years after the initial declaration. The abusive use of a solid land management tool ended up, accidentally, freezing all transactions within Port-au-Prince. As landowners awaited the outcome of the situation and the official ban on land sales, they withheld from renovating plots with former commercial premises or housing, as well as from starting any new constructions. Likewise, in the years that followed the partial destruction of the historical city centre, no plots of land were merged. The centre of Port-au-Prince is also a major logistic hub for the metropolitan area, thanks to the port and the national highways which provide transportation of foodstuffs from the rest of the country and the Dominican Republic to the local market. At night, this giant market empties out and the buildings lined up along elegant arcade-sidewalks look out onto desert streets. Economic activities have been transferred to other municipalities in the city. Safety and long-term investors’ trust must be restored in this commercial heart and soul of the city. Without stores, warehouses, offices and housing for its workers, the city centre cannot be a significant economic driver.

There are Solutions, but they will Take Time

As informal reconstruction is underway, some solutions have been surfacing - but they will all take time. The Interministerial Committee for Land Planning (Comité interministériel pour l’aménagement du territoire) has launched a project to establish a land register in two suburban neighbourhoods; they are encountering difficulties mapping land ownership but are little by little working out solutions to these complex problems. The State is working on a national housing policy to standardise investment and has launched major public initiatives. Non-governmental organisations have come together to reflect on land issues and present solutions to policymakers. In 2013, the reconstruction of four ministries, the courthouse and the Supreme Court began in the city centre. The duration of these projects will have to comply with international donors’ grant requirement. Often defined on a short-term basis, these requirements don’t take into account the fact that urban renovation takes longer. The funds from the Petro Caribe Fund allow for a more flexible use than USAID, European Union or Inter-American Development Bank funds, and also include financing for a significant share of state expenditure on housing and public building projects.

The lack of land management has therefore redefined the city. The poor bear the brunt of this situation, on a day-to-day basis. But in the short term, all the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince, rich and poor, will suffer the harmful consequences of this uncontrolled sprawl. It is also, obviously, a hindrance to economic development. The increasing traffic jams in the city symbolise this cruel inertia. In Port-au-Prince, urban development is inching forward.