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NYC Team Bringing Transitional Shelters to Haiti

Thu June 17, 2010 - National Edition

NEW YORK (AP) A team of New York architects flew to Haiti with prototypes of an octagonal vinyl structure they hope will help house some of the 1.5 million Haitians still homeless because of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The first of the aluminum-and-steel octagonal structures will be built in Jacmel in southern Haiti under an arrangement with the nonprofit group Rural Haiti Project. Each has 166 sq. ft. (15.4 sq m) of space and is designed to withstand wind, hurricanes and earthquakes.

Haiti’s housing shortage is acute, with homeless camps growing instead of shrinking as even more people leave standing homes in search of aid or unable to pay rent. Others are afraid to return to the thousands of homes rated safe to enter, unsure of whether another quake will come.

“There are people who are in these vulnerable conditions every day that can’t live in those situations very long without getting sick,” said architect Rodney Leon, project manager of the octagonal shelter. “So we wanted to find something that was somewhere between a tent and a permanent house.”

Deutsche Bank provided a $50,000 challenge grant for the project, called HaitiSOFTHOUSE, and organizers have raised most of the other $50,000, said Gary Hattem, president of the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. The structures can be mass produced for less than $3,000 each.

One of the structures designed by Leon — who also designed the African Burial Ground National Monument — went on display June 3 at the bank’s U.S. headquarters on Wall Street.

“This is so far superior to the tent communities that people are in,” Hattem said.

The SOFTHOUSE units can be clustered for extended families or for use as a school or clinic. The units can be assembled in one day and, weighing about 400 lbs. (180 kg), can be picked up and moved by hand. They are designed to last up to five years.

Architect Lonn Combs said the octagonal shape is “inherently more rigid against lateral forces” than a square.

There has been no shortage of ideas for transitional shelter — which many experts believe will become permanent anyway. For months, entrepreneurs have visited officials, selling projects for house-building factories, experimental structures and prefabricated huts.

Meanwhile, navigating Haiti’s byzantine, corruption-addled customs system has been difficult. Builders have complained of delays at ports and at the border, holding up construction.

Combs said there is no one single solution to Haiti’s housing crisis.

“What makes us unique is that we have access to a site in Jacmel right now,” he said. “We will be able to provide 20 units next month in a kind of field test.”

The United Nations’ envoy to the Haitian reconstruction committee, Edmond Mulet, told the group at its meeting on June 2 that Haiti’s struggling democracy is in jeopardy if earthquake survivors’ lives are not improved.

“The longer that the victims continue living in precarious conditions, the more they will have reason to be discontent,” Mulet said at the meeting in the Dominican resort of Punta Cana. “That discontent can be manipulated for political ends.”

The committee is led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Clinton, who heads the committee overseeing Haiti’s reconstruction money, advocated a USAID-funded project in the capital region to build 125,000 temporary shelters at a cost of $1,300 each. The structures could be made more permanent with optional upgrades.

The problem, aid workers told him, is finding landowners willing to turn over property to become hardened long-term communities. Those could easily become new shantytowns, with no plans for new tenants to pay rent or become property owners themselves.

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