PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — She’s a sports journalist at one of Haiti’s most respected radio stations, university educated and middle class. But ever since an earthquake destroyed much of her city in 2010, she’s been unable to secure a decent place to live.
Like many living here, Shelove Perrin’s family had to move out of their home because of quake damage. Then they had to move again, and again, and again. Landlords kept jacking up the rent or failing to provide even tap water.
Any country, much less the poorest in the Americas, would have struggled to cope with the massive quake damage. More than a million Haitians moved into squalid camps, and more than 2 million received food aid. But Perrin thinks the biggest reason for her persistent housing problem was the flood of international organizations that rushed in to help Haiti recover.
Aid groups saved lives and brought essential assistance. They provided good jobs to many Haitians. But foreign staff needed housing, and their presence exacerbated a severe shortage, pushing already high rents into the stratosphere and reducing incentives for landlords to keep local tenants happy.
Their presence may have inadvertently helped reinforce Haiti’s class structure, already rated by the United Nations as one of the most unequal in the world. Observers said most of those who benefited from the real estate boom were members of Haiti’s upper class, estimated at roughly 3% to 5% of the population, including many people living overseas.
Among those who suffered were professionals and other members of Haiti’s struggling middle class, believed to make up no more than 15% of the population. As small as it is, a former economy minister said their numbers seem to be falling because of problems that include high rents, debt, lack of opportunity and emigration.
Well before the earthquake, Haiti was often snidely referred to as “the Republic of NGOs” for the number of non-governmental organizations active here. Former president Bill Clinton famously put the figure at 10,000. The number exploded after the earthquake and then diminished over the years.
Now, almost eight years later, conditions should be in place for rents to fall dramatically. Most post-earthquake contracts are finished, and many humanitarian groups have cleared out. The U.N. peacekeeping mission put in place years before the quake has left, as well, to be replaced by a much smaller one.
Perrin, who said she moved seven times in the past eight years, is eager to put her housing woes behind her.
In one case, rent went up 14% for a house she was already stretching to afford by supplementing her day job with marketing gigs and public appearances. She couldn’t pay the extra amount. She considered legal action when a landlord violated her lease, but realized the legal fees would be more than the increase in rent.
Vanel Sylvestre, a real estate agent operating in an upscale suburb of Port-au-Prince, said rental prices, and his commissions, are lower now than any time since he started real estate work five years ago.
Movement is grudging and uneven. Some furnished two-bedroom apartments with 24-hour electricity have fallen from $1,400 to $900 a month. Others won’t budge, like $2,000 two-bedrooms sitting vacant for months. The Facebook page of Sylvestre’s company, Vally Realstate Agency, still features a house for rent for $4,500 a month and one for sale for more than $1 million.
Sylvestre said he made most of his money off foreigners, especially staff for the U.N. peacekeeping mission. The force, which peaked at more than 12,000 after the quake, operated in Haiti from 2004 until last October. The new mission will have about 1,600 people, mostly police.
Although most of the old mission’s military and police lived on bases, some rented homes, as did the more than 1,000 civilian staffers. Sylvestre said that’s why a four-bedroom house that once rented for $5,000 rose to $8,000.
Landlords would ask the same price of Haitians, even if they didn’t want the same amenities. “If you are a local guy, you say, ‘What? Why do you ask so much money?” Sylvestre said. “And the landlord will say, ‘Sir, if you can’t take it, just leave.’”
Landlords have been spoiled, said Yves Francois, a Haitian-American who moved back to Haiti in 2009 and started a construction firm.
For the four years after the earthquake, he was stunned at having to pay more in rent for office space in Haiti than he’d paid the previous decade on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He said he knows many people who built high-end apartments for foreigners after the earthquake, “and most of those apartments are vacant now.” The prices should be falling, he said, but the owners are holding off.
“Some owners are still waiting for a miracle,” Sylvestre said. “They think, ‘I can wait. They will come back.’” Unfortunately, that “miracle” would probably be another natural disaster or more political upheaval — occurrences all too common in Haiti throughout its 214-year history.
Sylvestre said the foreign presence on balance did not make Haiti’s class divisions worse. Besides the rich landlords, some middle-class people moved into more modest homes so they could rent to the foreigners, and Haitians who found jobs working for the international organizations were able to afford better places to live.
Jeremie Dalusma, a civil engineer, is an example of someone who benefited. He has headed logistics operations for State Department programs and several non-governmental organizations since the earthquake. Without that work, he said, he probably would have left Haiti by now.
While the presence of foreign organizations has hurt middle-class renters, it’s not the primary reason the country is so impossibly expensive, said Daniel Dorsainvil, Haiti’s former minister of economy and finance. Haiti needs to improve productivity with better infrastructure and increased domestic production, he said. That will improve the entire economy.
Perrin recently moved again, into a new place she is sharing with her sister. She said the rent is cheaper but still takes most of her income.
Overall, she still regards the foreign presence as a negative for the middle class, but she is pleased with one aspect. There is a lot more housing on the market with amenities like generators and air conditioning. For some in the middle class, these units just might be coming within reach.