In early October, representatives from Hope International, which specializes in providing micro financing and business training to people and groups in poorer nations, and its sister organization Homes for Hope will travel to northeast Haiti to explore beginning a program that would assist local residents and entrepreneurs in designing and building rudimentary shelter.

Over the following six to 10 months, the organizations will conduct pilot programs with groups of Haitians who want to build homes for themselves. Finding interested parties shouldn’t be too difficult, given that as many as 200,000 of the 1.5 million people who were displaced by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in January have since moved back to rural and agricultural areas in the northeast, where “families of five have become families of 17,” says Justin Straight, Hope International’s regional director for the Caribbean.

Hope International, which was founded by Jeff Rutt, who owns Keystone Custom Homes in Pennsylvania, has operated in Haiti for five years, says Straight, providing tiny starter loans ranging from $80 to $300 to help people buy materials for products they can resell at a profit, thereby giving them access to working capital that they would pay back quickly in order to borrow again. “Micro financing is an awesome thing because it has allowed millions of people to pull themselves up by their boot straps,” says Perry Bigelow, who owns Chicago-based Bigelow Homes and is chairman of Homes for Hope. He adds that micro financing “cracks” through a country’s formal economy that all too often hobbles its poorest citizens.

The housing program being contemplated in Haiti would function along similar lines, Straight explains. Hope International would create a loan product that would provide groups of borrowers enough money to build the first room of their house or houses. Straight says Hope International would target a minimum of five people per loan, and they’d have to agree to participate in the labor. He estimates that Hope International would put up about $80,000 during the exploratory and pilot phases of this program.

Once that money is repaid, the borrowers could negotiate another loan to build more. Straight says that Homes for Hope would concentrate on designing homes that are permanent and sturdy but as inexpensive as possible.

“It would be a pure box; it’s got to be really simple,” says Bigelow, without windows, bathrooms, or kitchens. “People in Haiti use houses mainly for sleeping,” he observes. The houses would be built primarily with compressed earth blocks that can be produced onsite with non-electric, manually operated machines.

Chuck Shinn, CEO of the consulting firm The Shinn Group, who is also a participant in the early stages of this effort, says his brother-in-law, who owns a brick factory in Panama, has agreed to help train Haitians to use this equipment. Shinn and Bigelow agree that the key to making this program work is for borrowers to do the construction themselves, and to design houses that can be built using indigenous materials. The only products that might need to be brought into Haiti are reinforced steel and tin roofs to make the houses rigid enough to withstand future earthquakes.

Bigelow says he’s sketched out a house that would have three rooms and porch, the materials for which Shinn guesses probably wouldn’t cost more than $2,000. During the pilot phase, Hope International will be working with a local partner, Dominican Republic-based Esperanza International, and one of the measurements of success, says Straight, “will be how well and how quickly Esperanza Haiti will be able to fully manage and grow the housing program.” Not only does Hope International want to empower local residents and entrepreneurs through its microeconomic development tools, it also “wants to raise up a national staff that is empowered and trained to lead their fellow countrymen and –women in long term economic change.”

Right now, the housing program is still preliminary. Land needs to be secured (although squatting in Haiti to establish de facto land rights isn’t uncommon, especially in rural areas). House designs need to be massaged to meet local residents’ expectations and needs. The supply chain for products that aren’t locally available still needs to be worked out so as not to add substantially to the final cost of the house. Soil and equipment will need to be tested. And a system needs to be set up to manage lending and construction on a large scale. (Hope International isn't estimating yet how many housing units might get built during the pilot phase.) “We’re essentially starting from scratch,” says Shinn.

But one thing that Bigelow isn’t concerned about is finding enough people who want to participate in the program. “If we put the right program together, I’m confident that we will find ‘early adopters’ in Haiti, just as we would in our country.”

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

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