A woman stands in her new house, a transitional shelter built in the rural areas near Grand Goave. A woman stands in her new house, a transitional shelter built in the rural areas near Grand Goave. Photo credit: EC/ECHO/Isabel COELLO
Coordination and the tenure puzzle in Haiti
by Kate Crawford, Emily Noden and Lizzie Babister, CARE International UK September 2010

Security of tenure has a direct influence on people’s vulnerability to disasters and their capacity to recover. Tenure type directly affects the likelihood of displacement and the chances of a rapid return. Tenure security does not necessarily mean having formally registered, legally recognised and inheritable ownership. It can also mean formal and informal, short- and long-term ways to secure shelter by individuals, households, communities and enterprises, including renting, ownership and leasing of land. Contemporary studies suggest a move away from trying to ‘solve’ land rights issues by documenting and enforcing top-down ownership models in favour of flexible, incremental approaches based on community enumeration which protect people from eviction and provide a basis for building livelihoods. 

Housing, land and property in Haiti

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with over half of its population living on less than a dollar a day. It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the Americas, particularly in urban areas, with metropolitan Port-au-Prince growing by 115,000 people a year for the last two decades. Before the earthquake, population densities in the shanty towns of the capital stood at up to 25,000 people per square kilometre. According to UN-Habitat, living space in Port-au-Prince’s permanent housing was 1.98m2 per person, whereas Sphere recommends 3.5m2.

The 12 January earthquake destroyed or damaged an estimated 200,000 homes, displacing 1.2 million people, the majority of them from what was already sub-standard, vulnerable and precarious housing.[1] Responding to housing, land and property (HLP) issues after the earthquake has been challenging. Haitian housing evolves incrementally: householders often start with a ground floor unit, gradually adding upper floors to let out and generate income. The majority of the capital’s 2.7 million inhabitants live in informal settlements, where tenure is based upon informal contracts or permits. Many Haitians do not have personal identification documents, few land information systems exist and land claims are duplicated and out of date. Different land-related information is kept within different government authorities, and it is difficult, from the perspective of emergency teams, to find reference documents on housing, land and property, the history of urbanisation and urban social and political movements in Haiti.




Housing, land and property rights impact on households in the following ways:


  • Vulnerability. According to UN- Habitat, before the earthquake householders perceived the risk of eviction to be low and even the poorest slowly invested in heavyweight but very poor quality structures that were highly vulnerable to collapse. In addition, overcrowding can lead to the occupation of high-risk zones by the most vulnerable.
  • Displacement, repair and reconstruction. Assessments by CARE have shown that owner-occupiers and land tenants were more likely to have access to their original plots and housing materials. Building tenants tended to be in less resilient self-built shelters because they were less likely to salvage building materials and more likely to be displaced from the site of their original home.
  • Access to services. Land tenure also affects other infrastructure. World Vision notes that: ‘Efforts to provide basic services like sanitation and drainage are frequently held up by disputes over land. Planning for longer-term transitional shelter cannot take place in the absence of land on which the displaced can be accommodated’.[2] 

Shelter strategy and tenure: the case of transitional shelter

In the wake of the earthquake, the main focus of assistance has been on the decongestion of several high-profile camps and the procurement of transitional shelter kits. Some of these kits are destined for new settlement sites, while others are intended for affected communities with larger plots outside of Port-au-Prince. Since beneficiaries need access to land in order to construct a transitional shelter, NGOs favour those with access to land and buildings over tenants and squatters. So far, people without access to space for shelter appear to make up about 5% of those assessed close to their original dwellings in some zones of south-west Carrefour and central Leogane.

 A longer-term housing strategy will need to take into account that ‘a strict asset-replacement approach to housing provision and a rush to confirm property rights through rapid adjudication and systematic titling programmes will not be appropriate to meet the housing needs of the majority of the affected population who are tenants and squatters rather than owners’.[3] This is contrary to parallel discussions led by the French, Canadian and US governments, which favour a top-down cadastre of legal tenure partly in the belief that legally owned land or property assets can facilitate access to credit where they can be used as collateral. However, there is a risk that this approach will be costly, slow and inappropriate, and may reinforce biases towards the most established and powerful formal owners able to produce documentation.

 The approach so far has been to develop beneficiary agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with municipalities to establish security of tenure for transitional shelter. Many NGOs have documents which attempt to define the roles and responsibilities of each party and the validity period, described in Table 2. However, the three years stipulated in the MoUs is a much longer period of tenure than existed prior to the earthquake: typical rental periods were up to six or 12 months. From a legal perspective, MoUs and informal agreements have no official status as public notaries are not often used. The risks of eviction for beneficiaries are therefore unclear. Although mayors have signed MoUs, they have no authority under Haitian law to sign off in relation to land issues, and may have strong personal or political interests which can bias decisions over land use. Mechanisms for addressing grievances are not in place and it is unclear whether municipalities can be engaged as mediators in land disputes.




                     The need for coordination and the role of the clusters

At the global level, tenure issues fall under the Protection Cluster’s Sub-Working Group on Housing, Land and Property. Historically this cluster has emphasised legal reform over addressing the barriers to implementation faced by governments. However, the working group is moving towards a more nuanced approach to tenure security under the stewardship of UN-Habitat. In Haiti, tenure issues impact on the activities of several clusters and working groups, as described in Table 3. However, with no single agency responsible for ensuring coordination there is a risk of duplication and gaps.





Oxfam’s proposal for an HLP Coordinator position has been backed by DFID, CARE and the Emergency Shelter Cluster.

CARE has hosted an informal Working Group on land issues, with a specific focus on individual plots and small private/public spaces.[4] The group’s remit was to document the problems and questions that individual agencies could not answer alone; map what agencies were doing in terms of agreements; identify organisations with HLP specialists; and elicit feedback from Haitian experts on the legal implications and potential longer-term risks associated with NGO activities.

The following diagram shows an idealised coordination scenario from the perspective of the international community, with those elements that are currently missing greyed out.



Addressing the complex issue of tenure in Haiti through informal and incremental tenure security will enable quicker recovery. It is essential that NGOs, donors and the Haitian government adopt a more sophisticated approach that caters to the wide variety of vulnerable groups in urban situations. The traditional model of building transitional shelters solely for those with access to land must adapt to meet the needs of the ‘land vulnerable’. In addition, although large cadastral projects address the longer term, a solution is needed to meet immediate livelihoods needs, as presented by the operational model in Table 2. 

Coordination around this operational model and sharing information is key. Agencies in the field still need practical, best-practice guidance on securing tenure for the most vulnerable in the Haitian context. Dialogue between different working groups and the government of Haiti around land use issues needs to be more transparent and inclusive. The failure to do this so far has been partly caused by the Cluster System’s failure to provide early leadership on HLP issues. This may improve with the arrival of the Emergency Shelter Cluster’s HLP Coordinator on 24 August, who comes with a mandate to map and consolidate current work on HLP. Government engagement should include briefings on policy options. These could consist of short papers summarising the best available data and analysis of the context, followed by a selection of response options with the pros and cons of each clearly outlined, together with evidence-based recommendations. These briefings could also be used to improve feedback to local partners and beneficiaries. Dissemination, translation and presentation of reports to partners in the field through cluster meetings and working groups is the responsibility of all cluster partners and government authorities.


[1] Phillip J. Thompson and Paul Altidor, ‘A Framework for Housing Reconstruction for a Sustainable, Resilient and Inclusive Haiti: Preliminary Inputs to the International Donors’ Meeting on Haiti’, 12 March 2010.

[2] World Vision, ‘Futures in Balance: A Way Forward for Haiti’s Children’, March 2010, cited in Lillianne Fan, Scoping Study on Housing, Land and Property Rights in Post-Earthquake Haiti: Securing Tenure, Facilitating Return, Preventing Evictions, and Strengthening Access to Justice for the Vulnerable, Oxfam GB, forthcoming, 2010.

[3] Thompson and Altidor, ‘A Framework for Housing Reconstruction’.

[4] See https://sites.google.com/site/shelterhaiti2010/twig-1/land and settlement.