Overcoming the odds: Disaster-safe housing on the island of La Gonâve, Haiti

Reaching the island of La Gonâve from mainland Haiti requires chartering a small plane or securing a seat on a boat that leaves from a port frequently marked by violence and gang control. The same options are available for the transport of construction materials, such as Portland Type 1 cement and reinforcing steel, which are essential to meet the Government of Haiti’s building standards. For the people of La Gonâve, the cost, availability, and accessibility of materials severely limit their ability to abide by such standards, which were established after the 2010 earthquake to protect residents. As with other life-saving essentials, such as food and medicine, residents on La Gonâve have developed creative approaches for accessing resources to ensure they can provide themselves with the quality of life and housing that all people deserve.

Community-led resilience: Matènwa Community Learning Center and Friends of Matènwa

Construction on a house on La Gonâve

Founded in 1996, the Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC) runs programs for literacy, agriculture, the arts, and social justice for local residents. These programs are run in Creole in order to center the knowledge of people from within the community. Established in 2010, Friends of Matènwa is a US-based Diaspora organization that directs funding and technical support to the MCLC. 

In 2020, Friends of Matènwa won a grant for MCLC to build disaster-resistant, affordable housing through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Diaspora Partnership Accelerator. The project set out to provide shelter to families in the La Gonâve community and to develop a housing model and regenerative loan program that would fund additional houses as the loans are repaid. By using the grant funding to sponsor the purchase of land and the construction of initial houses, the project set out to launch an innovative way for community members to purchase a disaster-safe house while contributing to a fund that would support future construction of safe homes for their neighbors.

In the years during and following the Covid-19 pandemic, MCLC encountered numerous challenges that highlight the daily stressors of living, working, and building on a remote island. With inflation skyrocketing and violence surging throughout the country, it was difficult to get the necessary materials, but Friends of Matènwa worked with the community to develop creative solutions to these challenges in order to see home ownership become a reality.


Disaster resilient housing for all

Miyamoto is a global engineering firm with a humanitarian focus that has worked with engineers, construction workers and masons throughout Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Built on the idea that everyone deserves a safe home, and that simple cost-efficient construction techniques can save lives, Miyamoto has trained thousands of construction workers and masons, advised the government on building standards, and helped thousands of residents build and improve affordable homes. 

In June 2023, an engineer from Miyamoto’s office in Port-au-Prince traveled to La Gonâve to exchange knowledge with Matènwa’s engineer and construction workers around building safely despite difficult cost and transport restrictions. The engineer provided retrofit designs for existing houses that accounted for the wind hazards and seismicity on La Gonâve, and he worked with local concrete block makers who use a hand-pouring technique, in order to align their skills with government recommendations. By meeting the quality standards, these block makers can continue to make locally available and affordable blocks for housing construction long after the engineer has returned to the mainland and the project has closed. 

 “The USAID-backed project increased our community’s capacity to build houses that meet international norms and resist natural disasters,” said Jean Sauveur Abner, Co-Founder of MCLC. “The project provided job opportunities for engineers, construction workers, and masons. People in the community were empowered by offering their skill set for the construction of the houses and the Miyamoto team increased their capacity to build homes resistant to disasters. The lessons learned will allow them to replicate our model throughout the island and beyond.”


Through on-the-job training in techniques for constructing new houses and retrofitting existing houses (such as foundation reinforcement), the know-how of local construction workers will be used for the future houses funded through loan repayments and for construction throughout the island, proving that no matter the challenges, disaster safe housing is a right for everyone and can become a reality. 

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