Little Pink Houses
April 12, 2016 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Did This New Nonprofit Crack The Code For Building Developing World Housing? "We ask families for their input about the location, the style of home, broader community needs, etc. In Haiti, we built our community about 10 minutes away from the tent slum so that home recipients still had access to their jobs and support networks."
posted by Michele in California (33 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Microloans, "loops of accountability," and a Y Combinator philanthro-startup in the same story… on FastCoExist dot com? This is almost too Davos Man to be true.
posted by RogerB at 3:39 PM on April 12, 2016 [8 favorites]


That's really expensive for the kind of housing construction they're doing. I've seen cobb houses built on 500$ - so 6k for a slightly larger structure out of concrete seems ... exorbitant in a way that only Silicon Valley would go for.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 4:38 PM on April 12, 2016


I want that for the San Francisco Bay Area. Plenty of homeless people here.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:47 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


That's really expensive for the kind of housing construction they're doing.

Until you read the part in the article where the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars to build homes and ended up only building 6 of them.
posted by clawsoon at 5:03 PM on April 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


According to the article about $500 cob house, the labor was donated. I have to wonder what the cost becomes when you pay for labor.
posted by Michele in California at 5:09 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


so 6k for a slightly larger structure out of concrete seems ... exorbitant

Not to say that there aren't cost improvements to be made for this, but a couple of notes on that $500 house:
-"with most of the labour being donated by volunteers" vs "local laborers built blocks of 10 to 20 houses at a time"
-"Some of the glass, window’s and door’s were donated, some were easily bought from recycle centres" - probably fewer home material recycling centers stocked with materials in Haiti vs California.
-Finally, 96 square feet? I'm not sure that I could live in that space, let alone have a family there.

There are some groups that are (or were) working with cob/straw bale housing in Haiti, such as Builders Without Borders (who seem to have moved on to Nepal).
posted by sysinfo at 5:12 PM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


Until you read the part in the article where the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars to build homes and ended up only building 6 of them.

Not to defend the Red Cross here (they've been justly criticized), but a fair comparison should also note that the Red Cross figure includes administrative overhead and the New Story figures do not -- all their administrative costs are funded by separate, private donations, and not by crowdfunding; the dollar-per-house figure doesn't cover the cost of providing the administrative network to make things happen.

The only breakdown I've found for their administrative costs is their own writeup on Medium (they don't have a publicly searchable 990 online yet that I've found), which notes that they've raised "$550,000 from a small group of private donors...[to fund] our operating budget for 2016," but not mention of what sort of operating budget they had for 2015, when they raised "$1,080,000 for 180 homes" -- but that paragraph is titled "$1,630,000 Raised," so maybe that's an operating budget for both years? Maybe they self-funded for 2015? It's unclear, which is ironic considering how much they talk about accountability -- it's really hard to evaluate exactly how they're doing in comparison to other organizations as a whole.
posted by cjelli at 5:39 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


$6,000 for a home doesn't seem like much. Surely the residents of Haiti deserve at least that much? I'm glad they've been able to build in a way which is responsive to the local community! That's so very important.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:41 PM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


Will there be follow up? They put in solar panels, six months out will the copper from the panel to the houses remain? Do the families each have a deed to the land? Will all the inlaws or banditos from the tents just move in? It sounds like they got a lot right, not sending a huge check to a friend of the president or something but sent funds for the next small stage on completion of the previous, but sorry to be cynical but I've had just a smidgen of direct experience of the corruption and it's just not Kansas.
posted by sammyo at 5:57 PM on April 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


The square foot price isn't bad, and more so if it is inclusive of land (something that was not clear to me from the articles). I didn't see a link to plans on their website, but the houses look like they are probably 20 x 18 feet (which fits with one of the construction photos where you can count blocks on the short side). At 360 square feet, the house is under $17/square foot. You aren't going to get much cheaper while buying concrete, reinforcing steel, fittings, and with a corrugated metal roof.

I'll be convinced of their model when they figure out how to scale up a few orders of magnitude -- right now they are still in the pilot project stage where things get extra attention and almost always work, and going from that to a replicable and scalable model is much, much harder.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:03 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


-Finally, 96 square feet? I'm not sure that I could live in that space, let alone have a family there.*

the houses look like they are probably 20 x 18 feet (which fits with one of the construction photos where you can count blocks on the short side). At 360 square feet, the house is under $17/square foot. *

Whatever, it's small. Now imagine your family living in the slums in a leaking tent. Anything solid is a step up.

* Too tired to recalculate any figures, but no matter which size tent you have, it still sucks.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:24 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've had just a smidgen of direct experience of the corruption and it's just not Kansas.

I would hope not.
posted by el io at 8:32 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I want to clarify my comment earlier: Yes, it's 500$ worth of materials with recycled materials being used when available. 6k for an entirely new, larger home is by the developed world, extremely efficient standards. But doing a project like this on a large scale means that for every 10 families, you just sank 60k + administrative costs into that - not efficient enough to get to scale anytime soon. It's that scale disparity that lead me to point out that the building cost portion of that can be argued to be inflated, depending on your standards of building for a project like this.

It was not my intent to sound disparaging of the residents of Haiti. I'm so glad someone in Silicon Valley is trying to do something that makes a permanent impact on individual's lives in the developing world, and I hope I'm wrong about his building being able to be made to scale at a lower cost, and thus becomes more readily available.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 9:00 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I mean, it feels kind of fundamentally insane to be talking about how $6k houses are unsustainable when the average new home in the US is like $300k, and we build about a million of those every year.

In particular, we spent $19k each on the completely-inadequate FEMA trailers after Katrina, apparently. More than three times as much for housing that wasn't even intended to be permanent. Haiti might not be the US, but I don't know why people consistently think that developing countries can be provided with adequate housing, food, or medical care for fractions of pennies for every dollar the we spend getting the same thing for ourselves.

Yes, a solid roof is a step above a tent. But if it's still grossly inadequate housing and you have to wait more than five years to get that, then how many more years do we ask people to wait to get housing that isn't grossly inadequate?
posted by Sequence at 9:21 PM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


This seems a lot like the public housing complexes which were all the rage in the US between about 1950 and 1990. The theory was you build high density high-rise complexes and subsidize the rent so that poor people can move in and live in a better manner than they did before.

And most of them turned into crime-infested slums, with lots of graffitti and other vandalism, plus rapes and burglaries and a lot of murders. In a few cases the result was so poor that it was eventually decided to move everyone out and to implode the buildings.

Glenn Reynolds recently has written a fair amount about how certain things are not creators of the middle class, but rather are the result of becoming middle class. Which means that if you give those things to people who are not already middle-class, it doesn't make them so. One of his examples is a college education.

We'd all like everyone to have a good education, but it's simply a fact that a college education is wasted on some folks. Sending them to college anyway wastes money and time and can cause genuine harm to the person who shouldn't be there.

By the same token, giving middle-class housing to people who don't have the discipline of the middle class simply results in the housing becoming a slum. And the US has proved that, to the tune of billions of dollars invested and wasted.

This project described in the OP is being done in good faith by people who truly believe they're doing something good. But if you come back to that location in 20 years, I think it's odds-on it will not still be something good.

Did This New Nonprofit Crack The Code For Building Developing World Housing?

I'm afraid the answer is probably "no". It is a pity, but this doesn't address the real problem.

Haiti is a hell-hole. The Dominican Republic, right next door, is much better off. They share the same island and they both have a history of slavery, but they don't share a lot else. Until you figure out what it is about Haiti that's different -- and worse -- than the Dominican Republic and figure out a way to fix it, things like building nice houses is just painting over the wound. It doesn't solve anything in the long run.

Giving nice clothes to someone with cancer may make you, and them, feel good but it doesn't cure the disease.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:41 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Chocolate Pickle: Giving nice clothes to someone with cancer may make you, and them, feel good but it doesn't cure the disease.

It's still one step better than having cancer and having to dress in rags, especially when it's a cancer we have no idea how to cure. I don't think that people who donated to Haiti thought, "My donation will fix all of Haiti's problems!" They thought, "Something horrible happened to Haiti, and I'd like to do a little bit to make them feel a little better."

And that's okay.
posted by clawsoon at 11:57 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Chocolate Pickle: "This seems a lot like the public housing complexes which were all the rage in the US between about 1950 and 1990. The theory was you build high density high-rise complexes and subsidize the rent so that poor people can move in and live in a better manner than they did before.

And most of them turned into crime-infested slums, with lots of graffitti and other vandalism, plus rapes and burglaries and a lot of murders. In a few cases the result was so poor that it was eventually decided to move everyone out and to implode the buildings.
"

This is a crazy rereading of history. In many cases public housing complexes failed because those rents weren't subsidized. Rather, the government only paid the capital costs to build the complex and assumed below-market rents would be sufficient for operating costs. Shockingly they weren't; so they cut maintenance, and once the elevators no longer work and the apartments are infested with insects and rats it's not surprising the facilities deteriorated into the situation you describe. There's a good documentary from 2011 -- The Pruitt-Igoe Myth -- on the particular situation of a 50s-era public housing complex in St. Louis.
posted by crazy with stars at 12:00 AM on April 13, 2016 [18 favorites]


I live in Christchurch, which had a pretty severe earthquake not long after Haiti, and I would not be building people new houses out of cob. I'm sure it's cheap but I doubt it's earthquake resistant without expensive reinforcement. Huff, puff, shake your house down. Prefab concrete with steel reinforcing seems like a good base level to me (no cheap timber in Haiti for framing, remember).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:38 AM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


There are also going to be additional costs just from being a U.S. organization trying to do things in Haiti. A foreign startup isn't going to have a network there that they can lean on for administrative and logistical support. They're not going to be familiar with the realities of doing business in that part of the world, at least not compared to a local organization. They're not going to have the relationships with suppliers, builders, and local officials that can make such a difference in terms of making a construction project go smoothly and stay on budget. Their labor force is going to be an unknown quantity as well, rather than a picked team of skilled craftspeople who are all used to working together. They're not going to be as versed in the workings of the local regulatory environment as they might wish. And in a place like Haiti, you have to deal with a lot of systemic dysfunction as well.

All of these things make a project take longer and cost more. Six grand per house ain't bad at all, under those circumstances.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:29 AM on April 13, 2016


To me, this seems like a positive development - the houses are inexpensive yet durable, use local materials and techniques, the design is responsive to input from the people who are going to live in them - and the funding model seems novel and effective.

If there are better ideas about how to get these people out of the tents, let's hear them.
posted by Artful Codger at 6:46 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


giving middle-class housing to people who don't have the discipline of the middle class

holy shit
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:49 AM on April 13, 2016 [11 favorites]


giving middle-class housing to people who don't have the discipline of the middle class

holy shit



right now in these days I'm doing a small pre-research project on the housing estates that didn't fail (here in Denmark). It turns out that for every problem area, there are more than 250 housing projects that work well, where people live middle class lives in well-maintained buildings with surrounding parks. Just wow. That surprised even me, and I skew positive towards social housing, despite the reported problems. I'm certain the situation is very different in the US, but in relevance to Haiti, it seems important to note that well-planned housing projects can be very succesfull and be an important part of development. Low rise individual homes are often more succesfull than apartment blocks, so that is already a step on the way. The other elements mentioned: dialogue with users, local partners, acces to work and shops, simple construction all seem very sustainable and efficient.

About scaling - judging from my very preliminary results, many small projects are better than few big ones. Some large projects have been very succesfull, so there is no one answer. But it seems smaller is less risky.
posted by mumimor at 10:53 AM on April 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


Oh, and thanks for the very interesting post.
posted by mumimor at 10:53 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Glenn Reynolds recently has written a fair amount about how certain things are not creators of the middle class, but rather are the result of becoming middle class. Which means that if you give those things to people who are not already middle-class, it doesn't make them so. One of his examples is a college education.

or like 'defense' contracts! (um... glenn reynolds; am i on mefi? ;)

you have to deal with a lot of systemic dysfunction as well

i'm reminded of _city of thorns_:* "Interestingly, the U.N. came up with a form of construction for new houses which were these kind of soil bricks - bricks made of soil, not clay, because clay would have been too permanent. And they built a few test houses. And the Kenyan government came along and said, no, no, no, they look far too like real houses. You're going to have to knock them down again. And we're not going to allow you to build new houses out of these mud bricks. So they're back to tents and structures made of corrugated iron sheets, which is an absolute tragedy, really. But this is a sort of living example of the politics of generosity, that, you know, many nations don't want to accept refugees and don't want them making a home there."
posted by kliuless at 11:01 AM on April 13, 2016


To the people saying "holy shit", okay, yeah, the discipline of the middle class is a not great way frame it. But, other than that, I largely agree with the observations that merely giving people the trappings of a better life fails to give them a better life.

Also, I wish fervently that the US were friendlier to small scale single family homes. As most folks here probably already know, I am homeless in America and sleeping in a tent. I am medically handicapped. Like a lot of homeless people, my medical handicap is one of the root causes of my state of homelessness.

I am currently trying to figure out how to get back into housing on terms that work for me. I cannot afford a McMansion and wouldn't want one if I could. I will not live in a trailer, which is the cheapest form of housing you find here. I lived in a trailer before. I said then that I would never do it again and would rather live in a tent. I still would rather live in a tent.

So, I am currently wrestling with the fact that, even if money were no object, I would be facing challenges in finding housing that suits my needs. And, having had a class on homelessness and public policy, I don't think it is just me. I think the lack of smaller, more affodable housing close to work etc is a problem generally in the US and a contributing factor to the general rise of homelessness currently happening across the country.

So, I think this organization did good and I do not think the small size of the homes is a big problem. Americans have crazy ideas about how much square footage we need. Housing tends to be smaller in most other countries and in developed countries that isn't a terrible thing.
posted by Michele in California at 11:26 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


dorms for adults?*
posted by kliuless at 11:33 AM on April 13, 2016


the discipline of the middle class is a not great way frame it

It's not just an issue of framing. It's blaming systemic failures like lack of funding and maintenance on the lack of discipline of poor people, and then using that as an excuse not to provide poor people housing.

I think we all agree that you generally can't just build some housing, stick people in it, and walk away.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:36 AM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I don't see it that way.

This is a problem space I have actually studied and more than four years on the street has convinced me that government programs "to help the poor" is more deeply fucked up than "blaming the poor" for their problems.

I do wish government regulation would get the hell out of the way of the creation of affordable, decent housing. But every program I know of that is aimed at "helping poor people" is fundamentally broken. Because the minute you define me by my low income, you stop treating me like a whole human being with hopes, dreams, agency and so on.

I have about six years of college. I had a job at a Fortune 500 company for a few years. I was not fired. I quit. I am not incompetent. But, like most homeless people, I have some intractable personal problems that would not be fixed overnight by me winning the lottery.

My time on the street has changed my views of how to help the homeless. My opinion: We need to step back and fix some systemic issues more than we need to play hero to poor people. Fix the system and they don't need a rescuer.

Thereare things that can help the homeless. But homelessness is a little like fires. Society as a wholebetter served by placing an emphasis on prevention first. In fact, education and prevention is part of what fire departments do. In most cases, it is not what homeless service centers do at all.
posted by Michele in California at 11:51 AM on April 13, 2016


more than four years on the street has convinced me that government programs "to help the poor" is more deeply fucked up than "blaming the poor" for their problems

May I just suggest that perhaps your personal experience of some particular social services in the US, whatever it may have been, is not evidence enough to support a blanket condemnation of any and all social services, public housing, and/or redistributive social policy everywhere and across all of history?
posted by RogerB at 12:09 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


A decade ago, I worked with homeless people in my home town, and I knew most of them. At the time, the only reason someone was homeless was mental health issues. Poor people, addicts, immigrants etc. were all housed in different ways. Unfortunately, the economic collapse and the European austerity policy has changed that completely, but that is a different story.
At the time, someone invented a program, similar to the Haiti example, which was called something like "quirky homes for quirky people" (my rough translation). It was inspired by homes that homeless people had created for themselves, but more solidly built (no bugs), and with some services. There would be 8-20 tiny homes grouped around a outdoor social space. Everyone had a porch, which was very important. Each home had a tiny kitchenette and a shower-bathroom. And a "social janitor" was on hand, both to manage the utilities and to talk about life's challenges. Each house cost about 40.000 dollars including land, charities and the state paid the basics, there was a tiny mortgage, well within the reach of the inhabitants. The janitor was a municipal worker.
I think, if the program had become sufficiently big, it could have housed everyone in town. But then came the crash and the funding disappeared. Happily, as the economy is recovering, politicians are bringing the concept back on the table, but now there are far more homeless with very different problems and needs.
posted by mumimor at 12:12 PM on April 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Let me state one last time that it is something I have studied.

Let me also clarify that the programs that work really well are those that define the need for help with some metric other than income. Countries that focus on things like maternity leave, aid for new parents, national healthcare programs, etc. generally have a better track record than the US welfare model. Helping handicapped people works. Helping elderly people works. Helping people hit by a natural disaster works. Defining the problem as "helping the poor" actively encourages people to fail in order to qualify for assistance and actively throws up barriers to escaping poverty.

Everybody knows that. It is common knowledge that the way aid programs define the problem space is often a huge barrier to solving the actual problem.

So, if that isn't clear, well, I give up. Peace and carry on.
posted by Michele in California at 12:19 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I looked through the archives to describe the quirky homes project, I found several examples of municipalities trying to copy the concept but save money. Typically, they used trailers, skipped the porches and the social janitors, and they failed. Sadly, this means that many politicians think the concept is a failure, because they don't realize that the details, based on user-experience, are what made the first trials work.
It is mainly stupid because the cost of doing it right is almost nothing compared to the cost of citizens being homeless, jobless and ill.
posted by mumimor at 12:54 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sometimes the problem that people have is a lack of money.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:42 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


« Older Shocking News: Rage Yoga Invented by Canadian   |   This is what it feels like to be hunted by U.S.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments