The Haitian housing bubble

One might think that when very many of the houses in Port-au-Prince were destroyed by an earthquake on January 12, there wouldn't be a housing bubble where some nice apartments are empty, waiting for buyers or tenants.

But this is what has happened in Haiti. Over one million people are still living in tents or squatters, in improvised housing made of scrap iron and tarpaulin. Mostly, this is of course unavoidable, because the destruction is so vast. But there are also many houses left standing up, in nice condition, waiting for someone to live in them.

The NPR tells us that the prices on surviving houses defy belief. One senator put up his three-bedroom with panoramic views for $15,000 a month. (Its nine Rottweiler guard dogs are free.) Finding anything similar for less than $5,000 is a steal. Want to buy? A three-bedroom with guest apartment lists for $900,000.

I think Haiti could use some serious socialism/fascism/nationalism here. Have a government that confiscates houses, assigns them according to need, keeps up law and order. Keeps a record of people in each area, delivers food stamps, manages a rationing system for external aid. Administers a dose of the neatly calculated Official Table of Drops to armed robbers and rapists. Allows local market economy to recover. All the stuff that West European countries experienced after the Second World War, until Wirtschaftswunder.

Unfortunately, suitably un-corrupt socialism/fascism/nationalism seems to be in short supply in the West Indies. No, I really wouldn't completely trust the Cubans. But what's worst in this sort-of artificial housing shortage? In a way, it's the prospect that these housing speculators are most interested is NGOs - the organizations that are there to help the people of Haiti. "The owner isn't interested in renting to Haitians. He's always rented to NGOs." What good can the NGOs do, when their money goes to outrageously high rental costs, and keeps up structures of inefficient use of resources? In stable, advanced countries, having a few high-earners make lots of money does have the impact that the money trickles down in the economy, because the high earners buy local products and services, and hire staff. But in Haiti, I suspect that anyone who can squeeze substantial amounts of aid money out of the NGOs and quangos operating there will be depositing as much as they can in bank accounts in the U.S., or Virgin Islands, or Switzerland. And it's perfectly legitimate money.

The saddest thing is that no one, myself included, has any idea how to do it better. Sending money seems hopeless, it's just wasted. Sending people just means that the aid workers need protection and support, so that resource usage is extremely inefficient. Sending anything else is a waste.

Except perhaps a vast, efficient, un-corrupt occupation army, with sufficient firepower to quell any resistance without mercy. The downside is that no one has the economic muscle, gall and moral will to set up, arm and deploy such an occupation force. But nevertheless, I think I'm developing very colonialist attitudes regarding Haiti, at least until someone can demonstrate any success with any other means.

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