|By Kate Santich, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 29, 2012--For sale: Cozy island-style home in tropical paradise. All modern conveniences; virtually hurricane-proof; cooperative neighbors. Lush landscaping includes mango, banana and coconut trees; fish ponds. 100-year mortgage, 1-percent interest.
Sound like a dream?
It is for now. But soon it may become reality.
And Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen, the visionary behind the idea, hopes it will be part of the long-term answer to lifting Haiti out of ruin and poverty.
The plan for his Little Haiti House has been two years in the making. But with support and a 60-acre tract in Hinge, a city of about 50,000 in central Haiti, Rosen's charitable foundation is set to produce its first home in early February. After an initial family lives in the house for a month or two and offers a critique, architects will make any necessary tweaks and offer a final design.
Then a farming settlement of 160 homes -- their residents working together to make the place self-sufficient -- is scheduled to be built.
"Philosophically, we believe that the concept of the kibbutz will be very well-accepted in Haiti," said Rosen, the 72-year-old hotel magnate known for his hands-on philanthropy.
"Moving people out of tents is Step 1. But then you've got to provide an opportunity for them to survive. And if they all are working together farming or providing security, doing engineering work, refurbishing, painting -- whatever they are assigned to do in the village -- then they will be gainfully employed, and the village will sustain itself."
Last summer, Rosen met with new Haitian President Michel Martelly, who expressed support for the plan. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami -- previously a bishop in Orlando -- said the project also has the backing of the Catholic Church, which found suitable land for the settlement and helped Rosen gain necessary contacts within Haiti itself.
"Rosen will make a real contribution," Wenski said. "[Housing] is an answer, but the real answer is jobs. If people are employed gainfully, they will have the capital necessary to invest in housing."
The hotelier came up with the concept of the Little Haiti House not long after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake of January 2010 that left much of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in rubble. The government there estimates that more than 300,000 people were killed and an equal number injured. More than 1 million Haitians were left homeless -- and two years later nearly two-thirds of them still live in tents and under tarps in crowded, unsanitary displacement camps.
In the beginning, Rosen took up a drive to collect aid money for survivors, raising $650,000 -- more than half of which came from his own bank account. But when he asked Haitian friends what they thought survivors needed most, he said, the answer was: "They're going to need homes."
Not surprisingly, he used a hotel suite as his conceptual blueprint: "You've got two beds, one for a mom and a dad, and you could have two children sharing the other, and you may have another child on a roll-away. They'll need a place to cook indoors, just as we've got microwaves and refrigerators in all of our hotel rooms, and we've got showers and baths and areas for people to keep their clothes."
But the project has evolved at a maddeningly slow pace. Harris doesn't blame the Haitian government -- which, he said, has faced "huge, almost insurmountable challenges" -- but he is clearly bothered that the entire settlement isn't built by now.
"The frustration I feel has to do with my inability to do something I said I would do in a timely fashion," Rosen said. "And it's driving me crazy."
One challenge has been to create a structure that is inexpensive yet able to withstand the island's frequent hurricanes. The project's architects used Dade County's housing code specifications to design a home able to endure 150-mph winds and driving rains. The homes -- just 300 square feet apiece -- will have a concrete slab foundation and a special foam paneling for the walls that is surprisingly durable, Rosen said.
He also wanted something that was simple to construct. Building the Little Haiti House will essentially involve fitting panels together like a jigsaw puzzle, Rosen said, and should take no more than a week each.
The panels are being fabricated in the Dominican Republic, Haiti's island neighbor, but Rosen would like to see the operation moved to Haiti, where it can provide jobs.
Already, the land slated for the first settlement is being used to raise goats, pigs and chickens as well as grow papaya, mangoes, bananas, coconuts, corn and sugar. The homes will sell for $5,000 each with generous financing terms -- 100 years to repay at 1-percent interest.
"People will take better pride of ownership if they have their own equity in the project," Wenski said. "This approach honors the beneficiaries as it makes them real stakeholders."
Rosen said his foundation has enough money to fund the first kibbutz. When that is done, he hopes word of its success will prompt other foundations, corporations or individuals to sponsor further settlements.
"But until it's done," Rosen said, "don't pat me on the back. I don't deserve it. I won't feel comfortable at all until we have something to show for our efforts."
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