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Haiti’s Gingerbread houses five years after the earthquake

In the five years since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck southern Haiti, there’s been an effort to restore so-called Gingerbread houses that mostly withstood the quake’s destruction.

Some of the Gingerbread houses located in the capital Port-Au-Prince have undergone renovation work.

The earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 people and left millions more homeless, didn’t topple the Gingerbread houses built by Haitian architects in the 1900s and 1920s.

98-year-old dance icon Vivianne Gauthier has been living in her Gingerbread home since 1932.

Her house was among the Gingerbread houses that didn’t suffer much damage during the quake.

“We hear some vibration. There was a noise. The noise was horrible. And the house starts shaking. We stayed where we were. We didn’t run out. If it was the moment to die, we would die,” Gauthier said.

Gingerbread houses are made of wood and brick and are often painted in bright colors.

The Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL) is the Port-Au-Prince organization working to restore some Gingerbread houses with support from the New York city-based World Monument Fund and the Walloon Heritage Institute in Belgium.

They identified about 240 Gingerbread houses within the center of Port-Au-Prince for preservation.

“After the earthquake we were very much interested in trying to see what memory we have of the capital city, which was very much devastated by the earthquake. So we realized that the Gingerbread houses were the construction and the architecture that resisted best the earthquake,” said FOKAL president Michèle Pierre-Louis.

Pierre-Louis said that although some of the Gingerbread houses were in disrepair before the quake they didn’t crumble following the quake and none of their residents were killed.

Those houses that took a hit were the ones whose owners had added concrete material to build additions such as bathrooms and kitchens.

Pierre-Louis said it was extremely difficult to find Haitian architects and engineers who could combine the need to carry out earthquake resistant construction and state of the art restoration.

Master masons, master carpenters and restoration architects from abroad were brought in to get the renovations started.

FOKAL then launched a craftsmen school to train local Haitians to work on the houses under supervision.

FOKAL has not been able to save all of the 240 Gingerbread houses in Port-Au-Prince.

It bought two of them to restore and open to the public for viewing while providing technical assistance and guidance to homeowners who have the financial means to pay for renovations.

Some have been sold while others torn down.

One of the biggest challenges in restoring these architectural treasures is that with all the critical problems facing Haiti, especially after the quake, this might be seen as inessential.

Pierre-Louis argues that despite being a poor country Haiti cares about history, beauty and its cultural legacy.

“There is a trend, a tendency to say since you are poor it’s like if you don’t deserve this type of thing and this is really what we have been fighting against,” Pierre-Louis said.

“The poorer we are the more we deserve beauty and the more we should know what our history was and what memory we can keep for future generations,” she added.

A practical reason to save the Gingerbread houses is that Haitian craftsmen helping to restore them are developing skills they can use to build other structures more resistant to earthquakes and hurricanes.

The Gingerbread houses got their name from American architects who visited Haiti in the early 20th century.

The U.S. architects said its design reminded them of Gingerbread houses similar to the one in the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel.

The name stuck.

Sao Paulo’s “roofless” movements

In Latin America’s financial capital, people desperate for a place to live are illegally occupying buildings and empty plots of land.

Despite the Brazilian government’s efforts to provide affordable housing, many people still don’t earn enough money to afford rent prices in Sao Paulo.

On a hillside, Leandro Ribeiro, who’s homeless, uses a shovel to dig through the red mud to build a makeshift tent.

“The government doesn’t worry about us. We are here as if discarded. (Those) who occupy this land are the mice and roaches, so we are the ones who will occupy it now,” Ribeiro said.

In late October, Ribeiro and about 700 others occupied the hill.

Not far from him, Eduardo da Silva, who’s also homeless, has built a makeshift tent on the hill.

Da Silva pulls aside the black plastic sheet that covers the entrance of his makeshift tent revealing two mattresses, some pots and pans and cans of food.

“I sleep here, I eat here, my lunch is here. I cannot afford to pay rent so I have to find my way,” Da Silva said.

The tent city is located near some of Sao Paulo’s most exclusive high rises and luxury homes.

But the high cost of housing has pushed out many people.

In downtown, thousands of homeless people are joining “roofless movements” to secure a place to live.

About 300 people have occupied a twelve-story building that was once filled with offices.

The building is less than one block away from Sao Paulo’s elegant Municipal Theater where operas, concerts and ballet are performed.

It’s estimated that some 10,000 people are part of the “roofless movements” and are occupying more than 30 buildings in the city’s center.

Edinalva Franco is the leader of the Housing for All Movement that supports people living in occupied buildings.

Franco said buildings and empty plots of land are occupied to put pressure on government officials to expropriate unused property for low-cost housing projects and start reducing the housing shortage in Sao Paulo.

“We establish a fight against the government so that the public policies don´t remain just on paper. (So) that families are able to stop paying rent and live in their own houses no matter how small those are,” Franco said.

There’s a government program to help people transition from living in occupied buildings and land known as “aluguel social” or social rent.

It’s a fixed amount of money that the government gives to a family to relocate them to traditional housing until they can find a permanent place to live.

The head of the city’s Housing Department, Jose Floriano de Azevedo Marques, said that to bring the housing deficit down to zero would require the construction of homes for at least 230,000 families.

“The housing problem I think is independent even of politics because everyone needs a house. It is a Constitutional problem,” Marques said.

To deal with the housing shortage , the city has built, 1,500 of the 55,000 housing units it plans to deliver by the end of 2016.

Construction on another 24,000 units is under way.

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