Ten years ago, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake that killed over 200 000 people and destroyed 250 000 homes.

Over the last decade, I have supported many reconstruction initiatives in Port au Prince, but despite our efforts, the city still faces a crippling housing deficit.

With hundreds of millions of dollars donated and few homes built, many scandals have since condemned the international community for failing to keep its promises.

It has become clear in hindsight that more should have been done to develop a local affordable housing market, which might have continued to grow after donor funding ended. Instead of trying to bypass the market through acts of charity only, donors should have also focused on building it.

The silver lining is that we can now learn from our mistakes.

As natural disasters have become more frequent and destructive due to climate change, the need for efficient recovery has become obvious and pressing. Of course, it’s common sense that building should be structurally resilient and sustainably constructed from the start. But when it isn’t, how can we learn from our mistakes and build safe housing units fast enough to address the crisis?

Following the 2010 earthquake, much of the delay responding to Haiti’s housing crisis stemmed from an inability to decide between reconstruction of old neighborhoods and building large new developments.

In the meantime, large parts of Port au Prince, the capital, were frozen by eminent domain, which effectively stopped piece-meal rebuilding by households or developers. As a consequence of this paralysis, families took matters into their own hands and built informal cities outside the capital, such as the one in Canaan, which now houses over 250 000 people.

I watched these complications unfold while working for a construction company, which was eager to ride the reconstruction wave.

We were not alone; the earthquake attracted hundreds of foreign construction companies, many of which never built more than a single model home. Despite all the buzz, the large-scale housing construction efforts never came to fruition.

Construction technology was never the problem; planning was.

Funding was wasted on overhead, designing unrealistic masterplans and implementing numerous pilot programs that never scaled. The remaining funds were insufficient to repair all homes, many of which had been in poor condition to begin with, let alone lead to new housing developments.

In the end, although some households received cash or just enough building materials to erect new structures, many were left out.

After the failures in the reconstruction effort became apparent, some donors recognized that engaging the local private sector was a more scalable approach to rebuilding housing stocks, while also ensuring long-term economic recovery and development.

Further, a significant number of Haitian households did not require charity and could even afford to buy new homes if adequate financing was made available.

Building the foundations to an affordable housing market became critical not only to rebuilding the lost housing stock but also to overcoming the country’s pre-existing housing deficit. In 2010, Haiti’s land title registry was in abysmal shape and less than half of land in the capital was formally titled. Without a functioning condominium law, owning an apartment was nearly impossible.

Furthermore, few developers invested in the housing sector, and fewer than 1,000 mortgages existed across the entire banking sector. Simply put, the mechanisms to enable people to rebuild their own homes through the market were not in place.

To bridge this gap USAID shifted its approach and launched the Haiti HOME program five years after the earthquake. Instead of donating homes, the program (which I now work with) incentivizes and offers assistance to banks and small local developers to enter the market.

Local companies are often considered too small for international investors, but too big for donors. Where most donors had previously failed, local developers, banks, and credit unions working together were quickly able to fill the gap and develop safe, green, and affordable housing.

Though the number of homes built remains small, these firms forge a new market and address the overwhelming housing demand even in the face of Haiti’s current social unrest.

More importantly, they will continue to build houses long after the program ends – slowly but surely helping to satisfy the country’s growing housing needs.

I have worked on both free and market-driven housing programs in Haiti. While giving away free housing was exhilarating, it was also disappointing to see that we had only supported a few hundred families after working for years and spending millions.

Today, I feel confident that by working with the market and leveraging local investment, we can create a multiplier effect.

While donor and government priorities inevitably shift, the resilient market we help create might be our most lasting legacy, and will help to pick up where we left off.

Olivia Nielsen is a Principal at the Affordable Housing Institute where she leads projects in the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the South Pacific. 

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.