HAVANA TIMES — A number of foreign defenders of the “achievements of the Cuban revolution” invoke the people’s access to decorous housing as one of the virtues of the social system currently in effect on the island.
Other “friends of Cuba” (who are better informed about living conditions in the country) maintain a prudent silence on the issue, which is one of the country’s most serious of social problems.
Though it is true that, as part of the first series of measures it implemented, the post-revolutionary State reduced the price of rent and granted property titles, it is also true that Cuba’s housing situation has become increasingly critical over the last few decades.
Today, over 70 % of the country’s residences are in either regular or poor condition, very few new homes are built every year (construction plans, which are insufficient to begin with, are not met) and it is common to see up to three different generations living under one roof (and all of the friction this entails).
Housing construction and repair by the State has also been decreasing over the last few years. The pace at which new homes are constructed is well beneath the country’s needs. Thus, following this already long-standing trend, the housing deficit is increasing.
After a quick glance at Cuba’s housing panorama, we see that some State residences (so called “assigned houses”), particularly some high-quality homes destined to Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) officials, have been constructed in recent times. A number of buildings which were formerly workplaces have also been turned into shelters and homes. These, however, are isolated cases which do not in any way satisfy the current demand for housing.
The country’s low construction capacity is coupled with meteorological phenomena which, in recent years, have destroyed or partially damaged hundreds of thousands of homes, and this because these were low-quality residences (because of the building materials used and the questionable rigor of their construction process) and, in addition, they had gone without proper maintenance for decades.
This past summer, for instance, several buildings in Havana’s neighborhood of Centro Habana collapsed as a result of the strong rains. With respect to the outcome of recovery efforts, numerous families lost their homes after a number of hurricanes lashed Cuba’s eastern provinces and Pinar del Rio and they have not yet been provided with new housing. Because of all this, Cuba’s real housing deficit, according to different, officially acknowledged sources, exceeds that of half a million homes.
Following the Cuban State’s failure to meet the housing demand and to solve the problem through its construction brigade initiatives, this responsibility has now been passed on to private initiative. This decision leaves optionless the immense sector of the working population that lives in the hundreds of tenement buildings (in neighborhoods such as La Lisa or Alamar), buildings that are extremely difficult to repair on the basis of individual effort alone.
Plans to give out bank loans and make construction materials available to the population so that people can build or repair homes through their own means have also failed to address the country’s enormous housing shortage.
Such “individual initiative” invariably meets with an extremely limited offer of low quality building materials, sold at extremely high prices, as the market is full of resellers who purchase nearly all of the materials that come into the country (such as rebar and sacks of cement) in order to sell it at higher-than-market prices.
That said, there is also a commendable program of subsidies designed to help the low-income population repair its homes or build facilities such as kitchens, bathrooms or additional bedrooms. The assignment of resources is decided by a broad municipal commission which, in the opinion of some, is not immune to favoritism.
The Cuban capital’s impoverished population also faces the arrival (uninterrupted, despite questionable legal and police operations) of thousands of immigrants from other provinces, who survive in Havana through different legal and illegal activities.
These individuals squat in buildings in critical structural condition (almost always uninhabitable) or improvise precarious dwellings out of waste materials in the city’s peripheral areas, which are devoid of water, sewage or electrical infrastructure, living there in overcrowded and illegal shanties.
These marginal populations are also denied ration booklets, something which makes survival all the more difficult and bolsters black market activities and delinquency. Such shantytowns are to be found in different municipalities across the capital.
The critical state of Cuba’ housing situation is a serious social problem. [i] In fact, it would be sound to conclude that the well-documented rise in violence in Havana and the proliferation of different forms of marginal and illegal communities are closely related to the increase in poverty and overcrowding.
To combat and solve these problems, we need, not more rationalization (the preference these days), but a significant investment of resources, aimed at improving the country’s social policies (in housing, health, education and recreation) that address the needs of these populations.
We also need to experiment with alternative models (such as building and administrative cooperatives, savings and loans, and others) that prevent the inefficiency of bureaucracies and the speculation of the real estate market from denying the majority to exercise their right to have and enjoy decorous housing.
We will reach this goal only when we combat and reduce the poverty that affects broad sectors of the Cuban population in a comprehensive and sustainable fashion.
I am grateful to the contributions and comments of several friends who live in Havana and those of Carmelo Meso and Mario Coyula, experts on the subject.
[i] For a true-to-life and recent report on this issue, see journalist Fernando Ravsberg’s piece: http://cartasdesdecuba.com/vivienda-en-cuba-un-problema-aun-sin-solucion/