My Mom’s Housing Curse

Irina Echarry

illustration by Onel.
illustration by Onel.

HAVANA TIMES — My parents got married in 1967. A short time later, they already had two kids and steady jobs. The only thing they didn’t have was a roof over their heads.

Living in cheap hotels made for a hectic life. The worst part of it was the anxiety of it all: the calm afforded by the rental was fleeting, as one was not allowed to stay in the same room for more than 15 days in a row. When that time ran out, my parents had to wait in the hotel lobby with all of their belongings and two kids. While my mother waited to find out whether another room was available, my father would go to nearby hotels to see if they had any vacancies, in case we were forced to leave.

This situation lasted almost five years, until we finally moved to Alamar.

Forty-five years later, when my mother thought such problems were behind us, she found out her son was renting out a place for himself. His differences with his mother-in-law had been enough impetus to go out and try his luck out there. In my apartment, he, his wife and daughter would have been forced to share a room with me.

A profound depression took hold of my mother. She remembered the difficult days she spent looking for a home and the hope that things would be better for her children. With the flair for drama that characterizes her, she said: “I’ve passed on a curse to my son.”

Finding a place for rent continues to be an odyssey today. Finding one that an average worker who lives on their salary can afford is more difficult still. It took my brother and his family three weeks to find a place. It wasn’t easy, because they wanted to stay in the neighborhood. They were finally able to move to an apartment with a terrace, near their daughter’s school.

When my parents were renting out hotel suites, people’s salaries were much lower than they are today. My parents earned 500 Cuban pesos between the two of them and hotel suites cost three, four or six pesos the night. If they wanted to spend the weekend somewhere nicer, they booked at suite at the Habana Libre or Nacional, where they paid 10 pesos the night.

Then wages went up. My brother and his wife were earning more than 500 pesos each and some peanuts in hard currency (plus whatever they made selling the sandwich and can of pop they get as a snack at work) when they went out to rent a place. The cheapest rentals fluctuate between 40 and 50 CUC (between 1,000 and 1,200 pesos) a month.

Cutting back on all things superfluous, they were able to enjoy a place of their own for a whole year, a place where they could do as they pleased without having to ask anyone for permission, but always worried sick at the beginning of the month. They spent the whole time doing the math. He started selling stuffed potatoes and she sewing cloth purses. Their hopes of living on their own were short-lived, however. They were forced to reconcile with the mother-in-law because they could no longer keep up…and headed back to live under the same roof as her.

Living together still causes problems, though not as bad as before. Conflicts always arise when several generations live under the same roof.

Two months ago, my brother’s wife left her State job and joined a construction cooperative, where she earns 100 CUC a month. That could well give them more breathing space, but the problem is still there: should they rent a place out again and spend half her earnings on that? Should they wait a few years, save up some money and buy a place? Which of the two options is best? They could rent a place immediately, in a matter of days. But, to buy a house, they would have to save up for several (perhaps many) years, and only if they managed to put away at least 50 CUC every month.

They spend days thinking about this and the only thing clear to them is that, even though dreaming costs nothing, having a place to sleep costs plenty.