By Daniel Benitez (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — According to a report by Cuba’s National Housing Institute (INV), over 1,170,000 homes in Cuba (39 percent of the country’s residences) are in merely adequate or frankly poor condition.
The official report was issued prior to the recently-concluded session of the National Assembly of the People’s Power (parliament), where a considerable number of the deputies’ discussions on socio-economic matters centered on the issue of housing.
In its concluding remarks, the Parliamentary Commission on Industry, Construction Work and Energy underscored the urgent need to restore and maintain the country’s residences and called on Cuba’s parliament to prioritize the development of the construction materials industry.
Deputies, the Commission declared, will devote particular attention to housing development at the municipal level and to houses built in rural or mountainous regions, especially those constructed by the residents themselves, on the basis of credit and other facilities.
Non-government sources set the number of Cuban homes in poor or adequate condition as high as 57 percent and report a housing deficit of 700 thousand residences.
One of the main causes of Cuba’s current housing situation identified by the Housing Institute report is the frequent onslaught of meteorological phenomena, said to “have damaged, in one way or another over the last 10 years, over one million dwellings on the island.” Hurricane Sandy alone, which lashed Cuba in October of 2012, caused damage to some 150 thousand homes and resulted in the total collapse of 17 thousand residences in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Holguin.
Statistics on new housing construction aren’t very flattering either. In 2012, Cuba saw the construction of a mere 32,103 units, 28 percent of which were erected through the population’s own efforts. Figures, in fact, reveal that the construction of houses has been dropping continuously for six consecutive years, since 2006, when 111,273 units were built.
This has been the general trend, despite the fact that salaries for construction workers have been the highest in the country, some 580 Cuban pesos (CUP), or US $ 24, a month (the average salary in Cuba is now at 466 CUP, 11 pesos higher than what it was in 2011).
Figures for the first half of 2013 aren’t much different. During his remarks before Cuba’s Parliament, Minister for the Economy and Planning Adel Yzquierdo reported that the construction of housing had dropped by 3 percent this year and the plan was 500 units behind schedule, in a province in such dear need of attention as Havana.
A Tense Situation
In view of this, the Minister added, the housing plan for Santiago de Cuba, which is making headway but meeting with a “very tense situation” in the midst of the damage caused by hurricane Sandy, must be urgently fulfilled.
Yzquierdo also reported that the building of houses by the general population had dropped by 6 percent, as people are using the materials given them to repair their homes, not to construct new ones. The government had planned for 13,000 units to be constructed in this fashion.
Owing to this precarious situation, the Cuban government has had to implement urgent measures in the hopes of containing the deterioration that decades of stagnation in the sector, and the near-paralysis of construction and repair efforts, has brought about.
One of these measures has been to authorize the sale and purchase of homes, after more than fifty years of strict control over the housing market, a move which has unleashed a veritable avalanche of advertisements, published in a broad range of places, and has increased speculation, resulting in exorbitant real estate prices (which, many a time, are not reflective of the properties’ condition). Another measure has been the granting of credits and subsidies, aimed at encouraging “construction work through personal effort.”
Building Materials in High Demand
The question remains: can these measures revitalize the market and achieve considerable improvement in the sector? It doesn’t seem likely when we bear in mind that the subsidies granted for the construction of a 25-square-meter home equipped with a bathroom and kitchen (construction work included) do not exceed the figure of 80,000 CUP – some 3,200 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) or 3,600 usd -, while even less significant loans (from 5,000 to 10,000 CUP) are issued for smaller construction efforts.
In any event, the country does not currently have a construction industry capable of satisfying a greater demand for building materials. Hence the fact that only specific establishments carry the P 350 concrete, bathroom fixtures, house paint and plumbing and electricity accessories that can be bought with these State credits.
The INV report shows that, in the first half of the year, the sale of these materials at the retail level exceeded the figure of 650,000,000 CUP (26 million USD) and that, at least up to March, some 33,000 people benefited from these government program [an average of around US $ 800 each].
In 2011, a 24-episode program titled “With Your Own Hands: How to Build and Repair your Home” (“Con tus propias manos: Como construir y mantener tu vivienda”) was aired on Cuban television, with the aim of “providing the population with indispensable construction know-how for the building of new homes or the repair of existing ones through the residents’ own efforts.”
A Monumental Challenge
The challenge posed by Cuba’s housing situation, however, is monumental and will not be resolved through timid measures which do not fully liberate all of the country’s productive forces and allow for private enterprise in the construction sector.
Sixty years ago, the right to housing was one of the issues which drove Fidel Castro and the group of young revolutionaries who attacked Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada Barracks in the hopes of sparking off a popular uprising in the country. In 1959, the Moncada program became government policy.
To date, however, not only can we not speak of fulfilled promises, Cuba cannot even claim to have guaranteed the minimum degree of maintenance needed to prevent the destruction and collapse of its architectural heritage.
During his closing remarks at the National Assembly this past Sunday, Raul Castro declared that the 2.3 percent GDP growth reported for the first half of 2013 “isn’t felt by the household economy of the average Cuban family.”
This growth is even less evident if we consider the country’s housing situation, which may well be the greatest obstacle blocking our view of the light at the end of the Cuban tunnel.
CONSTRUCTION OF NEW HOUSING UNITS IN CUBA (2000-2012)
2000 – 42,940
2001 – 35,805
2002 – 27,460
2003 – 15,590
2004 – 15,352
2005 – 39,919
2006 – 111,373
2007 – 52,607
2008 – 44,775
2009 – 35,085
2010 – 33,901
2011 – 32,540
2012 – 32,103