Housing in Cuba, An Impossible Problem?

By Daniel Valero (Progreso Weekly)

construccionHAVANA TIMES — For some time now, Cuba has been living at a fevered pace. After years of maintaining a rigidly bureaucratic system that held up even the simplest construction job, in early 2012 the government eased the grip that for decades it had held on practically all aspects related to housing construction.

The change brought with it a wave of sales that is still rising. More importantly, it opened the doors to one of the greatest movements of housing repair and construction in the nation’s history.

“For many years, we had to clear a thousand hurdles to obtain a work license and collect the materials,” recalls Gilberto, a mason who laid his first bricks during the 1970s, when large apartment buildings started to go up in Camagüey.

“In those days, construction was brisk. Housing projects like Montecarlo, Sánchez Soto and El Micro went up. Anywhere you turned, you saw a building going up or foundations being dug. That was logical because — answer me this — how can a country develop without building new homes or repairing the existing ones?”

A peculiar reprise of those days is happening today throughout the island, but with two notable differences: its goals are a lot more modest, and the burden of construction costs falls on the beneficiaries themselves.

At first glance, both conditions might seem to be the worst possible obstacles, but that’s not so. Add to them the insufficient availability of materials — acknowledged by the authorities as an unsolvable problem short-range — and the equally insufficient availability of manual labor, which has forced contractors to use alternatives such as hiring minimum-security prison inmates cleared for civilian work under the Trust Task plan.

“But that’s for the benefit of the government and the bosses only,” says Odalys, one of Gilberto’s daughters, who in 2013 embarked in the construction of a home for herself and her children. “Ordinary people have to scramble hard to find the materials and deal with private masons. If it weren’t for my father who is helping us, I don’t know how expensive our house will be.”

An 80,000-peso government subsidy allowed her to begin the construction of the so-called “basic cell” (one room, bathroom and kitchen), a 25-square-meter space that she will share with her husband, their daughter and a granddaughter. But that money wasn’t sufficient and she soon had to turn to a loan and her own resources.

“Luckily, I owned the land and was a victim of Hurricane Ike; otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten the subsidy or anything else,” she explains with that Byzantine resignation that seems to pervade Cubans who attempt to build their own house.

The budget doesn’t allow it

Until January 2015, some 63,000 subsidies had been granted by the various agencies of local government, totaling more than 1 billion pesos. At that time, the quota of credits for the repair and construction of homes amounted to 200,000 pesos, for a total of more than 1.8 billion pesos.

Those numbers are well below the real needs of Cuba, which, according to the latest Census, has more than 60 percent of its housing stock (almost 2.3 million buildings) in marginal or bad condition.

construccion 2To complete the equation, according to the official statistics, the island has a housing deficit of about 500,000 units, a shortage that’s particularly acute in cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba, homes to one of every five Cuban nationals.

The situation becomes more worrisome in view of the sustained decline in the construction plans. Projections in 2005 predicted the construction of at least 100,000 new homes each year and the rehabilitation of 100,000 existing homes. By 2006, only 111,373 homes had been built or repaired.

From that point on, the production curve took a downward turn, which has become steeper during the period of Economic Actualization — from about 35,000 completions in 2009 to little more than 25,000 in 2014.

At the current rate of execution, it would take more than 20 years for the housing problem to cease being one of the worst headaches of the ordinary citizen. However, even that objective could be utopian, in view of the drop in domestic production.

Except for the production of premixed concrete, which enjoyed a modest increase of 12,000 cubic meters, the rest of the construction materials closed 2014 with negative digits, especially supplies as essential as cement (95.2 percent of the previous calendar year), sand and gravel (about 2 thirds of the deliveries in 2013) and roofs, which, between metal and asbestos cement, did not exceed 45 percent of production in 2013.

As a result of that shortage, the prices of most articles have skyrocketed — in some cases doubled — consequently creating new pressures on the already impoverished homebuilders.

“Nowadays, you can’t build metal roofing for less than 700 or 800 pesos a panel [the official price is 506 pesos] and if you’re looking for good cement your only choice is buying from the resellers, because they make sure that it doesn’t reach the building-supply stores,” says Juan Carlos Arias, a Camagüeyan intent on repairing the ancient house in which he has lived all his life.

“I can’t even think about installing traditional [clay] tile shingles, as I should. Between the price of the wood and the cost of the shingles [up to 5 pesos each], I have no choice but to go the cheap route, and even then the budget doesn’t allow it,” he adds.

Arias’ case is far from being among the most dramatic. The real odyssey is lived by those who must tackle the problem from the very start, whether or not they own the land. As they lay the first brick of their future home, they could be facing a saga of decades.

Photos: Leandro Pérez


28 thoughts on “Housing in Cuba, An Impossible Problem?

  • Tim, who would ship the containers to Cuba?
    Who would pay for the containers?
    Where would the regime enable them to be installed?
    Who would provide the necessary services – water, sanitation, electricity?
    Cuba doesn’t have a real policy of re-cycle, but the people are loath to throw away anything with potential use – jam jars, cans etc. Regarding preservation, houses in Cuba were allowed to deteriorate for fifty three years prior to the decision that Cubans now owned their homes – which has resulted in more repairs.

  • The same can be said globally and is a basic problem for all humanity. I have recently studied this situation and put myself into a 14 metre x 3 metre living space.
    The equivelent of what is known as a” Sea Container”. These containers are already being used for human occupation and along with the Cuban ability to create
    artistic originality and flair would provide a sustainable option .
    Variations are only limited by the imagination. These transport containers are available used and China would have these available especially for like minded societies who are trying to save the world by leading by example, Solar lighting,
    floatation in flood zones could even be possible, they are an option worth considering.This is Cubas answer with skill development in sea container furnishing
    and design anything is possible with these recycled structures. Possible manufacturing of similiar structures from new built may be developed as well and exports for the shipping industry could run parrellel with this product and spread this to as always others within the Americas. Plastic moulded structures with advances in composite plastics from recycled and new could also be developed with joint ventures to achieve similiar results.For the average Cuban married couple with hearts full of love these would make a “LOVE NEST” and fit the Cuban model of recycle and preservation to please the almighty God that has
    put Cuba on this path .
    Thank You

  • A typo in my comment capitalized “IF”… I didn’t intend to imply that you might not mean what you say. Cuba is a heartbreaking county. So much potential in both human and natural resources, yet for so long the people have suffered and lacked basic human rights. My fear is that the change in US policy toward Cuba will reward the Castro regime without helping the Cuban people.

    Carlyle has some excellent advice for helping a few Cuban people at the direct level. Certainly, if you are going to travel to Cuba, spend your money on the independent businesses, the paladars & casas particular run by ordinary people (not the ones run by the sons of military colonels).

    I also believe that an individual can help influence national political policy. Make yourself heard at that level, too. Call your senators and congress critters. Tell them you want Obama to press Cuban on human rights. Insist that US concessions to Cuba be tied to verifiable improvements to human rights.

    Your scepticism of politicians has been well earned.

  • Earl, you know damn well that people in America have the choice between hundreds of different hamburger restaurants at every price point, or one can make a burger at home from affordable, high quality ground beef, not the soy & beef byproduct crap Cubans are forced to eat. There are rich and poor in America, and certain things are expensive, but basic food is very cheap.

    Oh, and please identify who wants to return Batista (he’s dead, by the way) to Cuba?

    Also, there are many different political parties in America, from the Communist Party to the far right, and everything in between. You can vote for any of them. You can even be a member of these political parties without the police beating you, arresting you, and throwing your sorry ass in jail, which is what happens in Cuba to scores of people, every week. Only one political party is legal in Cuba, all others are banned.

    (PS: You really have to bring some better material than that trite trope about McDonalds )

  • Email me at [email protected] I care about Cuba and it’s people and i want to find a way to help.

  • Well I’m not worried about the “The Regime

  • No bjmack, we live in a provincial capital. But being none tourist, no one can afford hotels – so the original ones are all closed down and only the old can recall them.
    Satellite dishes are illegal and the CDR is on every block. There is no Internet access possible in our city.
    Because the regime blocks out signals from the free world, it is not possible to tune in to radio or TV from other countries – the exception being Venezuela.
    I purchased a short wave Grundig radio in an endeavor to get stuff from the free world and once – yes just ONCE, actually got a religious program from the States.
    Yes, the evangelical churches are making progress and some Catholics are returning to their fold. One evangelical church has established itself in a house near us, and on Saturdays I can hear distant singing as they practice for Sunday service.
    Those who have become friends have a thirst for knowledge and it is surprising how news travels around verbally. I think that probably accounts for the obviously different level of knowledge in Havana where there are several Internet connections for those able to afford the rates.
    We have one friend – living in another city – who has a twin brother in Miami. He gets a visa about every three years to visit his twin and family in Miami. But two years ago He was taken off to Chicago and was amazed by the difference to Miami where I think the Cuban derived community is possibly not reflective of the US in general.
    My wife and stepdaughter (a lawyer) each have a cell phone which I top up from Canada through Ezetop. Each of them has a computer and I take mine back and forth. But not having internet am relieved from reading endless lectures upon STATE CAPITALISM!
    Hope that informs!

  • I recall one person doing so and there is another fairly regular contributor who puts his at the end of some of his contributions. I don’t think that the regime – which has access o this site, would pursue you as you have no direct connection to Cuba. I don’t think that Circles operates a contributor contact system.

  • there is no “if” Griffin. but i must admit our politicians are not going to do anything until they have to. i have no faith in them. period.

  • thank you for your response. thanks for taking me at my word. i have been interested in Cuba since the mid-80’s. have been there just once but i love the country. do you think its ok to post my email on this site??? i know, how else will you get it…i’m trying to think of a way.

    thanks again. i would like to learn more.

  • Carlyle, I may have asked you this before but you live in a remote part of Cuba correct? My assumption is that the bigger cities i.e. Havana has greater access to internet and or TV.
    Regarding TV, can you or folks in Havana access signals from the US? Are satellite dishes
    illegal and or do you see those throughout your journeys? So you live in a small town and i assume you have no
    signals for cell and or computer correct? Why don’t you get a satellite dish or would you rather not comment for obvious reasons. Within the coterie of friends you and your wife have are they aware of world events and life in the US as we know it or are they totally ignorant and party line zombies? Churches? any operating near you. Thanks in advance

  • There are people who recognise that communism is a big failure – and they are correct.
    It was Fidel Castro who in his two page “reflections” in Granma (for those who have never been to Cuba, Granma is the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba) said that he didn’t see any difference between communism and socialism. So socialism is a big failure as well.

  • Right!

  • camaverick thank you. I am taking you at your word!
    It is impossible for you and I as humble individuals to help a population of over 11 million people. Rather like some charities, we can only be selective and help a few.
    In my case – I am a retired and of mature years, I determined to finance the construction of the home I described. Hence my knowledge of the details. The eldest of the two children aged 4 and 2, is my God-daughter.
    As I live at home in Cuba for well over half the year, I have the disadvantage of becoming incommunicado during those periods – apart from e-mail via a third party. But on the positive side, having a Cuban wife and in consequence being related to 67 Cubans and living as a Cuban, doing the shopping, developing friends, knowing the high level of their education and yet by our standards deep poverty have genuine knowledge of their plight.(My veterinary friend who speaks three languages and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music – being able to sing (publicly) most of Frank Sinatra’s hits, or to discuss Bach, earns $360 a year (paid by the state.) He augments his income by providing a fumigation service.
    To be frank and factual, in our part of Cuba, the construction of a modest house of the type I described would cost currently $15 – $20,000 US. Plus land (that is a variable – could be $1 – $2,000.
    The benefit (and a degree of satisfaction) for a donor(s) would be in getting to know a Cuban family personally and in seeing their help in concrete (no pun intended but concrete is a major component) form.
    If the above stimulates you and you are interested, then please supply an e-mail address to which I will respond. I have to take care of mine to protect my wife’s interests (there is a thing in Cuba called the CDR – equivalent to but more efficient than the former East German Stasi and reflective of a totalitarian state.)

  • Earl, you are repeating the error which is all too common with your fellow Americans. That is the assumption that the only alternative form of government for Cuba would be your two party system.
    The Mother of Parliaments doesn’t have a two party system and neither do the European countries or many of those belonging to the Commonwealth.
    There are better systems than the US one and a free Cuba could well adopt one of them rather than fall into the trap of a US Constitution and two party system.
    Why Americans assume that a free Cuba would copy your IRS I cannot imagine. There is a big wide world out there of alternatives. One perhaps understandable reason for US myopia is that only some 17% have ever had a passport and inconsequence there is an ignorance about other long established cultures and political systems.
    It is Americans who developed the franchise system which provided McDonalds, Burger King, A&W, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut etcetera etcetera.
    Although some of those have “invaded” other countries, there are many of those countries where the people still prefer the individual bistro type of restaurants. That could be culture or an interest in eating decent healthy food rather than pursuit of obesity – where the US figures (literal and metaphorical) are sky high.
    As for Batista, he like Fidel and Raul Castro was just another Latino country dictator. Let’s just agree to condemn dictatorships of left and right and support freedom!

  • Raul is leading the change. You may not apreciate his state capitalism model, but it beats the failed system.

  • ….I didn’t think so Earl.

  • So your beef (pun intended) is with Mc Donalds and Burger King? A Cuban would give anything to get their hands on one of those burgers. And our capitalist system allows for multitudes of other choices. How about going to Sonics, Jack n the Box, or One Burger? Or better yet just go to the local supermarket, buy some ground meat, and grill your own. All are choices Cubans do not have.

    And I would like you to point out who wants a return to Batista……anyone?

  • IF you want to help the Cuban people, do all you can to support freedom, democracy and human rights in Cuba. Call your Senators & Congressmen and demand that the Obama administration use their negotiations with the Cuban government to press for real change in Cuba. Specifically, that the Castro regime must end it’s harassment of opposition leaders and dissidents, lift the censorship of the media, free all political prisoners, allow workers to form free & independent trade unions, and to hold free & democratic multi-party elections.

  • If by your comment you are attempting to imply that life in the US is worse than in Cuba,then you should stop lying. Yes, the IRS is an insufferable bureaucracy but nothing compared to what Cubans must experience. Both McDonald’s and Burger King sell 100% beef hamburgers despite rumors to the contrary. McDonald’s french fries are actually quite good. Cubans maybe get a taste of beef few times a year. Commenters who hope to defend the indefensible failings of the Castro dictatorship by trashing the worst facets of life in the US do their cause no favors. Not one Cuban decides to remain in Cuba instead of risking an escape by flimsy raft or running away from a traveling sports team because of the taste of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

  • I will say this as a US citizen who has visited this wonderful country. ..you are the problem and your posts are quite boring.

  • Wow. What a moving and informative post. How could a highly motivated US citizen who loves Cuba and would love to make a difference in that country help in a situation like this. Please respond because I would love to help the people of Cuba improve their lives.

  • Some people in this list are looking forward to repeating Cuba’s experience under Batista. I have no doubts that the complaints about bureauacracy are true in Cuba. But wait till they encounter the bureaucracy and red tape of the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S.A. !!! And if we get capitalist”freedom”in Cuba, you will have the democratic right to choose between the inedible burgers of MacDonalds or the inedible burgers of Burger King. And vote for two political parties who represent the same policies.

  • Conclusion: No incentive = No motivation = No initiative

  • Your sarcasm is a disrespect to the very real problems confronting the Cuban people.

  • I have a niece and nephew who have two children. In November 2014, they submitted to the municipality all the necessary paperwork and architectural plans for a modest 640 sq. ft. home having purchased the site. They anticipate that much of the work will be carried out by la familia.
    Nine months later they still await permission from the municipality and enquiries are met with a shrug of the shoulders. This all serves to support the view expressed in the final sentence of Daniel Valero’s article: “they could be facing a saga of decades.”
    Under the Socialismo system, nobody takes responsibility, no one wants to take a decision. Incompetence is the norm. There is no motivation.
    To those of us who have been accustomed to the efficiency of the capitalist system where it is possible to increase earnings by initiative, efficiency and application, the Communist/socialist system as practised in Cuba (and as demonstrated in Eastern Europe under the USSR and currently in North Korea and fast being pursued in Venezuela) is self evidently a failure and its supporters either moronic or sadistic.
    But what can the poor subjugated Cuban people do to remedy their plight, when a dictatorial regime holds absolute power and control? The Cuban people are no different genetically from those of us who live in the free world. They are as intelligent as the rest of us.

  • I’ll just comment on one thing you wrote about Cubans not wanting to change their government. The Cuban people have been unable to throw off their communist yoke because they are held under the boot heel of a police state. One where freedom of assembly and free speech is illegal, where beatings and arrest are common if you disagree with the government in public, and where you can be arrested for the crime of “dangerousness”. This Cuban Communist/Castrista government has only one goal, maintaining power. Elections, the national assembly and poder popular are just window dressing. Its Castro and a few cohorts who run the show.

  • It looks like communism is a big failure.
    We need to replace it with the same free-enterprise capitalism that is in place in the rest of the world so that Cuba can also have its fair share of malnourished children, homeless people sleeping in the streets, people dying from lack of affordable healthcare and a 25% unemployment rate with no social services .
    In order to accomplish this , it is incumbent on the beneficent United States to somehow make the 11 million or so stupid Cubans give up their unworkable revolution since they just don’t seem to want to do it themselves.
    To make matters even more unbearable, it seems those 11 million or so Cubans still have no idea how communist ( evil, totalitarian ) that kind of thinking is despite the best efforts of the governments of the USA over 50 years or so to disabuse them of the notion that they really do want to keep what they have and that the American Way would not be better.
    In the end it might be best to just nuke the entire island ( except for the Guantanamo Torture Facility ) and start over once the radioactive glow dies down with a lead-lined McDonald’s amid the rubble and President Trump will preside over the rebuilding of a new Cuba ( same as the old, old Cuba)
    Hey, it’s better than letting them be so stupid isn’t it ?
    Who do they think they are?.
    (This the first in the ” if you can’t beat them, join them ” series of responses.

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