Friday, October 25, 2013

Cuba’s Housing Shortage and Marginal Communities

Cuba's Housing Shortage and Marginal Communities
October 24, 2013
Armando Chaguaceda

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

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:

Source: "Cuba's Housing Shortage and Marginal Communities - Havana" -

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