Housing for the People

Autumn 2002

Isobel Anderson takes a look at the challenges facing Cuba’s housing system today

Isobel Anderson takes a look at the challenges facing Cuba’s housing system today

I first visited Cuba as a tourist in January 2001 - and instantly knew I would want to return to find out more about the reality of life there for Cuban people. What better way to do this than through my professional interest in housing as a fundamental element of quality of life in different societies.

Back in the UK, I was struck by the lack of any discussion around housing issues in Cuba, in comparison to, say, the widely reported achievements in health care and education. I discovered that, in fact, very little information about Cuban housing was available in the English language. I wanted to find out more - but would I be able to conduct social research on the housing system in Cuba?

Starting with a few academic contacts, I was soon in touch with the Cuban housing and development agencies in Havana. I found them to be extremely welcoming of my ideas and very open to partnership in research and development in relation to housing. The rest of this article summarises some key issues emerging from research I conducted earlier this year in the capital, Havana.

Achievements of the Revolution

Housing provision received a relatively high priority in the immediate post-Revolutionary period. Early in the 1960s, legislation was passed to provide security of tenure, to reduce rents and to transform many tenants into owners. Today, many Cubans still have a great deal of security in their housing and pay relatively little for it. Many own outright or pay only around 10% of incomes towards their homes (more like hire purchase than a mortgage). It is illegal to buy and sell housing for profit in Cuba, though residents have rights to exchange housing.

These legal reforms were accompanied by mass building programmes to relieve the worst of the pre-Revolutionary slum conditions. The state took a lead in planning for housing but much of the construction was undertaken on a state-supported ‘self-help’ basis. Castro himself is credited with the idea of initiating microbrigades of workers given leave from their usual occupations to contribute to the construction programmes.

Housing construction continued through the 1960s - 1980s and microbrigades continue to play an important role in housebuilding and renovation today. The long term impact of these policies means that absolute homelessness is practically non- existent in Cuba.

Perhaps the most familiar image of housing in Cuba is the stunning colonial architecture of Havana city. (Photo 1: Calle Mercado). Yet, you don’t have to wander far in Havana to see the shocking scale of deterioration of the older housing stock - in stark contrast to the redevelopment of the historic city centre (Photo 2: Vedado). However, most Cubans live in the ‘classic’ four or five storey blocks of apartments, built by microbrigades which characterise the outer areas of the city, and indeed the rest of the country. Many of these early post- Revolutionary townships, such as Habana del Este remain thriving, vibrant communities. (Photo 3: Habana del Este)

Todays challenges

Cuba’s housing programme was drastically affected by the economic crisis of the 1990s and the Special Period of austerity measures, which is still in place. A key problem today is the absolute shortage of ‘spare’ dwellings for newly forming households. Population growth, combined with the added pressure from internal migration to Havana, means the city faces an absolute shortage of housing which results in severe overcrowding. You don’t have to meet many Cuban families to witness the sharing of one or two room homes by three or more generations. The strong family culture means that people get by, but there is no doubt that immense pressures are placed on relationships and family life, simply due to housing conditions.

While the images of crumbling colonial buildings in the older parts of Havana, may be only a partial representation of Cuban housing, there is little doubt that they present the most insurmountable challenge to the Cuban housing system. Significant achievements in regeneration are evident in Old Havana (Habana Vieja) under the direction of the Office of the Official Historian of the City.

Many of the most important historical buildings have now been fully restored and new shops, restaurants and other businesses thrive in the main tourist areas. But right next door, the district of Centro Habana (Central Havana) contains the most severe housing problems in the capital, with none of the resources which the old city centre has attracted.

Although many residents own their own homes, the low wage peso economy means that few have resources to undertake major repairs or improvements. In extreme cases, residents have died as structurally unsound buildings collapsed around them.

So how do the Cubans tackle these problems? The theme of my research was community participation in housing projects. Britain is now recognising the importance of giving local people a say in what happens in their neighbourhoods - but people’s participation in housing has been a fundamental element of the Cuban system since the Revolution.

I visited the team of professionals charged with developing integrated solutions for the redevelopment of Havana - el Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital (GDIC - the Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital). Created in 1987, the GDIC have since keenly promoted a participatory approach to working with local communities. An important initiative was the introduction of local workshops at the community level - talleres de trasformaciones integrales.

Small, interdisciplinary teams of professionals live in the neighbourhood and work with the community to address local issues in relation to housing, employment, the environment and social and cultural life. The economic situation has limited their ability to invest in the physical infrastructure, but energies have been redirected into social and community activities aimed at relieving the worst impacts of poverty and poor housing.

A small number of projects to build new housing are currently underway in Havana. A key finding from my study was that Cuba is now moving into a new era in resident participation in housing projects. It is recognised that the old-style microbrigades were essentially a self-help labour force for implementing state policy. Today, residents can get involved in the detailed design of their homes from start to finish. New projects are on a much smaller scale but the level of local participation is much more intensive.

Foreign investment is needed for the physical resources for construction and renewal, but Cuban partners are able to provide architectural, construction and housing management expertise as well as labour for construction. The Cuban housing authorities insist that the participation of the local community remains at the heart of the process. Cuba’s culture of mass participation in social, political and cultural life presents a solid basis for resident involvement in these housing projects. The project I visited in La Dionisia, close to Plaza de la Revolución was fairly small scale (e.g. around 10 dwellings) and had taken many years to develop. However, the results were of immense significance to the families lucky enough to be involved in the development of their new homes and to move out of the appalling conditions they had endured previously. (Photo 4: La Dionisia (a); Photo 5: La Dionisia (b)).

Building for the Future?

The Cuban Revolution has sought to provide secure, adequate, affordable housing for all of the population. But population change and the current economic circumstances have severely undermined progress made prior to the Special Period. Today, Cuba urgently needs to attract resources for housebuilding, renovation and wider renewal processes.

The need is great and the country misses out on many of the aid programmes available to other developing countries because of its steadfast resistance to neo-liberal economic principles which are often conditions of such aid.

Some European countries are supporting housing projects in Cuba. So far as I could ascertain, the UK is not currently involved any. UK business investment in Cuba’s tourism industry continues to expand, but relatively few Cubans benefit directly from the tourism infrastructure. A small proportion of the value of such investment, directed towards housing projects, could have a significant impact in improving the quality of living for ordinary citizens, who have so readily embraced the tourist economy and so warmly welcomed the extranjeros.

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