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CUBA: ‘Colourful’ Tenements Reminder of Severe Housing Deficit

Orlando Matos

HAVANA, Apr 3 2006 (IPS) - Despite serving as a frequent and colourful inspiration for music, literature and other art forms, the overcrowded tenement houses known popularly in Cuba by the name of “solar” are a dramatic reminder of the severe housing shortage still facing the country, despite the efforts made in recent years.

While scattered throughout the capital, solars are especially prevalent in Old Havana and the neighbouring district of Centro Habana. Most are the result of vast former mansions being divided up into tiny rooms, each serving as an individual dwelling.

In other cases, they resulted from the construction of small cubicles crowded side by side around a central courtyard. Quite frequently, there are a limited number of bathrooms and washing facilities that must be shared by the solar’s numerous inhabitants..

The Pérez Ramos family has lived in a solar in the neighbourhood of Jesús María throughout the entire lifetime of most of the family’s members. Jesús María is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Havana, among the first built outside the city walls that formerly enclosed the current historic centre of the capital.

“I don’t think I’ll ever see the day when we get out of here,” declared María Caridad Ramos, the family’s 70-year old matriarch, as she entered the cramped room that serves as a living room, dining room and bedroom all in one.

Within the mildew-stained walls of this solar, seven families live in seven rooms, one next to the other. “In a place like this, whether you want to or not, you can even hear the people in the other rooms breathing,” Ramos commented to IPS.


Throughout the last decades, the Cuban government has undertaken a number of different programmes to promote housing construction, which suffered an abrupt decline in the 1990s during the economic crisis sparked by the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the eastern European socialist bloc, formerly Cuba’s largest trade and aid partners.

According to official figures, a full 75.4 percent of the housing on this socialist Caribbean island has been built by the government since 1959, following the triumph of the revolution headed up by President Fidel Castro. Yet despite these efforts, there is still an estimated shortage of over half a million housing units.

The country’s authorities are also faced with the daunting challenge posed by the often crumbling tenement houses, the majority of which were built in the mid-19th century. While this a problem that now extends to all of Cuba’s large cities, it is especially serious in Havana, where there are over 7,000 of these typically precarious multi-family dwellings.

Forty years after writing the popular musical comedy “El Solar” (The Solar), Cuban novelist Lisandro Otero told IPS that the tenement houses are a “hothouse of traditions and folklore,” ranging from rituals steeped in ancient African religions to musical genres like the rumba, which have travelled around the globe.

But while celebrating the solar as “an important focus of social studies,” Otero acknowledged that “in a certain sense, it is also like a wasp’s nest.”

The Cuban state-run media report that since 2004, roughly 1,000 tenement houses in Havana have undergone major repairs. Efforts like these have been underway since the mid-1990s and involve numerous local and foreign entities.

One example is the Cayo Hueso project, created in 1995 under the auspices of the Ministry of Basic Industry to benefit this sprawling Centro Habana neighbourhood – the second founded outside the former city walls of Old Havana û which is home to just over 200 tenement houses.

One of them, on Espada Street, was on the verge of crumbling when the programme commenced. “There were serious problems with the ceilings, which were in really bad shape. It was frightening to live there,” remarked Eladio Reyes, an artist and playwright who resides in the solar.

The renovation took two years, and began exactly 100 years after the tenement house had originally been built. It was “a traumatic time, because we had to leave our rooms and move to government shelters, relatives’ houses, anywhere possible,” recalled Reyes.

“Even though it was necessary to improve living conditions, a lot of people didn’t want to move out because this solar is historic, it’s the birthplace of the ‘son habanero’ (the Havana-born subgenre of the typical Cuban music genre known as ‘son’),” explained Reyes, who added that the residents maintained a sense of community by holding a party every Friday.

The financing from the project came from Oxfam-Canada, the Canadian branch of the international development agency, and the Martin Luther King Centre in Cuba. The renovation work itself was done by a government construction brigade, assisted by a number of the building’s residents, who received a salary for their work.

In the end, the tenement house that was home to 50 people was transformed into a two-storey apartment building. “Now there’s a new sense of harmony, we all have bathrooms, showers and kitchens inside our own apartments. We have more space, so now people keep their doors closed and actually have some privacy,” said Reyes.

Not everybody is this lucky. In the Cayo Hueso neighbourhood in particular, it is estimated that there are an average of seven people living to a room in the many remaining tenement houses, while others that are equally overcrowded and suffering various degrees of disrepair are to be found all over the city.

In fact, official studies released last year during an international conference on sustainable cities held in Havana revealed that roughly 43 percent of all housing in Cuba is in an average to poor state.

One-quarter of the buildings in Old Havana are tenement houses, which are home to 41.5 percent of the total population of this historic district of the city, declared a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in 1982.

Natalia Pérez, the oldest daughter of María Caridad Ramos, managed to acquire more living space by building an extension on the rooftop terrace of their tenement house, with construction materials sold to her by the Cuban state at subsidised prices.

“But daily life in such close quarters with people who aren’t family can sometimes even lead to fights,” she commented, while pointing out the limited space shared by close to 30 people.

“And that’s now, after everyone has built bathrooms inside their own rooms,” she added. “You can imagine what it was like when we all had to share just one.”

Statistics from the last national census, carried out in 2002, show that in Cuba as a whole, the average housing density is 0.8 people per room when counting all of the rooms in a housing unit and 1.3 per bedroom, which would seem to demonstrate that there is no overcrowding.

But housing is recognised as one of the main unsolved social problems in Cuba. One year ago, President Castro announced ambitious new plans to build and repair housing.

Over a period of 12 months, ending this September, the government plans to complete the construction of 150,000 new homes. Statistics indicate that 15,352 housing units were built in 2004, and an additional 39,261 in 2005.

Various studies concur that the biggest housing deficit is found in Havana, which is home to 2.2 million of Cuba’s 11 million people, and where 46 percent of the 556,000 existing homes are in need of repairs to some degree.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has noted that the housing shortage in this region as a whole totalled some 20 million housing units in the early 1990s, and that between 2.3 and 3.2 million units would need to be built annually to keep the deficit from growing.

Nearly one-third of the world’s population lives in precarious housing, which is why the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in the year 2000 include the target of achieving “significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.”

Otero believes that “one day the solar will disappear altogether” if housing construction plans continue to advance, although he admits that this will take “quite a few years,” because “this is a difficult and costly goal.”

 
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