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CUBA: Putting Their Houses in Order

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Aug 14 2008 (IPS) - In Cuba, when talk turns to the housing problem, the personal anecdotes that pour out are as large in number as the country’s housing deficit, accumulated over years during which building efforts have not kept up with the need, while the existing houses and buildings continue to crumble.

The authorities hope to complete 50,000 housing units in 2008. Credit: IPS Cuba

The authorities hope to complete 50,000 housing units in 2008. Credit: IPS Cuba

“It’s a huge problem, but now at least we are covered by a programme that includes maintenance and restoration of what we already have. It’s nearly as complicated and costly as building from scratch,” María Leiva, the chairperson of the residents council in a 32-apartment block which is undergoing repairs, told IPS.

Leiva said that tenants in this and other buildings in her block, in the Havana district of El Vedado, should thank their lucky stars for being included in this year’s restoration plans. “Many buildings are in a poor state of repair, and the chances of having them repaired are low,” she sighed.

Some residents, however, noted that the builders tend to start their working day late, work only from Monday to Friday, and leave early because they have no lunch. “This week they didn’t come at all; they said it was because there were no building materials,” one of the tenants told IPS.

The authorities say the resources exist to build 50,000 new housing units and carry out 250,000 repairs by the end of the year. Repairs cover conservation and restoration work.

But plan is more modest than the one that was announced three years ago.

In mid-2005, the government set itself the target of building 100,000 housing units a year, but that goal was cut in half because of a lack of funding. According to official statistics, 22,558 housing units and 133,000 repairs had been completed by June 2008.

The head of the National Housing Institute, Víctor Ramírez, himself admitted in early July that the 2008 programme is well below the level of need. The Institute estimates the national housing deficit to be about 600,000 units, up from 530,000 in 2003.

Housing availability is greater in urban areas, but in terms of the total deficit which includes qualitative aspects, the cities are worse off. The situation in Havana, with its 2.2 million residents, is one illustration.

According to the statistics, the capital city’s housing inventory runs to over half a million units. But this figure includes everything from “modern, solidly built houses and apartment blocks for a number of families, constructed in the past two decades, to shacks improvised out of inappropriate materials like tin sheeting and wood planks,” a professional involved in the housing sector told IPS.

There are more than 6,000 tenement buildings and “cuarterías” (multi-occupancy rooming houses) in Havana, as well as 46 shanty towns that are home to more than 18,000 people, in over 6,200 housing units. The authorities admit that living in these conditions gives rise to social tension and a significant number of violent incidents.

Studies by experts indicate that the capital attracts the vast majority of Cubans who decide to leave their home provinces. According to the latest census, from 2002, Havana is the destination of nearly 41 percent of internal migrants from the rest of the country.

Although responsibility for Havana’s housing deficit is not being laid at the door of the thousands of people who migrate there, the influx certainly aggravates the problem. “If housing is a difficult matter for Havana residents, imagine what it’s like for those who want to come and stay here,” a young university student told the newspaper Juventud Rebelde.

This state newspaper reported the conditions in which 2,000 people live in Las Piedras, a shanty town in the eastern Havana municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, where people have built dirt-floored huts with materials picked up from rubbish dumps.

There are no streets, only paths cut through the underbrush; no power lines, but a multitude of clotheslines instead. People get water from pipes running near the “llega y pon” (“arrive and stay put,” a folk term for the slums), reported Juventud Rebelde, adding that internal migration increased during the severe 1990s economic crisis.

Legislation was introduced in 1997 to try to curb, or at least to regulate, the influx of migrants from the provinces, but experts are hoping that current development programmes to improve quality of life in rural areas will dissuade many people from moving to Havana.

The city authorities hope to complete 5,000 new housing units this year. They are also working on ways to regularise the “illegal” shanty towns, and to find solutions for people who have suffered the partial or total loss of homes that were in a state of disrepair.

“I had to leave my house because the roof was in danger of falling in on me,” a woman who is now staying at a friend’s place until her home is repaired told IPS.

According to official statistics, 3,170 new housing units were completed in Havana in 1987, and a record of 9,114 in 1989. After that, because of the economic crisis, the construction industry went into a steep decline, so that only 723 new homes were built in 2002.

Building increased after the crisis, with 1,552 units built in 2003, 2,838 in 2005, 9,443 in 2006 (more even than in 1989), and 6,342 in 2007. But the demand accumulated by the housing shortage between 1990 and 2002 far outstrips supply.

To make matters worse, the poor state of much of the housing makes it particularly vulnerable to hurricane damage, and rebuilding diverts resources from new housing.

Hurricane Dennis, to take just one example, devastated several Cuban provinces in July 2005, damaging more than 120,000 homes, 15,000 of which collapsed completely and 25,000 partially. The gales also destroyed roofs on 24,000 houses and partially damaged those of another 60,000.

Official reports show that 2.6 million housing units have been built in the last four decades, which make up 75.4 percent of the country’s housing stock. During this period the number of houses in poor condition diminished, and overall access to utilities like electricity and drinking water expanded.

However, the authorities acknowledge that the state’s investment during these years has still not solved the situation, and securing decent housing remains one of the main problems faced by Cubans.

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