The average age of a home in Cuba is just over 75 years old, and three of them collapse every day. Cuba’s housing crisis is perhaps one of the most unique examples of urban inequity in the world. While the island nation’s extensive history of waves of foreign influence has largely shaped their government, and in turn their public policies and urban planning strategies, they yet have been able to stabilize their long-standing housing crisis- forcing thousands of Cubans to live in derelict homes or public shelters. Now, many questions are being raised about how they will build new housing, repair the existing structures, and revise laws that allow Cubans to have more autonomy in the homeownership process.
Understanding the root of Cuba’s housing crisis requires an analysis of its tumultuous history and the wealth gap that was exacerbated in the 1950s. During this time, an estimated 20% of the population was consuming over 70% of the nation’s electricity, 60% of wages, and owned 60% of the cars in Cuba. By 1953, almost three-quarters of residents in Cuba were occupied by renters. The demand for housing nearly erased Cuba’s strict rent control legislation that had been introduced less than two decades before, and almost overnight, Cuban real estate became unaffordable for the nation’s citizens. Another law, which provided Cubans with the right to rent an apartment, largely because homelessness is illegal, was loopholed as foreign developers began to build new condominiums, and even convert rentals into homes for sale, for which these rules did not apply.
Proponents of socialism and the Castro Revolution were quick to solve inequality in the real estate industry by eliminating housing as a business and making evictions illegal. The measures even went so far as to nationalize all urban properties and build thousands of social housing units with methods drawn from the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plan. These buildings eliminated any aspect of design experience and favored quantity over quality, and speed of construction over tenant safety. Housing projects were divided and redistributed to private owners tied to the government, meaning that no single person or entity felt responsible for an incentive to maintain buildings or the surrounding areas. Restoration efforts were tackled by individuals, but without the ability to sell buildings for capital gain, there was little reason to make improvements. As a result, these homes quickly deteriorated, depreciated in value, and Cuba was back in the position it once faced- a massive shortage of homes, a rapidly growing population, and the desire for foreign tourists to return.
Historically, the real estate market in Cuba operated in a very unique manner. On dedicated days, residents would gather on the Paseo del Prado and arrange a housing “swap” or “permutas” in which they negotiated the exchange of houses between each other. This practice has since slightly diminished when in 2011, a law was passed that allows Cubans to buy, sell, renovate and rent out real estate for their own profit.
As a result, many Cubans have begun to sell their homes, especially to foreign investors who have seen the island for its potential growth and recent tourism boom. To match the demand for foreign visitors while new hotels and lodging options are constructed, the government has allowed private homeowners to rent out their rooms to visitors under a program similar to Airbnb. These “casas particulares” are marked by an inverted blue anchor, letting locals and tourists alike know that these spaces are up for temporary rent. This further puts more money back into the pockets of Cubans, who can, in turn, renovate their homes to generate a larger profit margin.
The government has also taken small action to alleviate the need for housing across the nation. Leaders recently announced a decade-long action plan that would aim to significantly resolve the housing problem, by funding the construction of more than 40,000 homes per year. Details of this plan are being explored as time goes on, it’s still a metric that will lag behind the growing population. While all of this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t address the other half of Cuba’s housing problem, which is the insufficient quality of residential units. Even today, with relaxed market regulations, 70% of homes need major repairs, and nearly 7% of homes have been deemed uninhabitable. For the demand to match the current population growth, Cuba still needs more than 300,000 new properties. What the future holds for Cuba still remains unclear. As the wave of foreign investment ebbs and flows, policies dictated by the government continue to adjust, and many homes still sit in ruins, it’s hard to see if the immediate responses are enough to help the Cuban people. As a country that has long been plagued by a history of foreign involvement and influence, Cuba needs a bit of time to reset itself and reprioritize the housing needs of its people before it lets the luxury resorts and hotels spring up across the capital as they have been over the last five years.