Cuba housing stock closed 2017 with approximately four million housing units, with a shortage of around one million units .
The situation in the capital is worse still. It is estimated that despite an existing stock of some 700,000 units, a further 200,000 are needed. And the future is not too promising either. Ten years ago some 50,000 units were being built each year, but the pace of construction has slowed which has resulted in a current figure of around 20,000 per year, half of which are built by the State with the other half by private individuals. On top of that, nature also plays a part. In 2017 Hurricane Irma destroyed around 30,000 homes, ripped off 25,000 roofs and affected an estimated 160,000 homes in some way or another.
The problem does not lie in the Revolution not having made a serious effort. Since 1959 more than two million housing units must have been built. However, it is the culmination of a number of factors leading to increasing demand that have been aggravating the situation. The population has grown from 7.7 to 11.2 million inhabitants at the same time as the average size of a family has shrunk from five members to 2.8 according to the latest census figures, taking the number of family units from 1.6 to 3.9 million. Over the same period, the upkeep of the existing housing stock has been minimal while domestic migration patterns have shown a considerable increase.
Housing policy, which not only involves construction but also legal, financial and social aspects, has swung from one extreme to the other. From a model in which it was practically the exclusive responsibility of the State to solve housing problems, with a mostly tenant population without their own land, building projects, or materials to build or do repairs themselves, in which the population could only exchange their homes, we have moved to a situation primarily of home ownership, with people using them not just as a residence but also as a source of income or place of work, in which the State now only builds for a few social priority groups, where a dynamic and selective real estate market has opened up and in which families are responsible for building their own homes, supported by loans and subsidies awarded by the State to those most in need.
This new situation has solved some problems and created others. Authorizing house sales and property purchase obviously makes the panorama more flexible and allows a better balancing between supply and demand, but part of the housing stock has been taken up by foreign capital, resulting in abnormal price rises and market segmentation, before putting in place the most appropriate legal and tax instruments for regulating it. In addition, encouraging families to solve their own housing needs through self-builds and to use local production materials is undoubtedly a practical solution, but best suited to rural areas and small settlements. To expect the fifty Cuban cities, home to half the country’s housing stock -and in particular Havana- to solve their own housing problems through personal efforts and using locally-sourced materials, is a case of ungrounded optimism. According to the National Housing Institute, in 2008, 85% of the buildings with more than three stories were in need of fundamental repair. Does anyone imagine that structural problems can be solved in that way? This approach particularly punishes the country’s capital which not only receives 10% of the national housing construction plan budget despite accommodating 20% of the population, but it also fails to tackle effectively the accumulated effects of deficient upkeep which tragically frequently results in building collapses. Furthermore, the communities that are being built are often located in the periphery of the towns, and on account of their low population densities, rather than alleviate, they aggravate the problems that come from urban dispersion, which the land-use plans are intended to regulate.
Clearly, the problems are not only related to a scarcity of material resources, but they are also the result of excessively rigid and schematic approaches. A housing policy must address the material and technological dimension, but also the financial issues, the training and management of the workforce, the institutional structure, the legal framework and how these relate to other urban components. Cities are not just a sum of houses. These must be integrated into more complex structures so it is impossible to address housing, infrastructure, services, urbanization, public spaces, and integrated urban planning as separate, sectorially-differentiated issues.
Will 2018 be the year in which the National Housing Program, outlined in the State Guidelines (Lineamientos), is approved, bringing together and updating the Housing Law and incorporating the countless related resolutions and regulations? Will 2018 be the year we manage to create the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning to overcome the current institutional fragmentation? Will the legal and tax instruments that manage to control the limited real estate market be updated in 2018? Will the formal processes of housing, and in particular, those related to credits and subsidies, be streamlined and simplified in 2018? Will 2018 see the setting up of companies -State, cooperative or private- to build rental accommodation for young couples or vulnerable groups, currently unable to get their own home at market prices? Will 2018 be when we see architects allowed to exercise their profession freely to ensure the quality and safety of buildings? Will more urbanized land for construction become available in 2018? Will Havana’s Land Use Plan finally be approved in 2018? Will the practice of tendering for important architectural projects be reintroduced? Will housing cooperatives be authorized as a way of bringing together the building efforts of the population? Will brigades, whether organized by the State, cooperatives or privately, be promoted to build and repair high-rise buildings in the country’s main cities? Will infill housing projects be possible in order to insert new buildings in existing urban areas so as to save land and make cities more compact and efficient? Will the original features of the Community Architect Program be revived in 2018 for the population to access timely technical assistance? Will the positive results of the Neighborhood Transformation Workshops be extended in 2018 to involve other communities in bettering their living environment? In 2018, will we be able to overcome the schematized approaches and diversify supply, both in terms of type and in new agents of production, promoting different forms of tenure? Will the increasingly necessary Land and Real Estate Law be passed in 2018?
The list of questions is getting longer and the time is getting shorter, but since many of these issues do not depend on greater economic resources, we truly hope that in 2018 there will be more positive responses than negative ones to so many unknowns.
 This figure comprises replacing 365,000 units beyond repair, 100,000 destroyed by hurricanes, 135,000 necessary to eliminate over-occupancy, 110,000 to overcome poor conditions and temporary lodgings, alongside the refurbishment required for the 325,000 units in need of repair. (Source: “Cuba’s Housing Profile” recently published by the now defunct National Housing Institute.)