The damage from Storm brings Cuba’s dire housing crisis into focus

HAVANA (AP) – Olga Lidia Lahera lives with her daughter and two granddaughters in a tiny 15 square meter apartment with…

HAVANA (dpa) – Olga Lidia Lahera lives with her daughter and two granddaughters in a tiny 15-square-meter apartment with peeling plaster walls, which offers little space for a shelf with pots and a rickety sofa bed. A fabric curtain separates the washing up area. There is no bathroom.

A little further down Gloria Street in the Talla Piedra neighborhood of Old Havana, Anet Ayala and her brother Wilmedis live on the second floor of an old building with cracks in the walls and ceiling so large that air, light and even water can penetrate .

The first storm of the 2022 hurricane season, which hit Cuba in mid-June, toppled or damaged dozens of already-dilapidated homes in the capital, tearing off sections of roofs, balconies and facades.

This highlighted one of Cuba’s biggest social problems: a lack of quality housing due to decades of poor maintenance, a shortage of new housing, and obstacles for people trying to repair their own homes.

An official review last year showed that the island of 11.3 million people had 3.9 million homes at the end of 2020, almost 40% of which were in fair to poor condition. Cuba needed an additional 862,000 homes to adequately house its population — up from an officially estimated deficit of about 500,000 in 2005.

The government announced a major national program to tackle the problem in 2018, but the latest official figures show a dramatic drop in recent construction activity as the country grapples with a pandemic-hit economy and a tighter US. sanctions.

In 2019, 44,000 homes were built – 35% by the state and 65% by individual families. In 2020, that number dropped to 32,000 – 43% from the state and 57% from individuals. About 18,000 units were built last year (47% by the state and 53% by private individuals). There are no official figures for the current year.

That leaves families like Ayala’s with little choice.

“When it rains here, everything gets wet, the furniture, the fridge. We have nowhere to move things,” Ayala said, trying to control her emotions while showing the effects of the recent downpours, including a strong musty smell.

“Tomorrow there will be a wind and this (roof) will fall on us and we will be two more dead,” said Ayala, 36, whose face is partially paralyzed after surgery for a brain tumor.

She and her brother, Wilmedis Horta Ayala, a 39-year-old elementary school physical education teacher, filled out all sorts of paperwork to get permission to legally repair the roughly hundred-year-old site, but planning permission is mandatory in Cuba — was never issued .

Lahera, 65, was a government employee until she applied for sick leave. The four live on what the Cuban state gives their daughter to take care of them and the girls.

“When it rains, the walls here pick up electricity[become electrified],” she said. “They are bad, but I don’t know how far they would fall. They’re all cracked; The building, the structure is very old.”

For decades, housing in Cuba was fully controlled by the socialist government and there was no legal real estate market. People couldn’t sell houses.

In 2011, President Raúl Castro authorized the buying and selling of houses to stimulate the economy and give more space to private companies. Thousands of people bought houses or invested in the renovation of their own, which suddenly increased in capital value.

With a surge in tourism and a rapprochement with the United States midway through this decade, some areas like Old Havana experienced a wave of gentrification, often helped by funds from families in the US hitting a wall with the pandemic and the Trump era sanctions.

The Cuban government has long struggled to build enough new housing or maintain existing structures, and has sought to keep a firm grip on private efforts, believing – often correctly – that building materials have been stolen from government stocks.

In recent years it has sought to offer more credit for construction and repairs, and to stimulate efforts by professional and community groups to build homes for themselves.

But building materials are often hard to find in cheap official outlets – which often insist on permits – and private sellers charge prices well beyond what Ayala or Lahera can afford.

Now the first rains of the new storm season have once again revealed the fragility of Cuban homes – much of them in coastal cities with salty air.

“One only has to walk through the city to see the profound decay of Havana’s buildings,” architect Orlando Inclán told The Associated Press.

Inclán was part of a team that won a competition sponsored by his professional association to build social housing using alternative or recycled materials.

He and some of his colleagues are urging the government to lift the ban on private architecture and construction firms and let them take part in a movement to clean up public spaces and homes for islanders.

“It is time to diversify housing policy. The actors involved need to be diversified, the materials need to be diversified, the ways of understanding housing need to be diversified,” he said. “There doesn’t have to be just one home builder… The only way to find a solution here is through creative thinking.”

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Andrea Rodríguez is on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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