Olga Lidia Lahera lives with her daughter and two granddaughters in a tiny 15 square meter (160 square foot) apartment with peeling plaster walls that barely has room for a shelf with pots and a sofa bed rickety. A fabric curtain separates the space they use to wash. 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 ceilings so big that the air, light and even water can pass through.
The first storm of the 2022 hurricane season, which hit Cuba in mid-June, collapsed or damaged dozens of homes in the capital that were already in disrepair, tearing off pieces of roofs, balconies and facades.
This highlighted one of Cuba’s main social problems, a shortage of quality housing caused by decades of inadequate maintenance, a lack of new housing and the obstacles faced by people trying to repair their own homes. .
An official review last year found the island of 11.3 million people had 3.9 million homes at the end of 2020, nearly 40% of which were in fair to poor condition. Cuba needed 862,000 additional homes to adequately house its population, compared to a deficit officially estimated at around 500,000 in 2005.
The government announced a major national program to address the problem in 2018, but the latest official figures show a dramatic drop in recent construction as the country grapples with a pandemic-hit economy and tougher US sanctions.
In 2019, 44,000 housing units were built, of which 35% by the State and 65% by individual families. In 2020, that number fell to 32,000 – 43% by the state and 57% by individuals. Last year, about 18,000 homes were built (47% by the state and 53% by individuals). There are no official figures for the current year.
This leaves few options for families like Ayala’s.
“When it rains here, everything is wet, the furniture, the refrigerator. We have nowhere to move things,” Ayala said, trying to control her emotions as she showed the effects of the recent downpours, including a strong musty smell.
“Tomorrow a wind will come 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 tumour.
She and her brother Wilmedis Horta Ayala, a 39-year-old physical education teacher at a primary school, filled out all sorts of paperwork to get permission to legally repair the place, which is around a century old, but the building permit – mandatory in Cuba – was never issued.
Lahera, 65, was a state employee until she applied for sick leave. The four live off what the Cuban state gives their daughter to take care of her and the girls.
“When it rains, the walls here pick up a current (become electrified),” she said. “They are bad, but I don’t know how far they would fall. They are all cracked. The building, the structure is very old.
For decades in Cuba, residential construction was completely controlled by the socialist government and no legal real estate market existed. People couldn’t sell their houses.
In 2011, President Raúl Castro authorized the buying and selling of homes as a means of reactivating the economy, giving more space to private enterprise. Thousands of people acquired houses or invested in repairing the ones they owned, which suddenly increased in capital value.
With an increase in tourism and a rapprochement with the United States in the middle of this decade, some areas such as Old Havana experienced a wave of gentrification, often aided by funds from families in the United States. It hit a wall with the pandemic and Trump-era sanctions.
The Cuban government has long struggled to build enough new housing or maintain existing structures and has tried to keep a hold of private efforts, believing – often correctly – that building materials were stolen from the stockpiles of the State.
In recent years it has tried to provide more credit for construction and repairs and to stimulate efforts by professional groups and the workplace to build apartment buildings themselves.
But building materials are often hard to find at low-cost official outlets – which often insist on permits – and private sellers demand prices far beyond what Ayala or Lahera can afford,
Today, the first rains of the new storm season have once again exposed the fragility of Cuban housing, much of which is located in salt-laden coastal towns.
“You only have to walk around the city to see the deep deterioration of Havana’s buildings,” architect Orlando Inclán told The Associated Press.
Inclán was part of a team that won a competition sponsored by its 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 companies and let them participate in a movement to clean up public spaces and homes for the people of the island.
“It is time to diversify housing policy. The actors involved must be diverse, the materials must be diverse, the ways of understanding housing must be diverse,” he said. “There doesn’t have to be just one housing producer… The only way to find a solution to this is to think creatively.”