In Old Havana, Almost Half of the 20,000 Homes Are Not Habitable (Official Data)

Rescuers on October 4, 2023 after the collapse of a building in Old Havana (Cuba). (EFE/Ernesto Mastrascusa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 5 October 2023 — The collapse of a building in Old Havana this Wednesday claimed the lives of Yoandra Suárez López, Luis Alejandro Llerena Martínez and Ramón Páez Frometa. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual event in the Cuban capital, which suffers from a more than palpable urban degradation. With hearts still heavy from the tragedy, the comments multiplying on-line echoed the same idea: “How long will they build so many hotels while people lose their lives?”

In June 2021, the Government approved the General Plan for Urban Renewal of Havana for 2030, a document that was published in the Official Gazette along with those for Trinidad, Caibarién, Baracoa and Guantánamo. The news went on tiptoe even for the official press, but the full text gave a detailed account of the painful situation of the capital, proposed a long list of solutions and actions, and ended with impossible budgets. The review, two years and several building collapses later, is interesting.

The document specifies, first of all, the condition of Havana in all areas of urban planning:  green areas, sanitation, public transport and, as a priority, housing. The text dedicated to Old Havana leaves a scandalous figure: more than 40% of the more than 20,000 homes identified in that area did not meet the minimum habitability conditions.

Overall, the problem was summarized as follows: “High rate of building collapses, mainly in the central areas of the city. Housed: 449 facilities, with 5,471 population centers (17,314 people). In critical condition: 946 properties, with 8,329 homes and 26,151 inhabitants. Tenements: 6,899 properties, with 60,170 inhabitants. And 82 neighborhoods and 69 houses in precarious condition, with 18,721 and 1,923 homes respectively, mostly concentrated in Boyeros, Guanabacoa, Arroyo Naranjo and San Miguel del Padrón. Changes in use for homes on inadequate premises.”

Of the 704,571 existing homes in the city, 40% are in multi-family buildings, about 9% are in tenements and 3% correspond to homes in neighborhoods with precarious conditions

This is only as far as housing is concerned, because the list of problems identified in all types of facilities, warehouses, historic structures, air pollution, etc., occupies three dense pages for which the Plan proposed 98 detailed measures over 50 pages.

“Of the 704,571 homes in the city, 40% are in multi-family buildings, about 9% are in tenements and 3% correspond to homes in neighborhoods with precarious conditions,” the text specifies. The housing stock has an average age of 70 years, older in the central areas, and a high degree of accumulated deterioration to which is added the precariousness of the homes, so it is necessary to prioritize the conservation and rehabilitation of the existing structures,” it summarized, with regard to the housing stock.

In order to solve the problems, there were two main approaches: new construction for the areas of the outer rings, and integral rehabilitation for the center, starting with Centro Habana, Cerro, Plaza and La Habana Vieja, municipalities designated as degraded. From the beginning, work should continue in the area, including the recovery of 60% of the buildings in regular and bad technical condition, with priority given to 12 blocks of the historic center (two of them in Old Havana).

The Cuban specialist born in Barcelona, Carlos García Pleyán, then published an extensive article explaining the utmost importance of the document, while regretting its ambiguity. “I have my doubts that the mission can be fulfilled,” he summarized.

Who will make the decision to include the necessary investments to carry them out? Does the capital have enough budget to carry them out?

The most remarkable thing, for this professor of urban planning, was the decision to control housing growth towards the periphery, the promotion of the incorporation of private individuals into the sector and the execution of the works from competitions.

The problems? Too many, starting with the date. The entire document, approved in 2021, was prepared in 2013, which nullified much of the content, including a study for facilities to be removed and relocated between 2014 and 2016, widely past the time when such measures could be given the green light.

García Pleyán was scandalized to realize that the addendum lacks a concrete plan of action, since a budget estimate is given in that section. The amount budgeted, he said, is disastrous, since it was “based on the level of expenses in 2017-2018 and extrapolated to the period 2019-2030. And the table undoubtedly contains gross errors: the first line refers to investments in the education sector. In 2017 it was 57 million, the following year 86 million. However, the annual average for the 2019-2030 period is reduced to less than three million per year, without further explanation,” he emphasizes.

In his opinion, in short, the Plan was outdated, unknown and lacked an action program. “Who will make the decision to include the necessary investments to carry them out?  Does the capital have enough budgeted for them? What significance can a plan have that does not foresee or specify the investments necessary to carry it out?” he wondered, concluding: “Havana requires much greater attention than that dedicated to it in the so-called General Plan of Urban Renewal.”

A few days ago, in an extensive discussion on State TV’s Roundtable program, the Minister of Construction, René Mesa Villafaña – who announced a Housing Law for 2024 – explained that there are currently 853,000 homes classified as bad, regular, to be redone or to have maintenance, throughout the Island. “Currently, it has evolved, but not at the speed we want.”

According to the 2022 Statistical Yearbook, the Government invested 3.226 billion pesos in hotels and 23.360 billion pesos in business and real estate services and rental (diffuse content section, which includes the construction of hotels). Meanwhile, 1.4% of the general state budget, 1.016 billion pesos, was allocated to the construction of homes. A misery, which explains many of the tragedies that will continue to occur in Havana and in other cities of the country.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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