Living Under Someone Else’s Roof / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada

Apartment building in Havana. (EFE)
Apartment building in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 20 February 2016 — After seven years in Havana, Carlos continues jumping from one rental to another, subject to the whims of the those who rent to him, and the lack of legal certainty for tenants.

Despite the 2010 legislative change that eased the renting of homes, rooms and premises, the legal housing stock in Cuba is extremely limited, among other reasons because of the fears of many landlords that they could be stripped of their properties. This suspicion has as a precedent the expropriation carried out in 1960 by the Urban Reform Law, through which the state took ownership of all housing that was rented out by its owners, in exchange for a pension calculated based on the value of the confiscated property. The maximum allowable pension was 600 pesos* a month.

Most of those affected by this measure emigrated, and 56 years later it’s likely that few of them survive. But although the economic reforms of the last six years on the island have been announced as irreversible, many owners are reluctant to lease.

This is one of the factors that keeps the national rental market “irregular,” and deprives tenants of the limited guarantees granted to them by law. Carlos, 28, is a native of Ciego de Avila and since he arrived in the capital in 2009 he has moved more than ten times, “from Central Havana to Guanabacoa.” Arbitrary rent increases are the biggest problem he faces. Until recently he paid 35 convertible pesos (CUC) a month (more than $35 US) for a small room in Old Havana, but he had to leave because the owner announced a price increase.

“Most of the places where I’ve been have serious problems with the bathroom or water leaks, but as it is not my house, I don’t want to invest in it,” says the young man. The owners also don’t fulfill obligations to repair their homes, or provide minimal amenities. “I have run into everything from toilets that don’t flush to houses full of rats,” says Carlos. In Cuba, more than 60% of the housing is fair or poor condition, according to official data.

Many of those who lease in the capital are people coming from another province, trying to settle in Havana. But many are couples who don’t want to share space with their parents or in-laws. Cuba is experiencing a profound housing crisis with a deficit of more that 600,000 housing units, and an average annual construction of no more than 30,000 homes.

But not all cases are like that of Carlos. Zoila, 41 and from Santiago, has a degree in economics and works in the capital and claims to have had no problems “with shelter.” She came “on the right foot [legally**] in 2013” and since then has been paying 60 CUC for a house for herself alone, for an indefinite period.

As an economist working in the private sector she has a monthly salary that allows her to pay such a high rent, but someone working for the state would find it impossible to maintain payments that high. “I would have to go stay for a while in my parents house in Santiago,” she admits.

Many owners who have emigrated rent to foreigners, especially now with the rise of tourism and the opening to foreign investment that enable entrepreneurs to work in Cuba.

Current legislation gives Municipal Housing Directors the right to cancel a lease if, within the rental property, there are “illegal or antisocial activities, by the owner, his roommates, tenants or their companions.” The law leaves open to the interpretation of government institutions what can be considered “illegal” or “antisocial.”

In the Havana neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, a small house that is rented for a long time can cost up to 180 CUC monthly, and a large house can exceed 300. Very few nationals can pay those prices, but those renting them focus on foreign students or entrepreneurs planning stays in Cuba of longer than three months.

As in any real estate business, there are highs and lows dictated by the invisible hand of the market. Article 74.1 of Decree Law 322 specifies that the payment of these leases is “by price freely agreed upon.” The lowest average in the capital is one convertible peso a day. This is called the “cruise price” and the only thing offered for less are properties with no bathrooms, and no security or guarantees.

Renting by the hour has also greatly expanded, in the so-called “riding schools” that function as motels. But this method can be a source of problems for the owner. “With each customer, I’m playing with fire. If a man comes here with a large woman and it turns out she is a minor, I could lose my house,” a Central Havana resident who rents a room by the hour told this newspaper.

This self-employed man is considering renting for longer periods, but fears that “people would become attached to the place, and then they won’t want to go and I would have to call the police.”

Translator’s notes:
* It is impossible to calculate the exact value of this in purchasing power then or now, but today 600 Cuban pesos is worth about $25 U.S.
** Cubans from elsewhere in the country cannot legally live in Havana without acquiring a resident permit.