As homes go up for sale in Cuba, racial and class lines return


HAVANA, Cuba — Not since the early days of the Cuban Revolution has this city faced a transformation like the one that may soon begin sweeping through its neighborhoods.

By the end of this year, communist authorities say new laws will be in place allowing Cubans to legally buy and sell residential property for the first time in five decades. Homes that haven’t had a market appraisal in 50 years will suddenly be valued as assets.

Already property listings on Cuban online classified sites have begun appearing with cash prices — from less than $5,000 for a tiny Havana apartment to well over $120,000 for a large house in one of the city’s more desirable western districts.

The listings portend a tectonic change for a country where some 85 percent of Cubans own their homes, but “trades” have been the only legal form of property exchange.

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The new liberalization measures will instantly give millions of Cubans a potentially liquid asset, even as restrictions remain to block the individual accumulation of property.

More significantly, it’s an opening likely to accelerate a trend already underway in the city, as market forces reorder Havana’s neighborhoods according to economic and even racial differences.

The city’s elegant neighborhoods went through their first upheaval following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, as wealthy and middle class families fled the island and their homes were repossessed and repurposed by the government.

Some vacant houses were made into government offices, schools and state-run businesses. But many of the dwellings were turned over to Cuban families who lacked homes of their own or had been living in tenuous conditions. Though old divisions persisted and certain districts never lost their elite status, Havana’s neighborhoods became far more heterogeneous, mixing across racial, educational and professional boundaries.

Those lines have been creeping back in the past 20 years through black market or underground real estate deals, but the process will be greatly accelerated by the new laws, said Mario Coyula, an architect and urban designer in Havana.

“It’s all about money,” Coyula said. “There’s a Havana with cell phones and Korean cars, and there’s another one of people who walk and take the bus when they can.”

Cubans who earn money in hard currency or receive cash from relatives abroad will continue to seek out homes in Havana’s leafier, more upscale neighborhoods like Vedado and Miramar, said Coyula, a top architecture official in the 1970s and 1980s. And families who are cash-poor but property-rich — thanks to Castro’s housing redistribution — will be tempted to sell and move to the city’s cheaper peripheral zones.

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Since most of the Cubans who have left the country over the years are white, their cash remittances go overwhelmingly to white Cubans, Coyula noted, increasing the chances that existing inequalities in the city will take on ever-greater geographic distinctions. It’s unlikely that Cubans living abroad will be permitted to buy property outright, but many will probably do so through family members or other proxies.

The property reforms also carry the risk of homelessness, now rare in Cuba’s socialist system, which theoretically guarantees a dwelling for every family, even if in practice that isn’t always the case. Some families who are hard-pressed for money may be tempted to sell their only home, and even if rules are implemented to prevent such scenarios, bribe-taking and fraud are deeply entrenched among Cuba’s housing officials.

On the other hand, as Cubans increasingly view their property as an asset, there is also likely to be a private push to repair and rehabilitate the city’s tarnished architectural gems. “People will fix up their homes to sell them, and the city will be beautiful again” said Leonardo Leiva, a Havana resident trying to help a disabled friend find someone interested in swapping her place for a ground-floor unit.

Leiva had come to Havana’s current real estate market, an informal meeting place along the city’s Prado Boulevard where Cubans looking to exchange homes can size up offers and make deals, typically involving some amount of money under the table. Prospective traders had pegged bits of paper and cardboard signs to tree trunks, or held up handmade advertisements for their units.

Manuel Villanueva, a young pastor from a Pentecostal church, said he’s been coming every Saturday for three years and still hadn’t found a place. His 120-member congregation had grown too large for his family’s small apartment, but the $3,000 he had to spend wasn’t nearly enough to acquire a home or garage space big enough for his growing flock. “We’re so stretched,” he said. “But these houses cost $50,000. I’ve never even seen that much money.”

Over the years, many of Havana’s finely crafted homes have been altered to accommodate multiple families, or foreign companies needing office space. Coyula, the architect, said he worries that Cubans who do buy property will do little to protect the city’s rich architectural heritage, using cheap materials to replace aging ironwork, doorways and other design features.

A new real estate boom could also deal blow to the city’s crumbling architectural legacy, he said.

“We don’t have a real civil society that will resist that,” said Coyula. “The only way to make the population aware that preservation is good for them is to find practical value attached to preservation.”

“A well-known critic put it simply,” he added, “if things don’t change, Havana will fall down. And if they do change, they will tear it down.” 

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