SUCCESS STORY: Architects are helping Cuba's housing revolution

Posted: 24 June 2003

Author: Rasna Warah

For over 40 years, the Cuban government has been struggling to maintain its radical social housing programme, based on the principle that affordable housing is a social right for everybody. Five years ago it adopted the idea of Community Architects, to help solve individual housing problems. In this specially-commissioned report, Rasna Warah reports on its success - and the difficulties that remain.

With the help of the Cuban government, these crumbling but elegant, colonial buildings in Old Havana are being renovated and rehabilitated by the 'Architects in the Community' programme.© Rasna Warah

When Mr and Mrs Gonzalez had a second child, they realised that their one-bedroom house in Cuba's Pinar del Rio province was too small to accommodate a family of four. Because they owned the house, they did not want to move. But they did not have the resources or technical skills to undertake any major construction on the house, such as adding another storey. That is when they turned to the Architects in the Community Programme for help.

A few days later, an architect from the Programme visited the house and interviewed each family member on their particular needs. Through this participatory method, the architects found out that lack of privacy was a major concern of the family: the children slept with their parents in the same room; the kitchen also served as a laundry area; and the two small windows in the front of the house did not provide adequate ventilation.

The architects provided the family with three design options, one of which was agreed upon: the living area was partitioned to create another room for the children; a small opening was created in the roof, to allow for better ventilation in the hot summer months; a metal staircase leading to this opening was added to allow the family to use the terrace as a washing area; and more shelves were added to the kitchen, giving the family more storage space.

The cost to the Gonzalez family was minimal - 600 pesos ($20), or two months' salary, even though the actual cost of building the extra wall and staircase cost the government 1800 pesos in building materials.

Individual solutions

The Architects in the Community Programme was adopted by the Cuban government in 1998. This Programme, developed by the Argentinean community architect Rodolfo Livingstone, uses a participatory design approach, in which architects and household members jointly plan and design their houses.

The emphasis is on developing an individual solution for each family's circumstances rather than using a set of repetitive solutions. Some families build a second storey; others rearrange the internal divisions to improve internal space and ventilation.

Self-help building is heavily subsidised by the State, which provides building materials and offers the support of "micro-brigades" (builders, architects and construction workers deployed by the state to build houses and to work with communities in helping them choose the right designs and building materials). The architects, employed by the State, help the families to obtain the necessary building permits for the work, and help supervise the construction, giving advice and support where needed. The involvement of architects in the process also ensures quality control.

Environmentally sustainable solutions are also promoted with the households by encouraging recycling of water and re-use of existing building materials. Today, 157 out of a total of 169 municipalities in Cuba are using this methodology and over 500,000 households have benefited from the Programme. In 2001, the Architects in the Community Programme was awarded the World Habitat Award by the UK-based Building and Social Housing Foundation. The government of South Africa is also developing an agreement with Cuba to commission twelve architects from the Programme to spend two years in South Africa to establish similar approaches there.

Housing policy

To understand how the Architects in the Community Programme works in the Cuban context, it is necessary to understand Cuba's housing policies since the socialist revolution of 1959. Cuba is probably the only country in the world where the concept of real estate development and speculation is unknown.

This is because the principle governing its housing policy is based on the idea that housing is a social asset, not a commodity whose value is determined by market forces. A house is seen as a basic necessity, like food, health and education. Housing production is, therefore, a means of redistribution of the country's assets.

In the last 40 years, an additional 1.5 million dwelling have been built by the State, partly with the assistance of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, which introduced Soviet-style apartment blocks in several cities and towns. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, a severe economic crisis in the country significantly affected the housing programme. The government had to find new ways of meeting their housing goals.

These have included providing support for self-help construction, the development of locally produced building materials and government-sponsored technical assistance in the form of architectural or construction services, all of which have been incorporated in the Architects in the Community Programme. The national bank even provided zero-interest loans for housing.

Urban decay

However, these approaches have not been able to halt urban decay and dilapidation in some of the larger cities. In Havana, elegant, colonial style buildings built in the 1920s and 1930s are crumbling due to neglect. Several have not been painted for decades and the beautiful ceramic tiles on the floors are beginning to chip and fade. (However, with donor funding, the government has now started to renovate and rehabilitate some of the most valuable of these architectural treasures, particularly in Havana Vieja, the oldest part of the city.)

The fact is that many owners and tenants simply do not have the additional income required to improve their housing. Although the legal limit of household occupancy is 10 square metres per person, overcrowding is becoming a problem. Due to lack of space, the high-rise ceilings of many old colonial buildings have been turned into two storeys by adding new ceilings and wooden staircases. As no Cuban household is allowed to own more than one house, and there is still a housing deficit of 530,000 units, families tend to live in the same house for generations.

As result, many houses in the bigger cities are beginning to resemble those of Third World cities. It is estimated that 50 per cent of Havana's houses are in "poor" or "bad" condition. Yet, it is difficult to classify these houses as "slums", mainly because apart from the physical decay, each of these houses do fulfil the basic criteria of adequacy - they all have access to sanitation, water and electricity, and there is security of tenure for all occupants. And the residents living in them could not be described as "poor".

Market solutions

Analysts are quick to offer market solutions to Cuba's housing crisis. Many believe that if the Cuban economy was liberalised, people would take care of their own housing by investing in a commodity that is considered an investment, not a basic right. They point out that much of the decay and neglect evident in Havana's architecture would be taken care of by investors, who could turn some of the scenic seafront property into luxury condominiums and hotels.

Yet, experience in many Third World countries has shown that liberalisation also had a down-side. In Nairobi, one of the most capitalist cities south of the Sahara, for instance, the disparity between the rich and poor has grown significantly since the economy was liberalised and since the government withdrew from providing subsidised or affordable housing to low-income groups. As result, 60 per cent of the city's population today lives in slums that occupy less than 5 per cent of the total land in the city. Meanwhile, the real estate market is highly lucrative, catering mainly to the rich, who seem to only be getting richer.

And despite the state of some of its infrastructure and housing, if seen purely from a developmental angle, Cuba has done quite well for itself in several areas. Prior to the socialist revolution of 1959, government expenditures were concentrated mainly in and around the capital Havana and the provincial cities. Rural housing was basic. According to the 1953 census, only 2 per cent of rural houses had piped water, 43 per cent had no electricity and 54 per cent had no access to sanitation.

After the revolution, the government introduced agrarian and urban reforms under which peasants were given ownership of land, and urban shantytowns were replaced by apartment blocks. The Urban Reform Law of 14 October 1960 gave ownership of rented properties to their occupiers and decreed that no household would pay more than 10 per cent of its income towards rent. Evictions for non-payment of rent were made illegal. As a result, 85 per cent of Cubans own their own homes and homelessness is virtually unknown. Almost all houses and apartments on the island have electricity and access to water.

Moral force

It is hard to see how Cuba's economy, based largely on its sugar and tobacco industries, will sustain its housing programme, given that the US embargo is still in force, and the country faces increasing isolation in a post-Communist world. However, the sheer moral force of Castro's revolution may be enough to keep Cubans afloat. There are plenty of Cubans deeply committed to the ideals of the revolution and are willing to do without many things to sustain it.

Silvia Cintas, an architect with the Architects in the Community Programme, is one such person. Silvia's father returned to Cuba from Chicago, USA in the 1960s, because he felt he would have a better chance at a decent life in socialist Cuba than in capitalist America, where he worked as a hot dog vendor. Silvia thinks it's the best decision he ever made.

"Look at me," she said. "I don't have a car or a personal computer. I don't have many things. But I have security. I have an education and even my teeth are taken care of by the government? What else could I need?"

Rasna Warah, a freelance writer based in Nairobi, Kenya, is the former editor of Habitat Debate, a UN-HABITAT periodical.