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Strolling through Havana’s historic city center during a recent vacation in Cuba, I was intrigued by the two contrasting worlds that coexist in this place. In the beautifully restored parts of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), tourists and street artists fill cobbled streets, and countless restaurants advertise Caribbean delicacies in bilingual menus. Only a couple of steps away, however, lie the timeworn blocks that the restoration efforts have not reached yet. Torn streets are lined by crumbling buildings with laundry hanging from the balconies. Fresh fruit and little pizzas are sold on the sides and Reggaeton booms through the open doors and windows of people’s living rooms. Even though I had heard about it, this contrast still surprised me. That’s why I decided to find out more about Old Havana’s decay and renewal, and how it affects its residents.
Soon I learned that the crumbling parts of Habana Vieja face an intricate housing and infrastructure challenge. On average, one or two buildings partially collapse every day and remind the quarter’s more than 87,000 inhabitants of the seriousness of Cuba’s housing shortage. According to official estimates, 600,000 additional homes are needed to adequately house Cuba’s residents. In particularly crowded Habana Vieja, sometimes 60 families or more live together in so-called cuarterías, sharing the facilities of historical buildings that were originally built as mansions or hotels.
At the root of Old Havana’s deterioration lie the economic restrictions that Cuba has faced in the last decades. While these restrictions protected the historical buildings from being replaced by new constructions, they also hindered maintenance—already a struggle in the face of a burning sun, strong winds, and the relentless sea. Not only have the materials needed to make repairs and upgrades been scarce. Also the incentives for maintaining the historic center have proven to be a challenge.
After 1959, real estate ownership was reformed in Cuba and rent payments were capped at 10% of family income. Decent housing became a citizen’s right, with the ambition to ultimately provide it for free. While many renters eventually became homeowners, residents of cuarterías were given free long-term leases. This made life easier for many citizens, but ambiguous maintenance responsibilities, together with the lack of materials, credit lines, and subsidies for repairs, led to the deterioration of Havana’s historic city center.
Things dramatically changed when Havana’s City Historian Eusebio Leal convinced the government in the early 1990s to provide his office with unprecedented rights to generate its own revenue, especially from tourism. In less than ten years, the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana (OHCH) built a network of enterprises that eventually included over a dozen hotels, several restaurants, and museums, making profits of $23 million in 2011 alone. With these funds, the OHCH started financing additional restoration projects to preserve historical sights, improve housing conditions, and create facilities for tourism.
Besides the activities of the OHCH, there are other dynamics that are changing Old Havana. Recent reforms to stimulate private entrepreneurship and the housing market provided citizens with incentives and resources to take better care of their homes. Since 1993, Cubans have been allowed to run small businesses. With tourism being the most accessible source of hard currency, it is not surprising that family-run restaurants (paladares) and lodging (casas particulares) sprang up like mushrooms. In 2011, the housing market was also reformed. A new law allowed Cubans to buy and sell houses as long as they owned only one city home at a time. Until then, homes could only be swapped, a rather cumbersome process. Given the opportunities that thus arise from engaging in tourism and real estate, homeowners now have stronger incentives than ever to maintain their properties.
Of course, Old Havana’s revitalization holds challenges. The most notable one is the constant balancing act between renewing the city center and preserving people’s livelihoods. Once an old building has been restored by the OHCH, it provides improved conditions for its residents. However, it can no longer accommodate the same number of people without violating reasonable building codes. Not all former inhabitants can move back in – some have to leave the historic center. Also the increasing number of tourists puts pressure on housing. Critical voices say that especially in the light of the new real estate market, gentrification might be unavoidable.
For these reasons, keeping citizens and their jobs in Old Havana to preserve the social fabric is a priority for the OHCH. This is why it invests around half of its profits in social projects such as building schools and hospitals. The vision is a comprehensive restoration that constitutes, in the words of a former OHCH employee, “a renaissance in every aspect of the life of the city, not just stone, wood and plaster”.