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Havana is collapsing

The collapse at Amistad and San Miguel is a manifestation of a policy that has failed in every way.

La Habana

In the municipality of Centro Habana, which for years has witnessed buildings collapse, what happened at the corner of Amistad and San Miguel, in the neighborhood of Colón, did not constitute news because of the collapse itself, but rather because there were no fatalities as a result of it.

In the early hours of Tuesday, April 18 the old building, about to turn 100 years old, and home to more than 100 families, gave way.  It is now to be condemned. The building's staircase caved in, from the third floor on down, while the residents on the fifth to the tenth levels were trapped. To make matters worse, the staircase between floors five and six was separated from the wall, and the elevator had been out of commission for years. 

Because of the fates suffered by people facing similar situations, several of the occupants were initially reluctant to abandon the building. They are now being evicted, from the upper floors to the lower ones, and relocated to dwellings and houses located in other parts of the city. Until last Sunday, 11 days after the collapse, residents on the ninth and tenth floors had been relocated, and they were in the process of emptying the eighth floor. Work will continue in the coming days to complete the eviction of all the building's occupants.

What happened in Centro Habana is an indication of a national tragedy. Going back to the last century, population growth made housing a major problem to be addressed. In Havana, in parallel to the buildings erected in the center of the city, several urban developments were completed in Pogolotti, Boyeros, Luyanó and Guanabacoa, but this significant construction effort proved insufficient.

From 1946 to 1953 an average of 26.827 new homes were built yearly. Between 1945 and 1958 —the period of the most construction activity before 1959— housing featuring good or acceptable levels of quality could only satisfy one third of the demand, due to the population growth. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the housing deficit up until 1959 came to more than 700.000 homes.

A promise of the Revolution

In 1953 Fidel Castro, contending that history would absolve him, stated that "a revolutionary Government would solve the housing problem by demolishing the hellish tenements and erecting modern buildings with many floors, and financing the construction of houses on the Island on a scale never seen...".

With this intent, the government that assumed power in 1959 drew up a series of plans, which, in their revolutionary/military jargon, they dubbed the "battle for housing." The first of these plans, from 1960 to 1970, called for 32.000 apartments annually, but the figure of 11.000 was, ultimately, not surpassed.  The second plan, from 1971 to 1980, raised the target to about 38.000 per year, but they were unable to construct even 17.000. To make up for this performance, in 1981 it was proposed to build 100.000 houses annually, but for 25 years they failed to exceed 40.000.

If to meet the demands of population growth some 50.000 homes annually are needed, and to gradually redress the preceding deficit another 50.000 are required, it is necessary to build some 100.000 per year. That seems to have been the calculation used by Carlos Lage Dávila when he proposed a second plan for 100.000 homes. According to him, due to the improvement in the country's financial performance, they were going to "build and finish no less than 100.000 new homes per year as of 2006."

But these figures were never realized either. In 2008, it was announced that instead of 100.000, only 52.000 homes would be built. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, however, that year about 45.000 were built; in 2009, about 34.000; in 2012, just over 32.000; and in the year 2013 there were fewer than 26.000 homes built. 

Then, on July 15, 2015, at the 5th Regular Session of the National Assembly of the People's Power, it was reported that GDP was up 4,7% in the first half of the year. However, only about 30.000 homes would be built that year.

A conservative estimate now indicates a deficit in excess of one million homes, mitigated by the more than two million Cubans who have left the country since 1959. Almost six decades after the "battle for housing" began, the situation is worsening, and remains a hurdle to be overcome. Tens of thousands of buildings are in poor condition or occupy deficient properties. Tens of thousands of families have been relocated "temporarily," while as many others inhabit buildings in danger of collapsing, like the one that just did in Centro Habana.

No more shelters

A few months ago in the "Papelitos Hablan" section on the television program Hola Habana, José Alejandro Rodríguez showed a video in which Ciudad Habana's Shelters Director provided the following data: there are 35.000 family units totaling 116.000 people (a figure similar to the population of Matanzas) living in 120 shelters, and another 34.000 poorly built housing developments are in need of shelters. Of the 35.000 family units housed, 5.292 live in 585 adapted facilities. The average stay in shelters is 20 years.

In light of this situation, the Government decided not to build more shelters, instead undertaking a plan for the refurbishment of buildings and the construction of "low cost" (i.e. very low quality) housing. But, to rectify a situation 40 years in the making, said the Director, they need to build some 2.000 homes annually, while to date they have only been finishing about 160.

Hence, the population's growth, the ageing of the country's available housing, its deterioration due to shoddy maintenance, the nine powerful hurricanes that hit the country between 2001 and 2016, the repeated collapses, slow pace of construction, citizens' lack of mobility, and irresponsibility of many Cubans, have generated a scenario that only gets worse over time, expands geographically, cuts off possibilities for young people of age to marry, and swells the ranks of those who decide to leave the country.

Between the 16 years from December 5, 2001, when the building located at the Calle Águila 558 collapsed, until April 18, 2017, when that at San Miguel and Amistad did, both in Centro Habana, too many Cubans have been left dead or wounded; men and women, young and old alike, and thousands of families have ended up staying in ramshackle hostels for a good part of their lives.

The State must be part of the solution, but in collaboration with those in need, who lack the autonomy necessary to create small and medium-sized companies for the production and sale of construction materials, repairs, transport, and alternative financing. And these are shortcomings that amount to an insurmountable obstacle to solving or alleviating the housing crisis. Also required are multidisciplinary studies on the psychological, sociological and demographic factors involved; the creation of a new governing body at the Ministry level; and the creation and implementation of the appropriate policies and institutions.

A new housing policy is essential, whose central axis must be a harmonious balance between social justice, individual and social interests, freedom, and the possibility of participation. In short, the State and society working together.

The choice is clear: the State must promote and respect personal autonomy and freedom while fomenting public participation, in a parallel and subsidiary way. If it chooses to continue to take charge of everything, it will only paralyze its people's potential, and this national tragedy will go on.

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