Cuba travelogue: housing

Of the many challenges of life in today’s Cuba, housing must rank among the greatest.  There’s not enough of it, much of the available housing stock is in terrible shape, and the Cuban legal code makes it hard to legally transfer ownership — so moving households is a big challenge.

Looking down on Havana

In this shot from above (courtesy of a hotel upper-floor window), you can see how some units were turned into small yards after their roofs collapsed.

Mid-rise housing

Part of the problem is that revolution-era property reforms inadvertently made maintenance of apartment buildings almost impossible.  When Castro and company took over in 1959, people were (for the most part) allowed to keep the space they lived in at the time.  This probably sounded like a fantastic deal for apartment-dwellers who had been renting.

But there’s no such thing as eminent domain in Cuban law, and while you have ownership of your apartment, nobody owns the actual building your apartment is part of, so maintaining the building exterior requires all the occupants to voluntarily chip in for the cost of the work (not likely).

As a result, decrepit buildings like this are hardly exceptional in old Havana.


We had to wonder just how often improvised catwalks like this collapse under someone’s weight.

Nest of wires

And the electrical work — it’s a thing to behold.

Housing in the old town

In the old town, historic buildings get some government help — at least with their exteriors — so they look pretty nice on the outside.  Inside is a different story, though.


Until recently, private citizens were not allowed to buy and sell their homes — so when a couple had kids, the kids (even when grown) couldn’t buy their own places, and so had to stay in their family home.  It’s not uncommon, we were told, for 3 generations to be living under one roof — involuntarily.  In older parts of Havana, where buildings have high ceilings, people make do by building internal lofts to create extra space.  Given the tropical climate and lack of air conditioning, the local nickname for these arrangements is barbacoas (barbecues).

Prefab housing

So given the situation, it’s understandable that Cubans actually think highly of Soviet-style prefabricated housing.  It’s not architecturally distinguished, but it’s cheap and fast to build, and gives many city dwellers a home of their own (that they couldn’t have otherwise).

The rural life

Housing in the country may not be luxurious, but at least it’s more flexible.  Owning a patch of ground allows you to build additional space as the need arises — put up an addition or a whole new building as your family grows.  Sure, it’s improvised, but at least it’s yours.

Suburban housing

On the edges of cities, housing seems to be a mix of the rural and urban styles — built a bit more solidly, but with less land / space for a growing family.


Near Cienfuegos, there’s also this interesting crop of “Petrocasas,” built by the Venezuelan government, and (according to our guide) made from byproducts of the nearby Venezuela-built oil refinery.  I can’t say I’d like to live in a home made from petrochemical byproducts, but given the choices available, I’m guessing it’s an acceptable option to the locals.