Monday, January 18, 2010

My story on Cuba: Vancouver Sun January 16,2010

Cuba a lesson in residency as a national priority
Michael Geller
Special to the Sun

Canada's deteriorating co-ops and rental housing merit a similar commitment

Alot has been written recently about the need for a national housing policy for Canada and a greater federal role in housing. I thought about this over the holiday season when I visited Cuba for the first time.

While I spent most of my days in Varadero, Cuba's expansive resort area, I also visited the city of Matanzas--often called the "Venice of Cuba" for its many bridges and river crossings -- and Havana. In both Matanzas and Havana, I observed the country's housing challenges and learned about the role played by Castro's government in shaping Cuba's national housing policy over the past five decades.

Opinions about life in Cuba vary considerably, depending on whom you speak to or what you read. Cuba in the 21st century is a country where resources are scarce and life is very difficult, with profound poverty and routine food, electricity and housing shortages.

Or Cuba is a country with virtually no homelessness, little unemployment, free health care and education, and a place where 85 per cent of the residents own their own homes with little or no mortgages. I will not defend Castro's brutal regime or his communist agenda. However, I believe Cuba is a most interesting and worthwhile place to visit, especially now. I also think that Castro's housing programs highlight important issues and lessons for Vancouver and other Canadian cities.

Many Vancouver renters would likely welcome the measures that were put in place following the revolution. In 1959, Castro's government immediately reduced rents by 50 per cent and eliminated a law that forced the eviction of families when they were unable to pay rent.

A year later, the Urban Reform Law converted half the urban tenants into homeowners, and other tenants were given long-term rent-free leases. Some tenants were assigned leases at no more than 10 per cent of household income, which conveyed ownership after 15 to 20 years of payment.

This law also abolished the markets for housing, real estate and land. Individuals were no longer able to sell houses to other citizens; instead, they could only sell them back to the government, which, in turn, resold them. It became illegal for a family to own more than one primary residence and one vacation home.

In subsequent years, the country embarked on three main forms of housing construction: state-sponsored, individual self-help and collective self-help.

The state-sponsored dwellings were initially known for their uniform appearance, materials and layout. Many projects were built using designs and prefabricated construction methods imported from the Soviet Union and were often out of character with their neighbourhoods. For this reason, state-sponsored construction was often criticized, even by Fidel Castro himself.

(It is interesting to note that many of the same criticisms were levelled at the early Canadian public housing projects that were modelled on designs brought over by British architects and planners working for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.)

The government soon recognized it could not meet the housing demand on its own, and in 1970 Castro instituted a program of "microbrigades" to allow workers to build new houses for themselves and their colleagues. The idea behind these "housing co-operatives" was the collective advantage of pooling skills, labour and sites, and many multi-family buildings were constructed in outlying communities.

However, after a few years it became apparent that the workers did not have the necessary skills to build their own homes, and the program was ended. In later years, a new microbrigade program was instituted that focused on renovation and revitalization, as opposed to new multi-family construction. Ten years ago, Castro unveiled a plan to build 150,000 houses every year. The goal was subsequently reduced to 100,000 houses annually, but even that became an impossible objective. It is now estimated that about 15,000 homes are built annually by the government in a country of 11.2 million people. Interestingly, on an annual basis, more houses were constructed from 1930 to 1959 than in the post-revolutionary period between 1959 and today. However, as a result of various government initiatives, it is today claimed that 85 per cent of Cubans own their own homes and pay no property taxes and little if any interest on their mortgages.

Although much of the housing stock is in need of repair, there is virtually no homelessness in the country, other than that involving some mentally ill people who prefer to remain on the streets.

One reason for the poor housing conditions is the weak economy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government turned to tourism as the primary economic generator. Since then, considerable attention has been focused on the Habana Vieja district of Havana, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Although many of the buildings are still in serious states of disrepair, new investments are transforming colonial Old Havana into an attractive and exciting place, with 17th-century palaces converted into hotels, housing and restaurants, practically all state-owned.

Interestingly, a booming black market in real estate is now operating in Cuba, even though the government owns most property. In some places, prices are soaring as property changes hands in a complex, illegal system called "permute."

So what lessons can we learn? Like Castro's government, perhaps we, too, should question whether it is not better for people to own, rather than rent. Cuba is not alone in promoting home ownership.

The U.K. and other countries have implemented innovative programs to help renters become homeowners. I believe there is a need for creative and innovative programs across Canada.

Second, we need to review how best to repair our deteriorating government-funded, co-operatively owned housing stock.

Without some special provisions, many low-income single parents and other households will soon be forced out of older deteriorating housing co-operatives they cannot afford to repair. Third, we need to consider how best to encourage the repair and upgrading of Vancouver's privately owned and aging rental housing stock.


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