Havana, Cuba

by Mario Coyula Cowley and Jill Hamberg


The forced concentration of peasants around major Cuban cities in 1896 in order to cut their aid to Cuban patriots can be considered as the cause of contemporary squatter settlements. These settlements grew throughout the first half of the 20th century after Cuba’s independence from Spain. During 1960 to 1961, the largest and worst shantytowns were demolished and their residents built housing through self-help and mutual aid. The remaining shantytowns –formerly called barrios de indigentes (indigent neighbourhoods) – were renamed ‘unhealthy neighbourhoods’ to make clear that the issue was the quality of the housing and settlements, not the economic or social status of their residents. A second small wave of shantytown clearance and replacement occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of the creation of the ‘Havana Green Belt’. But aside from those efforts, shantytowns were largely ignored in the belief that a rapid new construction would replace them. Nevertheless, many shantytowns continued to grow and new settlements formed. By 1987, Havana had 15,975 units in shantytowns (less than 3 per cent of all Havana dwellings). By 2001, the city had 60 barrios and 114 focos insalubres, with a total of 21,552 units, representing one quarter of such units nationally. This 50 per cent growth was seen as the result of an increase in net migration to Havana, especially from the less developed eastern provinces.

Inner-city tenements are large mansions, boarding houses or hotels that are subdivided into single-room units, or multifamily dwellings originally built for workers with single-room units built around courtyards or along narrow alleys or passage ways. Most were built more than 70 years ago and have deteriorated substantially. In 2001, more than 60,000 units were located in tenements.

The generic term ‘slum’ (tugurio) is seldom used in Cuba. Substandard housing is, instead, described by housing type and conditions, building materials and settlement type. Most slum units are concentrated in the inner-city municipalities of Old Havana and Centro Habana and neighbourhoods such as Atarés, whereas shantytowns are at the urban periphery or along rivers, creeks and former railway lines.

The Cuban government regards three housing types as inherently substandard:

Tenements: the typical inner-city slum dwelling is in a tenement, usually a single room with shared bathing and sanitary facilities, although often upgraded and expanded to include indoor plumbing. Indeed, according to the 1981 census, 44 per cent of tenements had indoor water and that number continued to increase during the following two decades. Nevertheless, such additions are mostly done at the expense of scarce open space, natural light and ventilation. The great majority of these rooms are located in older multifamily buildings in central areas of Havana.

Bohíos: thatched-roof shacks, once common in rural areas, are now almost non-existent in Havana.

Improvised housing: these comprise dwelling units that are primarily built of scrap material. In 1996, there were 3574 units located in shantytowns that were categorized as ‘improvised’.

Other types
: a small but significant number of occupied units were converted from non-residential uses (stores, garages and warehouses). With the drop in tourism after the revolution, most of the cheap hotels and boarding houses became permanent dwellings. In 1981, some 34,000 units (6.5 per cent of the total) had been adapted from nonresidential uses. Of these, two-fifths became ‘houses’, nearly one third became tenements and the rest were apartments.

Shantytowns consist of these substandard types of units, as well as many that have been upgraded to acceptable housing but remain within a settlement still considered a shantytown.

Following the 1959 revolution, all evictions were stopped and rents were reduced by 30 to 50 per cent, and land speculation was eliminated. The Urban Reform Law established the concept of housing as a public service and established two basic tenure forms: ownership and longterm leasehold of government-owned units, while prohibiting most private renting.12 Most tenants became homeowners, amortizing the price of units with their rents. Residents of slum housing remained as long-term leaseholders but, by the mid 1960s, no longer paid rent. Beginning in 1961, the government built housing and provided occupants with lifetime leases at rents of about 10 per cent of family income.

The most recent shantytown growth occurred during the 1990s in order to absorb a growing number of new migrants to the city. Inner-city tenements continued to deteriorate and, during the 1990s, between two and four total or partial building collapses a day occurred in the city.

The greatest concentration of the worst housing conditions is found in five municipalities – Old Havana, Arroyo Naranjo, Centro Habana, San Miguel and 10 de Octubre – which together have two-thirds of all units in poor condition. These municipalities also have the highest proportions of units in fair and poor condition, with Old Havana having two-thirds and the others having 40 to 47 per cent.

In market economies, most of the poor live in slums and most slum dwellers are poor. However, in Cuba, this occurs less frequently because of relative tenure security, generally low-cost or free housing, and the restricted legal housing and land markets (despite the growth in informal ones). Moreover, people living in substandard housing have access to the same education, health care, job opportunities and social security as those who live in formerly privileged neighbourhoods. Cuban slums are quite socially diverse, and poverty is relatively dispersed.

The 1960s’ sweeping policies also included urban reform, with housing legislation affecting nearly all urban residents through the distribution of vacant units, innovative construction programmes reaching small numbers of urban and rural households, and assistance to private builders. Urban and regional policies of the early 1960s were largely followed for the next quarter century and were designed to:

promote balanced regional growth, including designated growth poles;

diminish urban–rural differences by improving rural living conditions;

develop a network of urban and rural settlements of different sizes and functions; and

ensure rational land use through comprehensive urban planning.

At least until the early 1990s, these policies were largely successful, although there were contradictions and problems in achieving rational land use and in stabilizing the rural labour force. Despite fleeting anti-urban rhetoric during the late 1960s, Cuba sought to increase the urban proportion of its population, reaching 75 per cent by 2000.

The Cuban government has been notable for its commitment to devoting a large share of its resources to social needs. Long-standing policies that target more vulnerable populations have mitigated the effects of various crises, but have not been able to completely counteract centuries of inherited deficiencies and inequalities. Moreover, some argue that economic reform policies that helped to revive the economy also contributed to making life more difficult for at-risk sectors. Several decades of neglect of Havana have led to the increased deterioration of a large section of the housing stock and infrastructure. Strongly centralized policies and persistent shortages of building materials have made residents’ initiatives to address their own community housing problems more difficult, while vertical planning made it more difficult to coordinate development strategies at the community level.
This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh