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:
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.
thatched-roof shacks, once common in rural areas, are now almost
non-existent in Havana.
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
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
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
balanced regional growth, including designated growth poles;
urban–rural differences by improving rural living conditions;
a network of urban and rural settlements of different sizes and
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
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
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',