Cuba home woes endure despite real-estate reform

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In this Jan. 27, 2014 photo, buildings line the waterfront esplanade known as the Malecon as seen from the Morro Castle in Havana, Cuba. When President Raul Castro legalized a real estate market for the first time in five decades, it was expected to stimulate both new construction and maintenance of existing homes. But 2 ½ years later, there’s only been a minimal impact on easing one of Cuba’s biggest challenges: a chronic lack of suitable housing. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

In this Jan. 27, 2014 photo, buildings line the waterfront esplanade known as the Malecon as seen from the Morro Castle in Havana, Cuba. When President Raul Castro legalized a real estate market for the first time in five decades, it was expected to stimulate both new construction and maintenance of existing homes. But 2 ½ years later, there’s only been a minimal impact on easing one of Cuba’s biggest challenges: a chronic lack of suitable housing. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

In this April 12, 2014 photo, people talk on the doorstep of their house in Havana, Cuba. Official government statistics show new construction has actually declined since Raul Castro assumed the presidency from his older brother Fidel in 2008. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

In this March 7, 2014 photo, a woman sitting on a chair waits in a street of Havana, Cuba, to be informed of where she will be relocated after the building where she lived was vacated due to the danger of collapse after the structure failed. Despite reforms in recent years to address the island’s housing problem, such building collapses remain common in Cuba, where decades of neglect and a dearth of new apartments has left untold thousands of islanders living in crowded structures at risk of suddenly falling down. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

In this March 7, 2014 photo, Anaidis Ramirez lies on a bed with his belongings as he waits to be informed of where he will be relocated after the building where he lived was vacated due to the danger of collapse after the structure failed. Despite reforms in recent years to address the island’s housing problem, such building collapses remain common in Cuba, where decades of neglect and a dearth of new apartments has left untold thousands of islanders living in crowded structures at risk of suddenly falling down. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

In this April 10, 2014 photo, Lazaro Marquez, holds his daughter at his home in Havana, Cuba. Marquez and his family live in a substandard apartment whose ceiling leaks wastewater every time the family upstairs flushes the toilet. To leave the home, his daughter, who is paralyzed and unable to talk, must be carried in her wheelchair down precarious stairs on the verge of caving in. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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HAVANA (AP) — The residents of 308 Oquendo Street were jolted awake in the middle of the night by violent shaking and a noise that they likened to a freight train, or an exploding bomb.

Part of their building’s seventh floor had collapsed into the interior patio, heavily damaging apartments on the floors below. No one died, but the 120 families living in the building were left homeless.

Despite reforms in recent years to address the island’s housing problem, such building collapses remain common in Cuba, where decades of neglect and a dearth of new home construction have left untold thousands of islanders living in crowded structures at risk of suddenly falling down.

When President Raul Castro legalized a real estate market for the first time in five decades, it was supposed to stimulate both new construction and maintenance of existing homes. But 2½ years later, there has been only a minimal impact on easing one of Cuba’s biggest challenges: a chronic lack of suitable housing.

“We are very worried. The housing situation is critical in Cuba,” said Anaidis Ramirez, among those displaced by the Feb. 28 building collapse in the densely populated Central Havana neighborhood.

Ramirez and dozens of other neighbors camped out for weeks on sidewalks and in a nearby parking garage to press authorities to find them decent homes. Some went to stay with relatives, while others found housing in cramped government shelters where families can be trapped for years until a permanent home opens up.

Cuba, a country of about 11 million people, lacks around 500,000 housing units to adequately meet the needs of the island’s citizens, according to the most recent government numbers from 2010. The housing deficit widens each year as more buildings fall further into disrepair, punished year-round by the tropical sun, sea and wind.

Sergio Diaz-Briquets, a U.S.-based demographer who has written about the island’s housing deficit, estimated the figure is now somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million.

And, he said, adding in the existing units that are structurally unsound or otherwise unfit for occupancy, the true deficit “could be even greater.”

In tandem with legalizing the real estate market, authorities are trying to tackle the problem by handing over warehouses, former retail spaces and other underused buildings to be converted into housing. They also created construction subsidies for Cubans looking to repair or expand existing homes.

Angel Vilaragut, a senior official in the Ministry of Construction, told The Associated Press recently that the subsidies and other measures mark a policy change from the days when the state shouldered nearly all responsibility for its citizens’ housing.

“It is about seeking solutions to the problem we have today with housing,” Vilaragut said. “There has not been a halt to the construction of homes by the state. … The intention is for the people to have access to materials” such as cement and concrete blocks to do their own building and improvements.

Around Havana, Cubans can be seen taking advantage of the materials now available as they add second stories to homes, enclose balconies to create extra rooms or throw on a fresh coat of paint.

While helpful to individual families, such efforts are piecemeal

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