Cuba cracks down on unlicensed home improvements
By WILL WEISSERT (AP) – 15 hours ago
HAVANA — Cuba has quietly made it easier to obtain state permission to
build or remodel homes even as it pledges to crack down like never
before on unlicensed residential construction, including routine
A decree enacted this week allows authorities to undo unauthorized home
improvements, sometimes resorting to tearing down exterior walls and new
balconies, or demolishing extra rooms and other additions.
The new law simply clarifies regulations and punishments already widely
enforced in Cuba and expressly directs that offenders not be evicted
altogether. Still, the changes are sure to cause ripples in a country
where decades of underdevelopment have forced Cubans to alter cramped
homes to fit three and sometimes four generations under a single roof.
Cuba's government controls nearly all building materials and
housing-related matters. Permits are a must for exterior alterations,
and even indoor improvements can require a series of approvals, usually
including proof-of-purchase of building materials and proper licenses
for all workers involved.
Still, many Cubans build without the right paperwork.
One Havana retiree who is remodeling her two-story home said the project
was unlicensed — and would stay that way, no matter what the new decree
"This is my house. I have lived here 70 years. I don't need permission
from anybody," said Milagros, who only provided her first name so state
inspectors wouldn't find her.
Her family is erecting a wall that will cut the marble-columned living
room in two to accommodate her two grown sons, their families and a
bedridden, 103-year-old cousin.
A pile of weather-beaten boards litter the front porch of elegant
ceramic tiles. Milagros said a carpenter, who she is paying with money
sent by relatives in the United States, bought the wood under-the-table,
and she prefers not to ask from exactly where.
The 77-year-old said more-detailed housing regulations will mean little
more than more officials looking for bribes.
"Those guys at the Housing Ministry are vultures," Milagros said.
In fact, the new building rules require housing inspectors to report
illegal construction to their superiors right away, in an apparent
effort to discourage bribe-taking, and places some of the onus for
spotting potential construction problems on state contractors.
In the 50 years since Fidel Castro took power, the communist government
has not built enough new homes to keep up with a growing population. The
problem became more acute when the Soviet Union collapsed — taking
billions of dollars in annual subsidies and legions of engineers and
architects with it.
"Of all the problems Cuba faces, housing is one of the worst," said
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became an
anti-communist dissident. "There is a lot of pressure on the population
to find ways to resolve their housing issues, and that would likely
create more violations, not fewer."
In addition to this week's decree, a trio of housing programs enacted to
little fanfare earlier this year aim to make it easier to obtain
building licenses, Housing Ministry officials and state contractors said
in interviews. Espinosa Chepe said he was unfamiliar with those reforms,
but other Cubans said anecdotally that it has become somewhat easier to
obtain repair or remodeling licenses.
A state building contractor who identified himself only as Wilfredo
because he did not feel comfortable having his full name appear in the
foreign press, said his office has noticed a spike in the number of
remodeling projects approved recently, though he had no exact figures.
In the meantime, this week's law is designed get tough with unlicensed
"The objective is to organize and unify measures and halt certain
indiscretions," said Jardines Lugo, a housing ministry legal adviser in
Havana's Playa district, a leafy enclave of wide, if potholed, streets
and gracefully decaying, pastel-colored mansions.
Lugo works out of a closet-sized, un-airconditioned second floor office
decorated only with a painting of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che"
Guevara. The ministry branch occupies a once stately home with high
ceilings and wood shutters in an area where many houses were abandoned
by wealthy families who fled after Castro took power.
Lugo said the new law closes a loophole whereby thousands of Cubans made
home improvements without permission, paid a fine, then finished the job
without ever legalizing the process. He added, however, that it will
give housing inspectors leeway to work with past offenders, helping them
pay additional fines and obtain permits for already completed work —
ensuring it usually won't be necessary to bring in the bulldozers.
"It's making it easier to legalize everything," Lugo said.
There are economic incentives for following the law. Those granted
permission to build can buy timber, cement and other raw materials from
government distributors at subsidized prices, and hire state contractors
who are paid next-to nothing. Anyone building without permission must
obtain all goods and pony up for unlicensed labor at steep black-market
Still, Espinosa Chepe, the dissident economist, said more detailed
regulations may simply lead to more corruption as homeowners pay
authorities to look the other way.
"More inspections, more officials taking money … it could be all that
happens," said Espinosa Chepe, who was arrested in a 2003 roundup of 75
dissidents. He was later granted conditional freedom for health reasons.
Milagros said breaking building codes was inevitable.
"Here, if you wake up and put your feet on the ground, you are
committing a crime. If you have breakfast, that's another crime. Lunch?
That's a crime too," she said.
Other Cubans looking to remodel or throw up new homes in abandoned
buildings or unclaimed lots said they would rather pay higher prices and
run higher risks than even try to obtain permission.
In another part of Playa, a construction crew took a lunch break on the
front porch of a Victorian-style home, accepting sandwiches and juice in
chipped glasses from the family living inside. Bags of cement were piled
haphazardly in the driveway and the beginnings of what could one day be
a balcony rose from the roof.
The owner of the house claimed to have her papers in order but would not
produce them and declined to give her name.
"I got permission years ago, it's just that I've been building very
slowly," she said. "I don't have much else to say."
The Associated Press: Cuba cracks down on unlicensed home improvements
(16 October 2009)