On one Havana street, gentrification exposes old inequality
The Associated Press
By CHRISTINE ARMARIO
Posted: Apr. 16, 2016 8:00 am Updated: Apr. 16, 2016 10:17 am
HAVANA (AP) — Halfway down Calle Habana, a crumbling two-story colonial
building is being painstakingly restored by a Cuban-American businessman
who fled as a child after the 1959 revolution. On the corner, brightly
colored paintings hang in a home now converted into a chic art gallery.
Not far away, dozens of people live in a crumbling government tenement
with no running water and wooden stilts holding up what remains of the
Looking at the changes on the cobblestone street in Old Havana, Magaly
Gonzalez Martinez is pleased to see much of the once-decaying
neighborhood get a new coat of paint. But she also worries how the
transformation will impact those living in deteriorating buildings like
her own as a wave of gentrification transforms swaths of Havana,
bringing the inequities of modern real estate to one of the world’s last
“I thought everything should be equal, no?” the 66-year-old retired
construction worker said.
With tourism up nearly 20 percent since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul
Castro ended a half-century of Cold War in December 2014, Cubans with
wealthy friends or family abroad are funneling millions of dollars into
a real estate market that’s suddenly white-hot. They’re snapping up
properties in historic Old Havana and elegant residential neighborhoods
and transforming them into immaculate restored rental properties and hip
bars and restaurants.
In some tourist-flooded neighborhoods the redistribution of wealth that
transformed Cuba after its revolution appears to be rewinding before
people’s eyes. Wealthy Cubans who left to live abroad decades ago are
buying buildings once confiscated from families like theirs. Residents
who had been living hand-to-mouth are selling deteriorating properties
and taking their new fortunes and moving to less sought-after areas, or
leaving the country entirely.
“When I arrived, it was totally different,” said Reinaldo Bordon, 44,
who purchased the Calle Habana property where he runs Habana 61, one of
the city’s top restaurants, with two friends three years ago. “If things
continue at this pace, I think in another 10 years it will change a lot.”
Before Fidel Castro’s revolution, well-heeled Cubans lived in exclusive
Havana neighborhoods like Miramar, while the poor lived in shantytowns.
Providing equal housing was one of the revolution’s first goals. Almost
immediately, evictions were prohibited and rental payments slashed up to
50 percent. Droves of middle- and upper-class Cubans fled, leaving
behind mansions and suburban homes that the state handed out to the
poor. The result was a leveling of Havana’s housing stock, with former
maids and tenants becoming the proprietors of homes now managed by the
In 2011, Cuba announced it would allow people to sell their properties
for the first time since the early years of the revolution. The new law
set into motion what had not formally existed in decades: a Cuban real
estate industry. Cubans living in peeling architectural gems began
placing cardboard signs out front, inscribed with the words, “For Sale.”
Fueled by the post-detente boom in visitors, the resulting property
turnover is moving at high speed in areas like Old Havana, where aging
colonial buildings are being repaired on nearly every block.
On Calle Habana in the small, scenic Old Havana neighborhood known as
Angel Hill, newly painted and restored homes dating back to the early
1900s are quickly beginning to outnumber deteriorating buildings on the
verge of collapse. Those who live in the few still decaying homes are
listing their properties on real estate websites, waiting for the right
buyer to come along and in one financial transaction lift their families
out of decades of poverty.
Though foreigners still cannot purchase property in Cuba, Joel Estevez,
the director of Havana-Houses Real Estate, said about 60 percent of home
purchases in Cuba are financed at least in part by someone abroad.
After Obama and Castro announced plans to restore U.S.-Cuba relations,
the number of Cuban-Americans repatriating in order to purchase property
while maintaining their U.S. citizenship has soared and could double in
the years ahead, Estevez said. In other cases, a foreigner who is
married to a Cuban might purchase a property and put it under a spouse’s
name. The riskiest transactions involve foreigners who have no family
members on the island but purchase a home and put it under the name of a
After scoping out Havana properties over several visits, 70-year-old
retired businessman Jose Angel Valls Cabarrocas settled on a stately but
neglected home on Calle Habana, next to the tenement building.
Cabarrocas and his family fled their Miramar home for Macon, Georgia,
when he was 13.
“We belong here just as much as anybody else,” he said.
The nascent market favors people like Cabarrocas, who despite the
difficulties of transferring cash to Cuba, nonetheless have the capital
on hand to make purchases. With no financing available, the vast
majority of Cubans are left out of the market. The average home price in
Havana is about $25,000, according to real estate statistics collected
by IslaData. The average Cuban state worker earns $20 a month.
“The median home price is very disconnected from what the average Cuban
earns,” said Ricardo Torres Perez, an economist at the University of Havana.
Some Cuba observers wonder if the real estate market will slowly shift
Havana back toward the inequality that characterized it nearly six
Jesus Hermida Franco, 41, an artist who is using the bottom floor of his
family’s home on Calle Habana as a studio, said he doesn’t see it that
way. In his mind, there always remained some degree of inequality and
class division in Cuba. If anything, the market is giving people a shot
who didn’t have one before.
“Thanks to these changes people have been able to realize their dreams,”
he said, then added: “Some people.”
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cearmario
Source: On one Havana street, gentrification exposes old inequality –
New Jersey Herald – – www.njherald.com/article/20160416/AP/304169921#