Swap shop: Where a beach-front house can be (almost) yours for a snip
Feb 3rd 2011 | HAVANA
CUBA’S government likes to crow that over 85% of Cubans own their homes. The claim is technically correct. However, there is a catch: holding title to a property does not give you the right to sell it. The only legal way to move in Cuba is by swapping residences—a slow, bureaucratic and often corrupt process known as the permuta (“exchange”), which requires finding two roughly similar properties and getting state approval. To avoid this hassle, some Cubans prefer to marry the owner of a property, transfer the deed, and divorce.
Because there is no incentive to build new homes, Cuba suffers from a dire housing shortage. Many buildings have been repeatedly subdivided. In some families three generations share one bedroom.
After replacing his brother as president in 2008, Raúl Castro has legalised and taxed bits of Cuba’s informal economy, like pirated DVDs and used furniture. Now he has turned to housing. In 2010 the government relaxed rules on forming building companies and buying building materials. It is preparing to let foreigners buy property in tourist zones. And in April the Communist Party Congress is expected to allow Cubans to “buy, sell, or swap” their homes.Havana’s Housing Market, circa 2002: Arranging “Permutas” on Paseo del Prado, Photo by Arch Ritter
The effect of these measures may be limited. Most permutas already involve money under the table—ranging from a few thousand dollars to $40,000 for a smart three-bedroom flat. The market will be heavily regulated: officials say they will ban the (as yet undefined) “accumulation” of property. And buyers may be discouraged if they have to prove that their money did not come from the vast black market.
Even so, allowing selling is risky. It will raise tax revenues, but could belie Cuba’s myth of material equality. If too many luxury homes pop up, the poor may further doubt that America’s trade embargo is the cause of their misery. Already a cluster of sea-front houses west of Havana, acquired via permuta by pop stars and foreigners, is getting its first lick of paint in decades.
The market will probably benefit from Barack Obama’s loosening of the embargo. He has relaxed most limits on visits and remittances, which should increase demand for Cuban homes and the amount buyers can pay. Some Cuban-Americans are even considering returning for retirement. “Now is the time to move”, says Ada Fuentes, who recently came back to Havana after 49 years in New Jersey. “If you have money, life’s good here”.