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Posted July 18, 2007 by publisher in Cuban Architecture

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In Cuba, it often takes cash to swap homes

Ray Sanchez | Sun Sentinel

Havana For two weeks, Elizabeth Miller has been walking from her run-down apartment to the unofficial housing swap along the capital’s majestic Prado boulevard.

“In Cuba, you can’t just pick up and move,” she said. “Here you die where you lived all your life, even if you have problems with your next-door neighbor.”

Miller’s problem, she said, is her teenaged daughter’s boyfriend, who lives a few doors from her crumbling Old Havana tenement.

“He threatened to kill me,” she said of her daughter’s partner. “I had a heart attack five years back. I can’t keep arguing. My doctor said to get away.”

By law, Cubans cannot sell their homes. In socialist Cuba, where nearly all property is state controlled, only government-approved exchanges between homeowners are permitted. In theory, Cubans can only swap comparable properties. In practice, a sophisticated black market for permutas, or house exchanges, thrives in an overcrowded and trying city where housing is scarce.

Miller, a 55-year-old bank worker, was among dozens of Havana residents gathered in the shade of towering Spanish laurel trees along the Prado the other day, hoping to swap apartments in complicated transactions that usually involve cash. Some carry hand-drawn floor plans of their homes while notebook-carrying brokers, known as corredores, peddle addresses and offer to facilitate swaps for a fee.

“I’ve seen seven apartments and none worked for me,” said Miller, who is eager to trade her tiny one-room flat for a similar one elsewhere. “The places were either falling apart or too small. Some apartments had collective bathrooms. Most times the places were worse than where I live.”

Finding a new home in socialist Cuba is hardest in Havana, which occupies less than one percent of the country’s territory but is home to about 20 percent (2.2 million people) of the island’s 11 million inhabitants. Last year, Cuban authorities spent nearly $300 million on the construction of 110,000 new homes, according to the state-run press. Still, there is a severe housing shortage with a deficit of about half a million homes. More than 40 percent of Cubans live in housing listed in “average-to-poor” condition, according to a Cuban government study.

Along the Prado, a man asked Miller: “Que permuta,” or “What are you exchanging?”

“A permuta to Venezuela,” she joked, adding quickly, “One room.”

The man turned away. Outside of the Prado’s housing swap, Cubans looking for an available house have few options. Real estate agents cater only to foreigners. The state-run newspapers carry no classified housing ads. And a computerized listing service run by the state is unreliable and outdated, according to Miller and other users.


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