Cuba making it easier to get home improvement permits
Posted: 15 October 2009 06:10 PM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  992
Joined  2005-11-19

By WILL WEISSERT | Associated Press Writer

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 do-it-yourself projects.

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 says.

“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 builders.

“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 prices.

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.”


Cuba consulting services