For many years, Cuba’s National Housing Institute (Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda – INV) has been at the forefront of the island’s quest to ‘rationalize’ and give some agility to the processes that, under Cuba’s often-Kafkaesque laws, a Cuban in the island must follow to strengthen and prove his or her rights over a housing unit.
I use the word ‘rationalize’ with the greatest care, since I am aware that many in Cuba view our recipe for dealing with the housing needs of those less powerful and wealthy in our communities very irrational, and South Florida’s situation is emblematic in support of those views.
I use it with the same care and for the same reasons I avoid using “property rights” when I refer to any Cuban’s rights over his or her housing unit, preferring the use of “housing rights” to describe the legal relationship between a Cuban and his or her place of abode.
Cuba’s INV and the two housing laws (Ley General de la Vivienda) that have historically been used to manage Cuba’s housing stock during the Revolutionary period –often under the direction of some of the brightest legal minds Cuba has had during that same period of its history- seem to be heading in the direction military icons are said to take: they may never die, but they seem to be “just fading away”.
This fading act may hint at good news ahead, the kind of news that may, finally, allow me to see a Cuban’s right over his or her housing unit as an outright “property right”, even if not exactly the same as what we call a “private property right” in our part of the world. I am aware the series of innovative measures taken by the Cuban Government over the past few years, many of them after open consultation with Cuba’s people, are not aimed at abandoning the socialist socio-economic model, so I am not expecting (as so many delusional “experts” in Miami are) that to happen. But it is my belief that the more characteristics Cuba’s “real property rights” share with ours, the more benefit Cuba’s real property “owners” will be able to extract from their real estate asset (and thus far it is one single asset we are talking about: Cubans still can have / “own” one single house, the one they live in, besides a recreational or vacation home which no Cuban I personally know has).
Cuba’s Constitution does not recognize Cubans a right to a dignified housing unit, but it does emphasize the role the State plays in pursuing that goal. Houses, however, are not to be used for lucrative purposes under Cuba’s laws.
The principle under which “a house is meant to live in, not to live off” is still pretty much the rule of law in Cuba, but it has been eroded in recent years by measures such as the authorization given out to those who have rooms to spare in their homes to rent them out to foreign tourists. Another recent tinkering with Cuba’s laws with, potentially, an eroding effect on Cuban homeowners’ inability to use their houses as a source of income or funds, as we do, is found in Decreto Ley 289 / 2011 which authorized Cubans to mortgage their houses to guarantee a loan from an authorized Cuban bank in order to buy the construction materiel or pay a construction crew when they want to build a house or rehabilitate the one they live in. The significance of these two “changes” is highlighted by the fact one of the first measures taken by the Cuban Revolution in this field was to ban mortgages and housing rentals, which was achieved by way of the Urban Reform Law (Ley de Reforma Urbana), 54 years ago, a Law that was given constitutional rank (it was made part of the constitutional framework or Ley Fundamental) by the Cuban revolutionaries.
Now comes Decreto Ley 322 / 2014, effective on January of 2015, which sets aside (“extinguishes” reads the new law) the National Housing Institute and assigns most of its functions to the Construction Ministry (MINCONS) and to the Physical Planning Institute (Instituto de Planificaciòn Fìsica or IPF), without significantly changing the Housing Law or housing policy, which now are to be applied and overseen by the MINCONS.
At first glance, one of the ideas behind these changes appears to be to facilitate and expedite, if not encourage, the individual initiative of Cubans with the resources to build, remodel or enlarge their own houses. The administrative law rules for this type of endeavors are now to be simplified and the processes –for obtaining building licenses, occupation licenses and other administrative authorizations, as well as cadastral valuations for tax purposes, the assignment of state own land to those who want to built a house on it and the certification of land boundaries and the resolution of boundary disputes- are concentrated under the baton of the Physical Planning Institute (IPF).
Provincial and Municipal Housing Offices (Direcciones Provinciales y Municipales de la Vivienda) are preserved, subordinated to the local organs of the Popular Power (organos locales del Poder Popular), but now run by the Construction Ministry, which will have two new dependencies: a Direcciòn General de la Vivienda and the Direcciòn de Asuntos Legales de la Vivienda.
Will the desired flexibility –this is just the latest skirmish against the excessive “administrativizaciòn” of the law and the legal processes in Cuba- be obtained? We will know with time. But there are hints of an opening to more economically oriented and rational approaches; asked recently whether, under the new rules, a Cuban homeowner will be able to rent his house when he is abroad, the Legal Director of the still functioning INV answered with an unqualified YES.