In Havana, the purchase and sale of private property became legal just six months ago. Here's how it's changing the look of the city.

The legalization last November of the purchase and sale of private property in Cuba eroded the appeal of the once all-important permuta — the bureaucratic process of swapping supposedly equivalent dwellings, usually equalized by wads of under-the-table cash.

Although the permuta still exists, and has even been cleared of some of its red tape, few would argue for its use instead of clean and easy property sales, and frenzied reports of an emerging real estate boom in Havana evidence the fact. What’s also becoming clear is that these reforms promise to indelibly change where and how people live in a city that’s renowned for being suspended in time.

Living and working as a journalist in Havana in 2009 to 2010, I hosted a radio show that explored some of the permuta’s more positive consequences: ingeniously subdivided houses, generations of families under one roof, architectural gems unchanged since 1959. Just behind Old Havana’s Plaza de Armas, beyond the Disneyland time capsule that is the city’s tourist corridor, I interviewed a man named Luis who had meticulously restored his wife’s family’s 1717 colonial home. He financed the project by renting out one of its rooms and was faithful to original plans for the building, which he deduced by reading tomes on historical plans in bookstores. “I don’t like innovations,” he told me, shaking his head.

A few blocks away, I visited a 30-something woman from the countryside who had built a pizza parlor and apartment in the ground-floor storage closet of a nineteenth-century building. She sat on a hand-made concrete staircase tiled with a mismatched mosaic and told me about her plot to stay in the tiny hut, where she lived illegally but protected by her neighbors. She wanted her son to grow up in the capital.

I spent an afternoon drinking coffee with Aydée, the oldest dweller of a stately downtown house built in 1905. Aydée had come to Havana in 1958 to work as a maid and rented a room in what had once been a single-family home; when her landlords left for Miami, she and her husband bought their hovel from the government for pennies. By the time I met her, the house had been subdivided by permutas; four different but very united families lived in it. With no children of her own, Aydée spoke tenderly of the house’s youngest inhabitants.

Later, I visited a modernist house by Cuban architect Frank Martínez that recently appeared in the new book, Great Homes of Havana. The lofted structure, a visual descendant of Le Corbusier, stands atop a hill that overlooks a slim ravine and has cantilevered stairs, a terrace that stretches the length of the house, and Miami blinds that open up to the jungle in back. Its owner, the grandson of one of the two sisters for whom Martínez designed the home, told me that apart from basic maintenance, there was nothing he’d ever do to change the house. While some houses grew and morphed, others were fastidiously preserved by the consistence of their owners.

Red tape and economic difficulties are, for better and for worse, part of what has given Havana its time-warp aesthetic texture as well as its diverse, blended neighborhoods. Today, people like Aydée and Luis are no longer forced to stay in the same homes they and their families acquired years ago. “It’s a personal decision now,” says Orlando Inclán, director of urban design at the Office of the Historian of Havana. “Everyone can decide his own destiny. There are people who will never leave their homes, because their families are nearby, they love their neighborhoods — and there are people who will choose to sell.”

Legalized purchase of property has yet to make life very different than it was under the permuta system, it turns out. The market for purchasing homes in Havana is still small, limited to locals who’ve made money (whether legally or less so) or those with family abroad willing to put up significant sums of cash. There’s also little infrastructure to organize the new industry — real estate agents, like the black-market ‘facilitators’ who help to organize permutas, are still illegal in the eyes of Cuban law, and prices are set more by intuition than science. But Revolico and Cubisima, two websites that offer classified listings to Cubans, are booming. A typical day on Revolico sees between 300 and 400 posts announcing properties for sale, with prices that average between $10,000 and $50,000. Web traffic to Cubisima tripled with the law’s enactment on November 10, reports its webmaster. The purchase and sale of property in Havana is only just starting to speed up the process of gentrification that the permuta initially set in motion: from now on, some neighborhoods will become more uniformly affluent and well-kept.

The biggest visible change to Havana’s urban fabric so far has come from the cuenta-propistas, the self-employed entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of new licenses to open cafes, hair salons, small shops, and more. “The new businesses are opening in droves, and they’re fixing, painting, and generally changing the city’s appearance, for good and for bad,” says Inclán.

Cubisima’s web traffic stats show that pageviews from the U.S., Spain, and Italy now outnumber hits from Cuba on home listings, so it’s likely only a matter of time before less subtle changes begin to show themselves. In certain neighborhoods, it’s already begun: posh Miramar, with its proximity to the ocean and its elegant mansions, is attracting a more traditional, moneyed Cuban and exile set, while well-off artists are claiming modernist homes in inland Nuevo Vedado.

Cuba’s reforms simplify how houses are bought, sold, and inhabited, a real break with the solutions conceived under the old system. With just a little more time and money, Havana’s urban culture is headed for its first real transformation in 50 years.

All photos by Desmond Boylan/Reuters

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