September 11, 2021


Housing plays an integral part in our everyday lives, and has the ”unique capacity to define urban form and the character of the city”  Generally, Social Housing is understood as a residential project for those who could not otherwise afford accommodation, which is either built by the government or a non-governmental organisation. Residents can purchase […]
Housing plays an integral part in our everyday lives, and has the ”unique capacity to define urban form and the character of the city”  Generally, Social Housing is understood as a residential project for those who could not otherwise afford accommodation, which is either built by the government or a non-governmental organisation. Residents can purchase units, rent them at subsidised prices, or be given them. However, the current understanding of social housing is constantly changing. The definition is far removed from its original meaning, and now includes a wider range of residential types. In Europe, the term “social housing” varies across the continent. In Britain it is called “social housing”, in France, “housing at moderate rent” (habitation à loyer modéré), while in Denmark it is “common housing”, Austria “people’s housing”, and in Germany it is called “housing promotion”. The changing views and terminology around social housing shifts with changing politics, “with housing seen as something earned, to being a universal right and back again”. Architects today are reengaging with the topic of social housing, after years of it being marginalised.  

Housing in Latin America

    Housing in Latin America and the Caribbean exhibits a wide range of different living types, as well as various options for owning or renting. As our day-to-day lives change, “we require increasingly varied ways of living,” and our housing stock should reflect that. The global housing market is currently witnessing a disconnect between housing prices and what people can afford.There is a polarisation between those who are wealthy enough to own, and who only get wealthier in doing so, and those who can only afford to rent. According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), 1 in 5 Latin American households, or roughly 30 million families, are renters. This number has been on the rise since the 1990s in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay. Nearly 37% of households (around 54 million families) in Latin America and the Caribbean suffer from issues such as overcrowding, lack of access to basic services, and bad construction. And what is more, some 9 million households are either homeless or live in substandard homes beyond repair. Informal settlements, or ‘favelas’ are common in Latin America and the Caribbean. They are self-built developments on land that is not owned by the residents, and is  typically illegally occupied. They are often built on unsuitable areas, as this is naturally usually the only land left unoccupied within the city. Governments “assume that they must build planned housing to replace the sites with self-built housing”. This is simply not possible. Favelas are part of the urban fabric of our city, and we as architects and planners should simply try and improve the lived reality of their residents. It is the improvement, not replacement of informal settlement that works.   Alternative housing means are becoming increasingly popular around the world. The failure of the private housing market and the limitations in government to provide social housing has resulted in many people taking things into their own hands. These new forms of tenure such as housing co-operatives, community land trusts and co-housing offer a range of opportunities that sit outside typical housing markets. One author states, “There is much to learn from countries such as Germany, and  cities such as Berlin in particular, where co-operative housing forms a significant proportion of all homes and 11% of all city rental housing.” A team of architects wrote an article series on ArchDaily titled Social Housing in Latin America, in which they reflected on the topic of Housing in Latin America, and outlined their propositions for it’s improvement. Some of the topics they touched on in relation to social housing were location, materials, user participation, and examples of successful and unsuccessful social housing schemes. The location of social housing is extremely important. For the urban poor, living in close proximity to the city is vital. A common mistake of social housing developments is that they are often built on marginalised land, when what’s really needed is inner-city housing. “The scarcity of our current age is in land, and particularly land in the right location.”  The construction materials used in housing schemes have an impact on the quality of the project, and vernacular construction methods are a vital part of housing provision in Latin America and the Caribbean. We parrot the phrase ‘modular construction is efficient’, but in a context outside of the western world, this is not always the case.  “The role of people in the design and delivery of social housing has never been more crucial or had so much potential”. Christopher Alexander, famed for his books on pattern language and self-building, saw user participation as the only way to produce architecture that would be loved by its inhabitants. Good social housing is about empowerment. It is about allowing individuals to live how they want, change what they want, and in turn generate an urban fabric that physchologically belongs to them.  The standard housing typologies rolled out by governments across the globe have proved to be inhumane and ultimately unsustainable. “Some mistakes are made simply by inertia: copying wrong solutions because it has become a habit to do so and not identifying viable alternatives.” Why, today, do we still continue to build bad social housing? According to the authors of Social Housing in Latin America, “Most of the time, the problems toward social housing innovations are not technical, social, or financial: they are almost always political.”  According to the authors, “There are many ways of expressing control in architectural and urban terms, and we can find them in all examples of social housing built by the governments [in Latin America]” Ordered, ‘organized’ layouts are easier to control. There is less space for interpretation or change, less space for ambiguity, and less space for discrepencies in fairness. It may not be entirely conscious; many governments believe that this is the only way to create efficient new social housing. But houses laid out in a monotonous, unimaginative grid leave very little room for any sense of individuality. And herein lies the vital question of maintenance. “All living things require ongoing care and repair: it is part of being alive.”. Social housing schemes are often unclear about whose responsibility it is to maintain them. “In Cuba, everything belongs to everyone and no-one at the same time” “When estates do not look cared for, it has a massive impact on people’s perceptions about where they live.” But many homeowners can simply not afford to maintain their homes. In other cases, the government is responsible, buthas failed in the upkeep of these estates.   In the article series mentioned previously, the authors decided to measure success in “human terms”. They consider a project to be successful if it is maintained and loved by its inhabitants. In terms of social housing, we seek to copy or recreate urban environments that have grown and adapted over time. But how do we mimmic what is opportunistic, living, natural, constantly changing? In order to achieve organic complexity, an emerging neighbourhood should be “iterative and determined on site”  Like almost everywhere else in the world, housing is one of the most prominent social problems in Cuba. However, due to its socialist politics, housing policies and provision look very different to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. For the past 50 years, most Cuban households have owned their homes as “personal property”, and renting is much less common than in other countries in the region. Over the last 10 years, the Cuban government has been experimenting with the legalisation of market mechanisms in housing.    

Housing in Cuba

  One author describes the state of housing provision in Cuba as “a sprint between the State’s ability to invest in housing and the growth of never-ending needs.” Certainly, the provision of good housing for all is a dream that even the most wealthy and resourced nations across the world have failed to meet.  And in another Cuban professional’s opinion, “As a socialist, I have given the issue of housing a great deal of thought. I believe that having your own home should be every individual’s choice, but it should be accessible and never a State policy. Many people don’t like to own their own homes and it doesn’t suit them to settle in one specific place. I consider the Cuban government’s take on this issue and many others, feudal in nature.”   It is said that the issue of housing was a poignant factor in the 1959 revolution, and was “one of the first public policy issues addressed by Cuba’s socialist government.” In order to provide decent housing conditions in both urban and rural areas, the Cuban government took on this responsibility as a social service.  Due to the low to middle class living mostly in urban areas, Cuba was, in terms of urbanization, already ahead of other developed Latin American countries. The majority of its housing stock built before the 1959 revolution was located in urban areas. However, even then housing conditions were still insufficient, especially in the countryside where people lived in “bohios” (thatched roof shacks that were once common in rural areas) and in inner city tenements or shantytowns of urban peripheries. The model of social housing that emerged from 20th century Europe has been implemented in the Cuban context, as is evident in the uniform standards of socialist design featured in Cuban housing built during the second half of the 20th century.  In 1960 the government established the Urban Reform Law, which stated that “housing is for people to live in, not to live from”, and with this put a stop to all renting. Through this policy shift, many Cuban renters became homeowners by gradually writing off the cost of their home through paid rent. Landlords were compensated with either a lump sum payment or a monthly payment for the rest of their lives; the choice was theirs. The first decade of Social Housing in Cuba employed industrial construction methods in order to provide adequate and affordable housing in a fast paced and mass-implemented manner.  The priority was given to improving living conditions in rural areas and urban peripheries, such as shantytowns. ‘The Self-help and Mutual Aid Program’ by the Ministry of Social Welfare in 1960 proposed the clearance of shantytowns in urban peripheries in order to build new rural towns. Between 1959-70, 214 new rural villages with 41,755 dwellings were constructed.   In 1969 an experimental prototype of a lightweight prefabricated housing system, Multiflex, was built in the southern outskirts of Havana. The experimentation was the realisation of the dream of prefabricated construction that was born in Cuba in the 60s.  In the beginning of 1970s, the lightweight prefabrication programme dwindled because of the increasingly popular panel system contributed by Soviet Union. This heavy prefabricated construction system was used to build many typical prismatic blocks, up to three or four storeys in height. This construction system sparked the creation of Microbrigadas. Microbrigadas  were a form of collective self-help participation, involving future residents as construction workers with strong governmental support by means of building materials and equipment. 65% of all new dwellings in the 70s were built in this way. Even though the panels were produced in thinner sheets to adapt them to the hot-humid climate of Cuba, it was still not suitable in terms of climatic requirements. For example, facades did not have any protection against the rain or sun - an essential in most Cuban architecture. Moreover, those projects were mostly implemented in rural areas to provide speedily-built dwellings and did not take into account traditions or local identity.  After the Microbrigadas programme had been stopped, many one-story houses were built between 1982 and 1990 using local materials and labor force in 160 new rural villages with 14,065 dwellings. At the same time the National Assembly of Popular Power declared that every family had a right to adequate housing. In 1984, the new General Housing Law allowed the sale of housing between private parties, but only with the government’s approval. State authorization for these transactions was very rare. Owners had the option to buy and sell property at low government-set prices, and the government always had the first option on the house. Towards the end of the 80‘s the Microbrigade Movement was revived as Social Microbrigida. Unlike the previous standard constructions built on open plots of land, this time atypical projects were constructed in inner-city locations, and the recovery of the existing city became increasingly important. Rehabilitation projects which would help to limit urban growth were employed.  By the 1990s, over 85% of Cuban households owned their homes, and paid only small fees for maintenance and utilities. But the subsequent economic crisis led to many families needing to sell their homes, rent them out, or downsize. A special “Period in Time of Peace” was declared and  the construction of the new dwellings diminished because of the shortage of many essential resources. On the other hand, the condition of the housing stock was in a massive deficit in Havana. The “Movement for Low Material and Energy Consumption Housing“ arose. However, because of its low quality, the program was quickly abandoned. Afterwards four decades of social housing projects, changes in housing standards for new dwellings was implemented in the mid-90s, beginning with real estate projects for foreigners made by joint ventures.  In 2003 another law was passed that prohibited all private sales of property. However, this did not put a halt to the exchange of homes between Cubans. They worked around the restrictions in order to create a real estate marked that was based on  the legal act of swapping housing units. “This market was visible in Havana every Saturday morning as people gathered on a 19th century boulevard, the Paseo del Prado, to arrange swaps (called permutas)”. House-swapping would sometimes involve chains of transactions in order to satisfy all involved. Though illegal, discreet side-payments were often made to the person giving up the larger property.  All this changed in 2011 when Decree-Law No. 288  was passed, allowing Cubans to sell their houses privately, at prices set by themselves. The reform has been announced as part of Raúl Castro’s presidency that began in 2008. This shift created a unique new real estate market, with no history of previous sales to guide pricing, no real estate agents, and no mortgages yet available. This was an attempt to bring an illegal practice that was already happening underground to the surface. They also sought to alleviate some of the burden on the government to provide housing. Though people have indeed started to sell their houses, and the current housing stock is starting to be better distributed amongst the population, it does not address Cuba’s main housing crisis - the gross lack of residential units. “At the end of 2018 the housing deficit almost reached 900,000 units.” In order to solve this problem, the state would need to build 44 000 units per year over the next 20 years. As this is unlikely, it seems only logical to give more support to the repair and construction of private homes. , which has actually increased with the changing policies. The rate of housing produced by the government is much lower than the growing number of people needing homes. Some of the reasons behind the declining trend in housing production are factors such as a lack of materials, the export of said materials, low workforce, and an insufficient budget allocation.  Additionally, most of the current housing stock is in average to poor condition due to low maintenance. Cyclones and hurricanes also have a negative impact.  From Cuba’s neocolonial stage, Havana has stood out from the rest of the country due to its rapid urban growth, and “despite a Cuban law preventing people from migrating into the capital, Havana is still struggling with a major housing crisis”. We have chosen to locate both of our chosen reference projects in Havana, but have selected one historic project and one current project, which is still in the early stages.         

Housing in Habana del Este

  Habana del Este is a social housing complex built between 1959 and 1961. It was constructed as part of a housing programme funded by the National Lottery. The project was designed by a group of young architects and self-taught urban planners, namedly Mario González, Hugo D´Acosta-Calheiros, Mercedes Alvarez, Reynaldo Estévez, and others. The estate was built under the guidance of Roberto Carrazana. It has been called the ‘best’ Cuban social housing complex. The Unidad No. 1 building, later called ‘Ciudad Camilo Cienfuegos’ at Habana del Este was declared a national landmark in 1991. The scheme was designed for roughly 8000 people, with 1306 units comprising of four-storey walk-ups (three different types) and 11-storey towers (two types). It is surrounded by large avenues, but with minimal vehicular traffic within the estate. The urban space is totally pedestrianised. The services are concentrated in one area and the sports facilities are located in the center of the complex. The buildings are well constructed, and have aged well. They are loved and well looked-after by their residents.            

Progressive social housing

    This social housing scheme, called “Progressive Social Housing with the use of Ferrocement“ is a complex of buildings dedicated to house professors of the Technological University of Havana Jose Antonio Echeverria CUJAE in Havana, Cuba. It has 6 storeys, one of which is dedicated to  the underground parking. The design combines public spaces with housings and services. The proposal is composed of several housing blocks, connected by bridges. Vertical circulation is made possible by five stairways set at different points of the complex.  The are between 13 and 17 apartments per floor, with a total of 72 units in the complex, and it is intended for between 229 and 253 inhabitants. There are a number of different types of units, which allow for the growth and modification of the home, as a family grows or shrinks in size.  Additionally, we have interviewed a number of Cuban students about their personal housing experiences in Havana. Interesting to note are the following; all households own their own homes, they all know their neighbors and feel that there is a strong sense of community. Only a few have done alterations, and these have been minor. A number of them are examples of social housing (both old and new). The case can be found at the end of the document.  Cuba is a unique context in terms of housing within Latin America and the Caribbean.  ‘“The Revolution from its beginnings, was directed towards the clear social objective of satisfying the housing needs of the Cuban people“ Some believe that Cuban architecture built in the last six decades illustrates the real effort made by the government since the Revolution to ensure that each family has access to decent housing.   Tracing the different laws on housing has provided insight into the legacy of social housing and politics in Cuba. The current real estate market in the country is challenging to any ordinary citizen in search of their first home. The market prices in both sectors (swapping and buy & sell) are far beyond what an average person can afford. But, as this emerging cuban real estate market develops, it will hopefully grow into a successful system.  However, though these changes do help, there is still a massive shortage.The government is not able to produce enough social housing quickly enough, and the housing that they have produced in the past has been unliveable and, frankly, unloveable. Additionally, there is not enough maintenance, let alone repairs and renovations on the existing housing stock. Governments around the world put a huge amount of effort and expectation into new housing developments, which each year only equate to a tiny percentage of the housing in any given country. We often think the only solution is to build more, but what about the housing that has already been built? One option might be to look into “using new design approaches to find more intelligent ways of unlocking existing capacity.”  The government might also look into alternative forms of housing. There exists a real intelligence, resourcefulness, and adaptability in Cuba’s residents, especially when it comes to their homes. “People have always had an instinctive knowledge of how to build, but all of this has been casually forgotten by modernist typologies that falsely claim exclusively rational „scientific“ validity.” Might we see new more mixed forms of housing in the future? And as the government continues to build social housing schemes, we hope that they include small-scale, iterative projects that focus on user participation, local materials, and (when possible) for new developments, inner-city locations. Through this they may just realise the full power that architecture has; that of improving the lives of its users, and creating urban environments that are truly loved by the people who inhabit them.