St. Petersburg Times
Where no homes sell, ever
By David Adams, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published Wednesday, June 4, 2008 8:01 AM
HAVANA — Walk down almost any street in the Cuban capital and it's easy to spot the cheap hand-painted cardboard signs saying Se Permuta, meaning "Home for Swap."
When Cubans want to move, these are the words they use. The "For Sale" sign familiar to Americans is banned; after all, you can't sell what you aren't allowed to own. So a family looking for an apartment with an extra bedroom for a new baby might swap with an older couple whose children have moved out. Run largely on word of mouth, the permuta is typical of the elaborate schemes Cubans have developed to work within the country's socialist strictures.
"It may sound odd, but it works," said Gladys Jane, 60, hunting for a house swap the other day on the Prado Avenue, a shady street on the edge of the historic colonial district that serves as Havana's unofficial permuta market.
But this peculiarly Cuban tradition — inefficient and often corrupt — could disappear if officials enact a reform that until now has only been hinted at by Raul Castro's administration: giving people the right to sell their homes. It would provide a source of taxable income for the government, and its effect on the cash-starved populace would be just as profound.
Since about 90 percent of Cubans hold title to their homes, said Antonio Zamora, a Miami attorney and expert on Cuban property issues, "Overnight, the government could hand them an asset with capital value."
Search for equality
Gladys Jane said she has been looking for a year with mounting desperation to swap her small, one-bedroom apartment and her 81-year-old mother's apartment for a larger place where they could live together along with her son. Her mother recently had undergone cancer surgery and could no longer climb the stairs to her second-floor apartment.
On the Prado, Jane stopped by to talk to Jesus Valdes, a corredor — the closest thing Cuba has to real estate agents. The corredors charge five pesos (20 cents) for each lead on a potential swap. Valdes has dog-eared notebooks full of addresses and phone numbers for each of the city's neighborhoods.
For a home swap to be approved by the federal Housing Institute, the homes must be of "equal value" — a near impossibility. But the system is flexible, taking account of such factors as an existing telephone line, and permitting one party to make repairs and improvements to meet the other person's needs.
No money is supposed to change hands, but frequently does. "Sometimes to get what you want, you make a payment that the government can't see," said Valdes, 78, grinning.
Jose Guerra, another corredor, said the system forces people to break the law. "That's why there are so many lies and frauds. If they let you pay legally, it wouldn't be necessary."
A hot tip
Without resorting to the corredors, Jane found a potential swap. Someone else looking to move gave her the address of Nestor Redondo, 66, a retired stevedore. Later that afternoon Jane visited Redondo's home, which he shares with his daughter and her family in the Central Havana district. She liked the spacious, albeit typically rundown house with three bedrooms, large patio and kitchen with chickens out back.
"I'm very interested," she told Redondo, giving him the addresses of her home and her mother's. "I have a telephone. Come by and take a look," she added, before taking off to tell her mother the news that a permuta might be in the works.
Her mother did not fully share her excitement. "I don't want to move. I like it here," said Barbara Morales, resting her legs on a stool in her tiny, rickety apartment on a major avenue in the centrally located Cerro neighborhood. "But I have to do it because of the stairs."
The frustrations of the permuta are so ingrained in Cuban culture that it serves as a reliable plot device. A Cuban comedy in the 1980s titled Se Permuta featured a farcically complex permuta chain of six separate links that falls apart at the last moment.
And one of the most popular sites on the Web — a relative novelty in a country with few computers — is www.sepermuta.com, where people can search for swaps online. The site has an inventory of 21,000 properties, with photographs and comments from happy customers. The operator of the site says he created it to help others after going through his own permuta. Not state sanctioned, he says he hopes one day he might be able to sell ads, now against the law.
A fully commercial real estate market remains far off, says Zamora, the Miami attorney who visits Cuba often and has studied its property laws. "If you start down that path, people will start accumulating property," he said. "It's human nature, and they won't allow that."
Zamora still expects to see greater flexibility in the housing market, including loosening restrictions on home improvements and renting rooms. Many Cubans already take matters into their own hands, he said.
"Cubans are very ingenious," Zamora said, describing cases of Cuban exiles who make payments to relatives in Cuba for extensions and extra floors that get built in secret.
"Real estate reform could help relieve some of the economic problems," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist who has spent time in jail for criticizing the government.
"It would create an almost interminable list of new possibilities," he said, such as the creation of private construction firms, as well as collateral for bank loans.
'Permuta' lives on
Despite her faith in the system, Gladys Jane's house swap never materialized. "They never called or came by," she said.
Then her mother died almost two weeks ago. "Her heart gave out," said Jane. "The medicine was too much for her."
But Jane says she still wants to move.
"I am going back to the Prado on Monday."