Home sales would be a sea change for Cuba
- From: PL <pl.nospam@xxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sun, 31 Jul 2011 22:33:07 +0200
Posted on Saturday, 07.30.11
Home sales would be a sea change for Cuba
A law allowing Cubans to buy and sell homes could be enacted this week when the Cuban parliament convenes to discuss pending economic reforms.
By MIMI WHITEFIELD
Selling an apartment in front of the Habana Libre, excellent condition
The seller, Marita, is advertising this Havana apartment on revolico.com, an online marketplace that's kind of like a Cuban Craigslist. She's asking the equivalent of around $57,600 in convertible Cuban pesos.
Of course, at the moment real estate sales in Cuba are strictly illegal and have been for the past five decades. But that may change soon. As part of sweeping economic reforms unveiled at the Communist Party Congress in April, Cuba plans to allow the buying and selling of homes and cars.
A July 1 article in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, painted the broad brush strokes of the real estate reform: such transactions would be permitted with little government interference beyond getting notary approval, making payment through a state bank and paying an as yet unspecified tax.
The real estate reform has yet to become law, but it's possible it could when the National Assembly, Cuba's parliament, convenes Monday for a three-day meeting at Havana's Convention Palace. In any case, the government has said a new law will take effect by the end of the year.
This potential sea change has set off a flurry of activity on both sides of the Florida Straits. For years, Cuban-Americans have been funneling money to relatives to fix up tired properties or for under-the-table payments to "buy'' a home or sweeten a permuta, or swap, the accepted form of acquiring Cuban real estate.
Now with the possibility of a true real estate market developing, people have been dusting off property titles or trying to find them and have been busy fixing up properties they anticipate putting on the market, said Antonio R. Zamora, a Miami lawyer who specializes in foreign investment.
"A lot of money is coming from Miami — some of it's speculative,'' said Zamora, who visited Cuba recently.
Some exiles say they have made under-the-table payments to purchase beach homes or other properties from family or friends with the understanding that some day they will own the homes outright. But they have no official paperwork to acknowledge such transactions.
In these cases, it should be buyer beware, said George Harper, a Miami attorney who left Cuba when he was 17. "That's all well and good but any deal is subject to what the local laws are.''
The expected law does not allow foreign ownership. The guidelines announced in Granma said that foreigners and Cubans living abroad can't own property unless they are permanent residents of Cuba. Cubans will be allowed to own only one home and they can inherit a dwelling, even if the relatives of the deceased don't live in the home, according to Granma.
Because of the influx of exile money, Zamora said it would be more realistic to "get the name of the foreign relative into the title."
Phil Peters, a vice president at the Lexington Institute and a veteran Cuba watcher, said that the exile money flowing into Cuba may have an impact beyond investment.
"Now with the door open for Cuban-Americans to visit, to support their families, to invest and to perhaps indirectly buy real estate, it becomes not just an exile community but also an immigrant community with a foot in both places,'' he said.
One thing that isn't expected to be a topic of debate in Cuba is exile claims on homes.
Over time, Zamora said, families who occupied the homes of Cubans who left the island have essentially become the owners of the dwellings.
"There's always been a difference of opinion on residential properties that were taken but now I think most people, with some notable exceptions, have given up on the notion of getting those properties back,'' said Harper.
He's been back to Cuba twice since he left as a teenager and visited the home where his family once lived. He found several families in the residence. "From a humanitarian point of view, it would be impractical to kick those people out,'' he said.
Also expected to change once a property law is enacted is the messy permuta system. Currently, homes that are exchanged are supposed to be of "equal value.'' But matching up the homes on offer with what people want is often a tricky business.
Sometimes two apartments are exchanged for a large home in a prime area and multiple parties are involved in so-called triangular deals. Although no money is supposed to change hands, there are sometimes under-the-table payments to even up deals or bribes paid to officials to let dubious swaps go through.
Under the new system, someone wanting to downsize from a four-bedroom home with a garage, for example, to a smaller apartment will probably just be able to do the swap and pay the difference in value, said Zamora. "The reform should make the permuta much easier and out in the open,'' he said.
Besides cleaning up illicit housing transactions, the government has said the reform is designed to help with Cuba's serious housing shortage.
But Harper said, "The fact that people can buy and sell homes won't really impact the housing supply. If Cuba had money to build new housing, I think they would have done it by now.''
Cuba, however, may be counting on real estate owners to expand and improve properties. In its effort to move more people off the state payroll into self-employment, the government has said that renting rooms, gardens and even swimming pools can be considered an alternative to state employment. Permitting home ownership may also encourage home building.
"If people are allowed to sell homes, this is a huge step forward in terms of property rights,'' said Peters. "It makes assets liquid, a home can be used as collateral.''
Because of the possibility of freeing up capital when a home is sold, other entrepreneurial activity may be unleashed, Peters said. "This really would be a sign of the Cuban government being serious about letting go of controls,'' he said.
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