Each morning before the sun rises too high, Cubans gather at a shaded corner in central Havana, mingling as though at a cocktail party. The icebreaker is always the same: "What are you offering?"
This is Cuba's informal real-estate bazaar, where a chronic housing shortage brings everyone from newlyweds to retirees together to strike deals that often involve thousands of dollars in under-the-table payments. They're breaking not just the law but communist doctrine by trading and profiting in property, and now their government is about to get in on the action.
President Raul Castro has pledged to legalize the purchase and sale of homes by the end of the year, bringing this informal market out of the shadows as part of an economic reform package under which Cuba is already letting islanders go into business for themselves in 178 designated activities, as restaurateurs, wedding planners, plumbers, carpenters.
An aboveboard housing market promises multiple benefits for the cash-strapped island: It would help ease a housing crunch, stimulate construction employment and generate badly needed tax revenue. It would attack corruption by officials who accept bribes to sign off on illicit deals, and give people options to seek peaceful resolutions to black-market disputes that occasionally erupt into violence.
It's also likely to suck up more hard currency from Cubans abroad who can be counted on to send their families cash to buy, expand and remodel homes, especially since President Barack Obama relaxed the 50-year-old economic embargo to allow unlimited remittances by Cuban-Americans.
"All these things are tied in," said Sergio Diaz-Briquets, a U.S.-based demography expert. "They want expatriate Cubans to contribute money to the Cuban state, and this is one big incentive for people who want to help their families."
But few changes are likely to be as complex and hard to implement as real estate reform.
From the earliest days of the revolution, Fidel Castro railed against exploitative, absentee landlords, and enacted a reform that gave property ownership to whoever lived in a home, regardless of who held title. Most who have left the island forfeited their properties to the state. The government, Castro preached, would provide everything a citizen could need: employment, food, education and housing, all for little or no money at all.
But the housing stock, already run down before the revolution, continued to deteriorate, the U.S. embargo choked off the supply of building materials, and new construction failed to keep pace with demand.
Meanwhile, cyclones and salty air can start eating through metal bars in a year and have decimated rural shanties and older quarters of Havana. Empty lots dot the capital's seaside Malecon boulevard as once-stately mansions regularly collapse following heavy rains. Many of those still standing are merely facades or are propped up by scaffolding and wooden beams.
While they wait for the new law to be enacted and the specifics to be announced, Cubans have few legal options. They can enroll in cooperative construction projects, build on existing properties or join the long waiting list for government housing. Or they can head to the open-air real-estate market in hopes of negotiating a "permuta," which officially is a swap of equal-value properties but in reality usually involves illegal cash on the side.
Many enlist the services of "runners" like Manuel Valdez, an 83-year-old ex-military man who has been brokering the transactions for four decades. At the downtown bazaar, Valdez holds court on a concrete bench, keeping track of real estate offers in a tattered notebook and on posterboard that he tapes to a tree.
Gesturing at the people milling around hoping to strike a deal, Valdez said housing is such a problem that legalization was inevitable: "This is a situation that the state had to get off its back one way or another."
There's also www.revolico.com, a kind of Cuban Craigslist that has real estate ads asking tens of thousands of dollars. Site operators claim the real estate section alone gets 30,000 unique visits a month even though islanders must find a way around the Web censors.
Some Cubans enter into sham marriages to make deed transfers easier. Others move into homes ostensibly to care for an elderly person living there. They register at the address and, after enough time passes, can legally claim the "inherited" title. Nowhere is there an official record of the money changing hands.
A Havana professional with a job that pays far more than most salaries on the island told of swapping his tiny apartment about 10 years ago for a bigger, historic home whose bathroom and roof were falling apart, and whose occupants, a 60-something couple, could no longer manage.
The couple took over his recently remodeled and repainted flat. They also received $1,200 in cash — something that will no longer be illegal once Castro's housing reform takes effect.
The professional reflected on the anomaly of people with money but no home to buy, and people with bigger homes than they need, and the risk they all run trying to change their circumstances. Some Cubans have had their homes confiscated when their illegal sales came to light.
"It would be so helpful if you could do that legally," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the transaction's illicit nature.
"It is such a big problem, the housing situation," said Diaz-Briquets, who estimated in a recent paper that the country of 11 million people was short 1.6 million units of "adequate housing" in 2010. "They have been trying for years to solve it, and it's finally dawned on them that the state is never going to do it."
The Cuban government puts the shortfall at closer to 500,000 homes. Still, the result is legions of bickering divorcees trapped under the same roof; newlyweds forced to bunk up with siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts; and elderly people unable to repair their crumbling homes.
Juana Ines Delgado's plight is typical. She shares her tiny studio in Old Havana with her grown son, married daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter, while her son-in-law spends nights at his aunt's place down the street.
"It's a marriage that's not the way a marriage should be, you know what I mean?" said Delgado, 61. "My situation is what it is. ... But I hope my children don't have to end their days here."
Cuba experts caution that the new measure is just a first step toward solving the housing crisis, and note that it deliberately stops short of creating a freewheeling, capitalist real estate market.
Raul Castro has said home ownership will be limited to one per individual to avoid accumulation of wealth. The government has announced plans to extend credit for purchasing building materials, but specifics are still unknown and no mechanism is in place for home loans. Duties will be levied on both sellers and buyers, and if taxes are too steep it could provide enough incentive to underreport transactions.
Only islanders and permanent residents will be able to buy property, but there's at least a potential for Cubans to front for foreigners keen on owning a waterfront art-deco masterpiece.
"You start down a path of property accumulation and who knows where that's going to lead," says Rafael Romeu, a U.S.-based expert on the Cuban economy.