The Office of the Historian of the City of Havana (OHCH) was established by the Mayor’s office of La Havana in 1938 as an autonomous public institution with a mandate to safeguard the capital’s cultural heritage. In 1982, Old Havana was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. OHCH was in 1933 granted the legal right to charge taxes from organisations doing business within Old Havana, run its own profit-making companies in the real estate, building and tourism fields and plough back part of its earnings into restoring the historic district. It is financing community facilities and social programmes for local residents and repairing and rehabilitating residential buildings in a participatory manner to build communities’ capacities. To date, decent housing has been provided for nearly 3,900 low-income families living in high-risk or overcrowded conditions, through rehabilitation and new construction. Collective and participative rehabilitation has been preventing gentrification in a highly sought after area.


Project Description

Aims and Objectives

The main objectives of the housing programme in Old Havana include maintaining its residential character, including rehabilitating historic buildings for housing purposes in development policies, improving the quality of life of residents, avoiding gentrification and ensuring that local residents are able to stay in the area.

The project’s main beneficiaries are the local residents of Old Havana.


Since the mid-nineteenth century, with the continued growth of the city of Havana and the emergence of new neighbourhoods in the south (El Cerro) and west (El Vedado), the majority of buildings in Old Havana have gradually fallen into disrepair: many of the mansions of the old city have been subdivided as tenements and city centre residents face conditions of overcrowding, poor ventilation and structural safety risks. A census carried out in Old Havana in 2001 identified housing as one of the most pressing problems in the area, with more than 40 per cent of the more than 20,000 homes and apartments in the area not meeting minimum conditions of habitability. Inadequate urban infrastructure – particularly with regards to water supply and waste collection – as well as damage to buildings as a result of natural disasters, have exacerbated these conditions. In addition to addressing these physical and structural problems, this programme seeks to address a number of social and economic pressures faced by low-income families living in Old Havana.

Key features

Through a process that prioritises community participation, residents are involved in the restoration and construction of their homes. Key elements of the programme include:

  • Housing restoration and rehabilitation of historic residential buildings in top priority areas of Old Havana, concentrated near the four main squares of Plaza Vieja, Armas, Catedral, San Francisco and interconnecting axes.
  • Improving the housing stock in the San Isidro neighbourhood, including both the rehabilitation of existing buildings and new housing construction, as well as the construction of community facilities and development of social and cultural activities.
  • New housing construction in neighbourhoods such as Alamar (east of the city) and Capdevila (southwest of Havana).
  • Temporary relocation housing, provided locally for up to 53 families at a time whilst rehabilitation is underway.
  • Supportive housing for older persons, with 40 flats developed in three facilities in Old Havana, housing 53 older residents and providing health care, support and a range of social and cultural activities. A fourth project is currently underway.
  • A preventive programme designed to restore stability and eliminate the causes of deterioration (e.g. moisture, leakages).
  • Local development projects (Obispo Street, Block 148, Prado): housing, small gastronomic and business premises and community facilities.

Covering costs

From 1991 to 2001, approximately US$10 million in funding was provided each year by the budget of the State. Since 1994, OHCH has been self-financing investments and managing its various projects. This includes income from its own profit-making companies, ?stabilizing recently at an annual budget of US$40 million? and from tax charges received from business operating in Old Havana for them to contribute to the rehabilitation effort (in amounts ranging from one per cent of their income to five per cent, depending on whether they operate in Cuban Pesos (CUP) or Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Additional funding in the amount of US$20.7 million has also been obtained since 1994 through international cooperation, including from range of national and local governments in different countries, NGOs and international agencies, for the implementation of specific social projects (education, health and housing).


  • The project has greatly improved living conditions and reduced risks associated with environmental or structural issues.
  • According to a survey carried out by specialists from the Master Plan, 60 per cent of the general population in the area said they felt they had benefited from the changes produced in the area, while 70 per cent said they would like to continue living in Old Havana. Ninety-five per cent regarded the restoration programme as beneficial. Residents have a sense of pride.
  • Through the work of OHCH, including the housing programme, historic preservation has become the leading player for the revitalisation of the local economy and urban neighbourhoods in Cuba’s capital city.


Why is it innovative?

  • A key innovation is the comprehensive, financially sustainable management model developed by the OHCH, in which the earnings from its profit-making companies in the real estate and tourism fields are ploughed back into social programmes and housing rehabilitation.
  • Development of a participatory approach to the restoration of historic buildings, with a focus on keeping residents in the city centre (in contrast to many other heritage projects in the region). Most residents remain in the area and gentrification has generally been avoided, in part due to the inclusion of housing for local residents on the upper floors of restored buildings.
  • Addressing issues of social inclusion, e.g. housing projects with support services for older persons.


What is the environmental impact?

  • The programme makes use of the existing buildings and urban infrastructure, with a focus on restoration and rehabilitation.
  • OHCH has a plant to recycle demolition and construction waste. The rubble is turned into construction material that is then reused in other construction jobs. Items with artistic or heritage value are safeguarded and reused in the rehabilitation of buildings.
  • Extensive pedestrian zones have been created in the city centre, with public transportation circulating along the perimeter of the residential areas, greatly reducing both noise levels and pollution.
  • OHCH has collaborated with the companies responsible to the development and improvement of extended infrastructure and services in the area, including water supply, gas and electricity.
  • Designs for new housing take environmental factors into account and make the best use of ventilation and natural light.
  • Ongoing work is being done to improve solid waste collection and recycling.
  • Vacant areas and plots of land have been planted with greenery.
  • The Group of State Workers for the Beach of the Havana an ongoing programme to reduce pollution in the bay of Havana. Part of the marine fauna that had been seriously affected has already been restored and toxic gases and offensive odours have been eliminated.


Is it financially sustainable?

  • The programme has proven to be a financially sustainable management model, with many of the original historic buildings and monuments that were restored by OHCH in the 1990s now generating revenues that are reinvested in new rehabilitation projects. The money devoted to cultural programmes, social work, housing and infrastructure has steadily grown and the figure is now above 50 per cent. This is in line with the policy to turn Old Havana into a lively, heterogeneous space with increasing popular participation. The integral rehabilitation project underway in Old Havana is self-financing and does not rely on the State budget although it still receives its support, being declared in 1978 National Centre of Historic Monuments thus contracted the responsibility to maintain it. This process has become a driving force of development and a source of new jobs and economic resources.
  • In the last ten years, approximately 13,000 new jobs have been created in the area for residents of Old Havana and neighbouring municipalities. Local residents are given priority for the new jobs created through the programme, both in the area of construction and in the various divisions of OHCH and its affiliated companies.
  • After the development of tourism in the area, several families decided to rent rooms to tourists to supplement their incomes.
  • Through the programme, living conditions are significantly improved without affecting affordability to residents. Families that are relocated to housing units outside Old Havana are granted ownership and receive their homes on a grant basis. Rehabilitated properties in Old Havana remain in state ownership, with families paying ten per cent of their income in rent.


What is the social impact?

  • The programme works to help residents re-establish a sense of neighbourhood identity and to encourage local participation in planning community revitalisation projects such as rescuing some of residents’ African cultural traditions. Some communities have established urban gardens in blighted spaces between apartment buildings.
  • OHCH runs a training centre for young people between the ages of 18 and 21 to become qualified for work in the construction and gardening fields involved in the preservation and restoration of historic buildings. OHCH also supports educational, social, cultural and recreational services with trained professional staff, including training for young people in the arts, dance, theatre, literature and ecology.
  • The programme addresses issues of overcrowding, poor ventilation and the inadequate provision of infrastructure and services in Old Havana, leading to improved health and living conditions in the area.
  • The programme gives priority to those who are most vulnerable, including special supportive housing projects for older persons, who represent 18 per cent of the population of Old Havana. The strategy of participatory decision-making through community workshops is supported by the People’s Councils and the Local Parliament (Government) in Old Havana.
  • The selection of families to remain in the refurbished buildings or be relocated is based on the number of years they had lived in the building, structure of the family, occupational links with the territory and the existence of disabled persons or vulnerable groups, among other points. If there was more than one family in a house, they would be given two new houses.



The main barrier faced by OHCH is the sustained urban deterioration accumulated over the years, primarily in residential buildings subjected to overcrowding, as well as the increased costs of construction and limited availability of some construction materials. 45 per cent of the existing housing stock has the households enjoying free usufruct (the legal right to live in the property, with no charges) and this has been one of the causes leading to building deterioration. Specialists’ increased qualifications and broader development has been one of the ways to cope with the obstacles mentioned. The creation of the Housing Division within OHCH will also  enforce special rules in this area and deal specifically with housing-related issues.


Lessons Learned

  • The historic centre should be seen as a space of social participation.
  • By reinvesting profits in social programmes, a sustainable model of integrated, inclusive development can be achieved.
  • Political will at the highest levels of the State was a key element to ensure the success of the programme.
  • The existence of a ‘leader entity’ with recognised prestige at national and international level and coordinating the overall process enables a more viable and agile recovery.
  • It is possible to rehabilitate Old Havana in a way that is economically sustainable yet at the same time preserving it as a residential area and avoiding spatial segregation, gentrification or social exclusion.



According to a survey carried out by specialists from the Master Plan, 60 per cent of the general population in the area said they felt they had benefited from the changes produced in the area, while 70 per cent said they would like to continue living in Old Havana. Ninety-five per cent regarded the restoration programme as beneficial. Residents have a sense of pride.

To date, approximately 1,500 homes have been rehabilitated and 1,300 have undergone emergency strengthening measures. In addition, 1,060 new homes have been provided for permanently relocated families to address the severe overcrowding issues (both new build and adaptive reuse), 45 per cent of which are located in Old Havana, 41 per cent in Alamar, 8 per cent in Capdevila and 6 per cent are in other areas of the city. Funding for the project has been obtained through income generated through the organisation’s own profit-making companies, as well as from international donor support for specific projects. The project seeks to provide opportunities for income generation (e.g. in the tourism and construction industries) and local residents are given first priority for jobs and training as skilled construction workers in the restoration process.



The economic growth of OHCH over the years, achieved through its sustainable management model, has made it possible for the organisation to scale up its work, extending the area under rehabilitation to almost 35 per cent of Old Havana and significantly increasing the number of properties restored, rehabilitated and built.

Locally, the project has been extended to two other areas of the city, Malecón Tradicional (new housing construction and rehabilitation) and the Barrio Chino de La Habana (rehabilitation, maintenance and support services).

Nationally, the approach has been transferred to the historic centres of four additional cities in Cuba (Trinidad, Camagüey, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba) through the creation in 2009 of REDOHCC, the Cuban Society of Offices of the Historian and the Curator of Cuba, which aims at perfecting the approach. To address the challenges of an ageing population, the Department of Health is studying the possibility of extending the system of supportive housing for older persons across the country.

Internationally, OHCH has kept links with seven Mexican cities declared as heritage sites and has given consultancy services upon request of the Government of Mexico City. The approach has also been transferred to the cities of Caracas and Puerto Cabello in Venezuela. OHCH was asked to host a visit of representatives of all cities registered on the list of World Heritage sites, organised by UNESCO-Brazil, to learn from the Cuban experience. International seminars and conferences on the rehabilitation of historic centres, held by OHCH each year and attended by delegates from other Latin American cities and other parts of the world, also contribute to the transfer of the approach.



Local government, Local community, Donor agency