Thousands of Cubans will be able to get title to state-owned homes under regulations published Friday, a step that might lay the groundwork for broader reforms.
The measure was the first legal decree formally published since Raul Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president in February.
The decree spells out rules to let Cubans renting from their state employers keep their apartment or house after leaving their posts. They could gain title and even pass it on to their children or relatives.
Thousands of Cubans could take advantage of this move, including military families, sugar workers, construction workers, teachers and doctors.
Holding on to state housing originally designated for specific workers has been a widespread but usually informal fact of Cuban life. A 1987 law had foreseen transferring such housing to occupants, but this new measure should clarify their legal status.
"This is like no man's land that they are legalizing," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became a critic of the government. "It gets rid of that insecurity many people had and alleviates bureaucratic pressure."
By law, Cubans still cannot sell their homes to anyone but the government, though they can swap housing with government approval, a process that can take years.
Two officials at Cuba's National Housing Institute said Friday's law was likely to be the first in a series of housing reforms. Both asked not to be named, however, because they were not authorized to speak to foreign media. They said "thousands and thousands" of Cubans would be affected, but did not give exact figures.
Espinosa Chepe, who was jailed for his political views during a 2004 crackdown but subsequently released on medical parole, said that "giving people deeds could give them more freedom to sell their homes and maybe rent them as long as they pay taxes."
Cuba, which is home to 11.4 million people, has a severe housing shortage. Officials say they need half a million additional homes. Critics say the need is twice that.
Since becoming Cuba's first new president in 49 years, Raul Castro has done away with bans that prohibited Cubans from owning cellphones in their own names; staying in tourist hotels; and buying DVD players, computers and coveted kitchen appliances.