Moscow plans to give people new apartments, but is there a catch?

Many of the Moscow apartment buildings slated for demolition are indeed dilapidated. But residents may be moved to replacements far from their old homes – and the prime real estate they vacate could mean big profit for developers.

Fred Weir

Correspondent

APRIL 19, 2017  MOSCOW—The Kremlin’s plan looks great on paper: move 10 percent of Moscow’s population from their crumbling old “temporary” postwar housing to shiny new apartments in exchange.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Lack of transparency, corruption, and greed to name a few things, say activists.

The effort to move about 1.6 million residents out of the nearly 8,000 targeted buildings – dubbed Khrushchevki after Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who ordered them built – is in principle a benevolent one. But some of those affected are up in arms over what they claim is a lack of consultation and, indeed, any clear information about when they are supposed to be moved, and where.

The plan could take up to two decades to fulfill, but all the decisions about it are being made now – mostly behind closed doors. Many residents say they fear that they will be shifted into enormous housing developments on the city’s outskirts, without the green space and the community surroundings they are accustomed to, while the often valuable downtown real estate their old buildings sat upon will be handed over to developers to construct luxury housing for the rich.

“Of course the city needs to be renewed, and people should be better housed,” says Vyacheslav Borodulin, a representative of Mossoviet, one of several public movements that have sprung up to oppose the plans. “But they are destroying parts of the city according to what developers want, not asking people what’s best for them, and building high-rise apartment complexes that will increase population density several times over. It sometimes looks to us like our authorities work exclusively for the benefit of construction companies.”

‘Khrushchobi’

The Khrushchevki were built at break-neck speed in the 1960s to house workers streaming into the cities from the countryside, and to upgrade conditions for millions of urbanites who previously lived in Stalin-era communal apartments and even army-like barracks.

The vast construction program that planted tens of thousands of the nearly identical structures in cities across the Soviet Union was hailed in its time as a great achievement. Millions of Russian families received their first self-contained apartment in those years, along with other amenities like their first refrigerator, TV, and college education.

But many of the buildings began to fall apart within a few years, while Soviet leaders’ promises that communism would arrive to solve all these mater problems grew threadbare. The joking description of these buildings became “Khrushchobi,” a combination of Khrushchev’s name and the Russian word for “slum,” trushobi.

Many of the hastily erected five-story apartment blocks are indeed dilapidated, dingy, and long past their expiry date. Residents mostly complain that they’ve been ignored for decades, and even now aren’t being given any information about the long-awaited move. Some have already been demolished and replaced.

But other structures were built solidly, in the midst of wide green spaces that were mandated by Soviet urban planners. Many of the people living in them say they really don’t feel like going anywhere. But, they complain, no one is asking them.

“We don’t want to move. This is a good place. The walls are strong, the district is very quiet, it’s beautiful and green in summer, the river is nearby, and we have plenty of parking,” says Natalia Ammosova. She lives in a cramped two-room apartment in the Khrushchevka with her husband and two children, in the Moscow district of Khoroshyovo-Mnevnik.

The apartment was constructed in 1962 by a Soviet army brigade and, unlike some of the faded prefabricated buildings of the same type nearby, it’s made of bricks, with a tiled exterior, and looks like it could last forever. The two children sleep in a bunk bed, while their parents have a curtained-off space for themselves, and there’s even a piano in the tiny main room. There’s a minuscule kitchen, and another small book-lined room that appears to serve many functions. Not many North Americans would find that livable.

“We’re happy here. It’s small but it’s cozy,” says Ms. Ammosova, a middle-aged professional. “But we’re really worried that they will just order us to leave. We will have to be gone within 60 days or they can just force us out. That’s the way things are done. And we have no idea what we might get in exchange. We just feel awful.”

A three minute walk away is another of the familiar oblong, five-storied structures. But this one is made of enormous concrete panels that were slapped together six decades ago and never repaired since. Some balconies are visibly falling down, the stairwell is badly lit, and there is no elevator – a feature of all these buildings.

Svetlana Volkova says her mother, who lives alone in a 4th-floor apartment that’s identical in design to the one Ammosova and her family inhabit, has been waiting to be moved for 30 years.

“Nobody has ever paid the slightest attention to this building. The balcony can’t be used, the wind howls through the windows in winter, and my mother can’t make it up the stairs anymore,” she says. “These buildings were never meant to last this long. The authorities have an obligation to move us to a better place. They make these grand announcements, but they never tell us anything.”

‘No clear plan’

The tenants’ predicament is a peculiarly Russian situation, a legacy of the Soviet system that once built and owned all the country’s housing stock – thus making the state in charge of people’s homes and obliging it to replace them.

When the Soviet Union collapsed everyone was given the right to “privatize” their existing accommodations. But, in practice, local authorities continued to own both the land and the buildings themselves. While occupants were entitled to rent out or sell their apartments, Ms. Volkova says that what they actually own is “just the air” inside of them.

Millions of more affluent Russians have taken advantage of a liberalized real estate market that now entitles them to buy land and build their own houses. But most are still trapped in their Soviet-era accommodation, unable to afford their own replacements and dependent on whatever the government decides to give them.

The numbers in the plan announced by Vladimir Putin in February herald nothing short of a social upheaval over the next few years. And the confusion around it is worrying many.

“We are not aware of the major reasons why the government has put forward this program right now, but it does have to be done,” says Anton Gorodnichev, an urban planning expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “It gives rise to many questions and complaints.

“People suspect the authorities are conspiring with developers, inhabitants of these buildings fear their living conditions will only become worse,” he says. “All this unease is because no clear plan has been offered to explain how things are to be done. And the authorities are hurriedly amending the laws to fit their intentions, and that looks really strange to people.”

The Khrushchevki situation is further hampered by new legal impediments to elected officials meeting with their constituents. Under a law amended last year, says Lyudmilla Pokamestova, a district councilor in Khoroshyovo-Mnevnik, she could now get arrested for meeting with a foreign journalist and local people near their homes.

“Now I must apply, and the authorities will tell me when and where I can meet with my own constituents,” she says. “They can prohibit any meeting, and arrest me if I defy them. My job as an elected representative is to convey the opinions of my voters to the authorities. They’ve turned that upside down, and now it’s just about getting orders from above.”

A less green Moscow?

And while local people await the verdict on their homes, and public advocates chafe at the undemocratic methods being wielded by authorities, environmentalists are aghast at the plan to radically shrink the city’s green spaces and multiply population density.

“Every city has its limits as to how many people can safely and comfortably live in it. We all need oxygen, and the main source of it in Moscow is our greenery,” says Alina Engalycheva, a biologist and member of Moscow’s advisory Public Ecological Council.

Moscow is a city designed for 5 million people which now has 12 million registered inhabitants and many more undocumented residents, she says.

“Soon those five-storied houses will become 30 storied anthills, with minimal space, greenery, and light. All rational city planning has been thrown out the window. The sentence for Moscow has already been signed, and we are rushing at breakneck speed toward the abyss.”

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