How I fell prey to the Moscow Renovation programme

By Lyubov Zolotova

Imagine you have built a house of your dreams. You paid out your mortgage. You invested in remodelling and refurnishing it, you created your home with love and hope for a better future.  You love your neighbourhood, the old birch trees in your backyard, the birds chirping every morning. Then suddenly someone comes in and tells you: you know, you don’t really need all this. This house is a shithole and should be demolished. We will give you a much better home. How about moving to an industrial area, in the middle of nowhere, to a 20-storey ghetto? Oh, and you don’t get to choose the location or the house, nor can you challenge it in court. Sounds like a cruel joke, doesn’t it? This is Moscow’s reality today.

How do you picture your perfect home in Moscow? A studio in a modern condo in some trendy district, a townhouse in the suburbs, a nicely remodelled apartment in a historic building somewhere in the city centre? Considering the challenges of the Moscow real estate market, with its rip-off prices, its vast soviet heritage with rundown blocks of flats, the dubious quality of modern-day construction, to name a few, finding a house of your dreams can prove to be an ordeal. And you can consider yourself damn lucky if you do land on an offer where miraculously, all the important parameters fall into place.For some years, I thought I could never afford a decent flat of my own in Moscow. A place I could really call my home. Back in 2009-10 the real estate market was overheated, and even the humblest one-room flat in an ugly late-soviet style block would cost you no less than $150,000-$180,000. Not that I was interested in buying in any such building. Neither was I tempted by modern residential towers, standing tall and proud among the older, shabby and ramshackle houses (a striking contrast!), often cold and tacky-looking, not to mention, way out of my financial reach. My house had to have history. Character. A cosy feel. I owned a tiny one-room apartment in North-Eastern district which I inherited from my grandmother, so that was a start. I kept saving, for years. And I kept looking, mainly in my district.

I was getting desperate when one February day in 2011, my realtor offered me to take a look at one place, 15-minute walk east from Babushkinskaya metro station. I couldn’t believe my fortune: it turned out to be a beautifully remodelled three-room apartment in a solid five-storey brick house, a so-called ‘stalinka’, built in late 50s, with high ceilings, huge windows, a spacious closet (a rare luck for the majority of Moscow flats). The neighbourhood was also a find: green and quiet, with many Stalin-era houses creating a cosy atmosphere. True, the house was next to the railway, and there was no elevator or a trash chute, hence the reasonable price. A mortgage was still unavoidable but realistic: with due financial discipline and stable work, I could pay it out in 5-7 years.

We feathered the nest with a minor redecoration and furnishing. For years, we were happy and proud owners of our home sweet home.

The storm came suddenly, out of a clear blue sky. The words ‘renovation’ and ‘demolition’ inundated the papers, the radio and TV. For some time, I was blissfully unaware of the scale of the disaster. On the surface, it seemed like the city government was doing Muscovites a big favour, finally doing away with the obsolete ‘khrushovki’ (the cheap Khrushev-era five-storey houses), a long overdue agenda for Moscow, and it took me a while to realize that the monstrous project had little to do with improving housing conditions of the city residents. I noticed my husband was looking gloomier each day so I finally demanded that he shared what he knew. Reluctantly (he’s very protective of my emotional well-being), he told me to read the Facebook page ‘Москвичи против сноса’ (Muscovites against demolition), one of the few propaganda-free sources on the matter. And that’s when my life as I knew it ended.

It takes time to comprehend a conundrum of such scale and consequence. The government’s rhetoric is, or course, very rosy: the hapless khrushovka dwellers are finally getting their big break and are being relocated to brand new modern homes – by the millions, no less! Sweet manna from heaven! But hold on a second. The country’s economy is struggling, the markets are stagnating and it doesn’t take an expert to see that the country’s financial well-being is out on a limb. So, why the sudden generosity? The current ‘preliminary list of houses to be voted for demolition’ published on the Mayor’s page, mos.ru, includes over 4,500 houses across Moscow, to be demolished by entire quarters. Of these thousands, only a portion are true khrushovki (prefab flat block series built in early 60s). Hundreds of brick houses and stalinkas (houses well known for the quality of their construction), including my house, are also on the list. A lot of the truly dilapidated houses, on the other hand, did not get in the program. It is all a bit too thin, isn’t it?

As many critics put it, the Moscow construction business is craving for expensive city land. ‘Khushovki’ are only a pretext to clear vast areas in every district to give way to mass construction, lavishly fed by the city budget. To see it through, they’re changing the law altogether. To name but a few highlights of the first draft law ‘On House Renovation.’  There is no clear definition of substandard or dilapidated housing. The draft law stipulates that it is up to the city government to designate houses for demolition. The draft law allows to waiver construction, fire, ecological, health and safety standards when building houses in the framework of the renovation program. The draft law does not guarantee relocation within the same district, although that may be being changed. Nor does it allow people to challenge the proposed flat option in a court of law (except for the square footage of the new apartment). The list goes on and on. The program has already been heavily criticized by the Russian Union of Architects[1] but whoever listens to the experts here?

For me as an individual it all seemed so outrageous that for some time I simply refused to believe it. How can they just destroy a perfectly good house? Economically, it is a reckless thing to do, not to mention the owners’ financial and non-material damage. This is insane, and, surely, all my neighbours will feel this way! We must all stand up and defend ourselves!

I started talking to them. I knocked on every door, and spoke to everyone I could reach. Boy, was I in for a surprise… This was perhaps my most illuminating socio-cultural study in Russia, a true insight into the Russian mentality. So, here’s a sample statistic on one given house and its tenants in Moscow.

In our house, there are 67 flats; 64 are privately owned (purchased, inherited or privatized in the 90s), and 3 have not been privatized and are owned by the city. There are also 5 communal flats (‘communalki’), with several people owning shares of a flat and forced to live together (a heritage from the Soviet times when people were given ‘rooms’ in flats, which were later privatized).  All in all, there are 115 owners who have some share in the property.

Out of about 70 people I and another activist have reached out to and spoke to, a bare handful were informed and aware of the changes to the law and the risks involved, including the owners of commercial property on the first floor. Quite a few owners (about 40) expressed concern and a firm ‘no’ to renovation, i.e., losing their current flats and being relocated. However, few of these 40 were optimistically inclined and ready to take action; typical reactions were:

  • Scepticism (‘they will do whatever they want and we can’t help it’).
  • Resentment but no will to act (‘too busy’; ‘too many personal problems’ etc.).
  • Fear and ignorance of their rights, especially typical for older owners (‘they can just throw us away; we may lose everything’).

Those who expressed their interest in the program and a happy ‘yes’ to demolition were not a small minority. These are chiefly tenants of municipal flats as well as ‘kommunalka’ dwellers, but also, surprisingly, owners of individual flats. Many demonstrated the following attitudes and sentiments:

  • Naivety (‘we trust the mayor, we trust their promises’).
  • Wishful thinking (‘this is my big break, my only chance of getting a better home; we’ll get better houses in the same neighbourhood’; ‘we should vote fast to be first for the best offers’).
  • Lack of trust (‘why is she (myself) doing this, why does she care, and who is paying her to do it?’).

These people demonstrated ignorance of the draft law and compete lack of interest to become familiarized with it. And – a horrifying indifference to the feelings of the rest of the owners. All of them were happy to relocate at their neighbours’ expense, and see their house destroyed.

Still, I resolved to putting up a fight and do all in my power to save my house from destruction. In a couple of weeks’ time we are to hold the general meeting of owners which I initiated, to vote for or against inclusion in the renovation program. Although none of the ‘voting procedures’ suggested by the Moscow government are actually legitimate, according to the acting Housing Code and are being imposed on Muscovites to push the program further, the general meeting of owners is the only way that offers control to the owners over the voting process. Yet, what are the chances of even getting a quorum, considering the people’s attitudes? And even if we do, what are the chances that the results of the voting will not be ignored by the authorities?

What’s more demoralizing is that even my close friends (Russians) are, at best, sceptical (‘it’s all inevitable, just relax and hope for the best’), but often judgmental. If I’m lucky, I get sympathetic comments and ‘good luck’ wishes; but increasingly more often, I hear things like ‘clearly, you have nothing better to do’, ‘everything changes; run with it’, or ‘admit it, you just don’t want changes in life’.  I fear I may start losing friends over this. I realize though, that it’s all local mentality and they are good people. I keep telling myself that.

 

[1] http://uar.ru/news/265