UNO on social housing: worldwide experience and Russian specificity

UNO on social housing: worldwide experience and Russian specificity
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Millions of Russians are resigned to spending their lives in confined living conditions. Meanwhile world experience shows that the problem may be solved. In what way?

75% of the Russian population live in cities and towns, but their living conditions are far from ideal. They cannot afford to buy commercial housing, and social housing is lacking. In fact, millions of people in Russia are resigned to living all their lives in confined spaces.  Nevertheless, world experience proves that the problem may be solved. In what way? The issue was discussed by the participants of the recent discussion on the topic “Social housing: how to transfer world experience to Russia?”


Expensive affordable housing

In the USSR there was an official slogan: “All for man’s welfare, all for man’s sake”. The policy implemented in practice was a bit different: “Everybody must live the same way: have a standard flat, six acres in the country and, if they are lucky, a “Zhiguly” car”.  

Strange as it may seem, these views have survived until now, the President of the Russian Architects’ Union, Andrei Bokov, thinks. The only difference is that if, formerly, housing in a large panel system (LPS) house was provided at no cost, now it is sold at triple the price.  

The segment of low-quality housing is moving very quickly in Russia at present: construction is not accompanied by the parallel erection of the necessary infrastructure. In general, “affordable” housing in Russia is rather expensive.  The specialists of the “City Economy Institute” Fund have calculated that the Russian state is unable to maintain the available housing stock. This means that ultimately it may turn into slums, Andrei Bokov forecasts.

Is there an alternative to the present housing policy? One of the variants is rental housing (read an article on the prospects of this segment development on our website). By the way, this type of realty makes up 70% of the total residential stock on the planet.

Another option is the development of low-rise and individual construction. Modern technologies allow us to build such houses with a prime cost of 25,000—50,000 roubles for 1 m2.  


What a twist

In the USSR, 97% of housing stock was owned by the state, and the other 3% belonged to housing cooperatives.  Contrary to long-held belief, there was no real private ownership in the country either, as the land on which houses were built did not belong to the homeowners.

Everything changed crucially with the introduction of market reforms. At present, social housing comprises only 5% of the housing stock in Russia (to compare: in Hong Kong, for example, half of its 8m people live in such housing), and the rest is commercial housing, including 5% made up of elite housing.

The state should not finance the construction of commercial housing, including mortgage loan subsidizing, Ilya Zalivukhin, an urbanist and an architect, thinks. Housing construction requires vast financial expenditure, so there must be a clear distinction between social and commercial housing stock, the expert stresses, reminding us that it is so all over the world.

There is housing, there is no drain

Who needs social housing? For example, recent graduates. If they have an opportunity to get it, they will not seek happiness somewhere abroad.  It means that such housing is needed.

The problem is not purely Russian. Everywhere, the brain drain needs to be stopped. There are whole “islands” of social housing in the center of Paris and Madrid, and there is a special program in London for the construction of 260 high-rise houses with such flats. By the way, buildings for social housing are often designed by the best architects.   

Different schemes for social housing construction can be found elsewhere in the world. For example, in Canada’s financial center, Toronto, the capital of the Ontario province, there is a company belonging to the local authorities. It owns about 30,000 flats. The flats are different, and they are let to families with an income lower than a defined level.

If their income grows, the rent goes up. (Well, any rent grows annually irrespective of income). Even if there is no income, the rent is raised.

The company’s assets come from three sources. The first one is rental revenue. The second is financing by the provincial authorities. The third is the income from participation in different commercial projects connected with housing construction.   

UNO reproaches Russia

The problems of social housing may conventionally be divided into three.

Firstly, it must be given a distinct legislative definition. Secondly, analysis should be made as to why social housing is lacking. And thirdly, it should be understood how to correct the situation.

For the state, social housing refers to the non-commercial realty market segment. But still it must be durable, and offer a wide choice and the right norms for people. As a reminder, in the USSR, determining the norms for a family worked on the formula “the number of people in the family = the number of rooms minus 1 room”. Such an approach arose in the 1950s in a period of a sharp housing deficit. The authors of the approach understood its drawbacks, but it worked until the end of the Soviet era.  

The present lack of social housing is conditioned by two opposite processes. On the one hand, the state allocates little finance for the construction of social housing, but on the other hand, the population’s migration to large cities increases the demand for it. Commercial housing is too expensive, and many just cannot afford it.  

The UNO experts raise the alarm:  the condition of the housing stock all over the world is a source of great concern. The commercial sector attacks. More than that, it is now perceived as the main driver of economic growth, not the industry. International organizations reproach Russia for its lack of attention to the sector of social housing. And it must be admitted, they have grounds for their criticism.

To find finance for the construction of social housing, a number of experts suggest introducing increased taxes on excessive living space. Besides, from their standpoint, a gradual rehousing of people should be organized as follows: from social flats to higher class housing, and providing recent graduates and others who need them, with vacant spaces. Such an experiment is being carried out in the Kemerovo region.   

Just think: Russia spent as much as $50 bln on the Olympiad in Sochi. If all the money had been invested in social housing construction, it would have been much better spent, taking into consideration the current youthful brain drain.  


Nine floors out of five?

Architect Alexei Krotov suggests his solution to the problem. It involves the complex reconstruction of five-storey houses. The working life of the five-storey houses of the 1st category of importance is 100 – 150 years, but because of bad service and capital repair delays, their engineering networks get worn out much sooner.  

The Moscow government, in due course, has called on builders to reconstruct these buildings. If five-storey houses are turned into nine-storey ones, their space increases 2.2-fold, and the economy benefits by 30% as compared with new construction, Mr Krotov reasons.

The lay-out of the flats also changes: they become more spacious. Even two-level flats appear!

Up to 100m m2 of such housing is to be reconstructed annually, and the process must be continuous, the architect thinks. By the way, this was the plan chosen by the former GDR after the integration of Germany.  


Why Cheremushki did not take hold in the USA

Of course, there are hidden pitfalls here. In particular, the creation of social housing enclaves in big cities runs the risk of turning them into modern ghettoes. International experience, e.g. American, bears witness to that.

According to Vladimir Udovenko, a representative of the American Association of Low-rise Housing Construction (SIPA), in due course an attempt was taken to transfer the Soviet experience of social housing creation to America, in Pittsburg (Pennsylvania) in the 1970s. At that time, this industrial city was developing rapidly and people from all over North America were moving there.  

The local authorities decided to create a special residential area for new-comers. They started to study international models and found the area of New Cheremushki in Moscow. They took it as an example, and soon a quarter of Pittsburg “New Cheremushki” appeared in the city of American metallurgists. The quarter differed from the Russian analogue due to a higher quality of construction. It was populated by Afro-Americans, Mexicans and Puerto-Ricans.

And then it developed according to the scenario familiar to inhabitants of the Russian suburbs. The local young people broke mail boxes, painted house walls with graffiti, broke engineering structures, etc. Youth gangs formed in the yards, and the police were afraid to go there.  Finally, the authorities lost patience and the area was demolished. Instead, low-rise settlements, parking and playgrounds were built there.

The same thing happened with the famous “Pruitt-Igoe” residential complex in Saint-Louis (Missouri) and a number of other “new ghettoes”.

According to Vladimir Udovenko, these negative examples prove that one must be very careful when trying to ‘borrow’ experience. But it does not mean that it should not be done.


Vladimir GURVICH