Coming Home the Hard Way

When Vladimir Yasev, 39, crashed a company car two years ago causing $7,000 worth of damage, he didn't think it would make him homeless.

But his boss got angry, took Yasev's passport and ordered him to sign a piece of paper. A short while later Yasev discovered he had signed away the room in a communal apartment that he called home.

Last fall, however, after a prolonged legal battle, a court finally decided that Yasev had been tricked and gave his apartment back to him.

Yasev is typical of a new wave of cases working their way through the courts in which homeowners unjustly swindled out of their apartments have had their property restored.

Since 1991 when privatization was first permitted, Russians have rushed to acquire their apartments from the state. But the move to private ownership has also brought risks. Ignorant of the laws of private property, many people have been tricked out of their homes.

Swindlers and racketeers have preyed on the gullible, on pensioners, heavy drinkers and people with mental disorders, in some cases murdering them for their apartments. In just one three-month period in 1994, the city government linked 30 murders and 14 kidnapping or extortion cases to apartment scams.

But Russian justice officials say a growing number of people like Yasev are now starting to fight back.

Courts are increasingly ruling that, even in cases in which a homeowner signed the sale documents, if it can be proved that they were lied to or were incompetent to sign, the deals must be reversed.

Starting with a trickle, a whole flood of cases are now coming before the Russian courts launched by citizens who claim they were tricked into selling their apartments and are asking for them back. As the cases work their way through the courts, more and more sales are being reversed.

If the sale price was unreasonably low, courts take it as prima facie evidence of foul play. Courts will also reverse sales if the seller was mentally impaired, an alcoholic or a pensioner, said Yury Vlasov, a departmental director at the Justice Ministry.

Vlasov said that there have already been 77 cases brought to the courts in which people are seeking the return of their apartments. Thirty have been decided in favor of the original owner.

Most bizarrely, there are another 561 cases before the Russian courts in which people are seeking to make their privatized apartments the property of the state once again, Vlasov said. Muscovites are trying to renationalize their apartments, partly fearing that the government will raise taxes on private property, but also because they think that state ownership will protect them against swindlers.

"The state once protected everyone, but now people can sell their apartments and end up on the streets," Vlasov said. "People have sold their apartments and ended up at train stations or even been killed."

Courts apparently have the muscle to enforce judgments. In Vladimir Yasev's case, the new owners were simply shown the court order and vacated. Yasev was able to prove that the circumstances in which he signed the authorized documents to sell his room were unlawful because he was lied to.

Vulnerable Muscovites who wanted to move from two or three-room apartments to one-room apartments further outside the city center, or to sell their communal rooms for cheaper ones, have fallen prey to criminals able to make them sign over their rights -- and have thus ended up homeless.

Vladimir Chernov was one such case. A woman he drank some vodka with promised to buy his communal apartment room and resettle him in an apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. But once he had turned over his room, he found out the apartment he was supposed to move into was already occupied. Meanwhile, she lives in his old room.

"Who's going to help me?" said Chernov, who now lives in a homeless shelter. "I can't afford a lawyer."

So far Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has made several rulings aimed at protecting residents from housing scams. If children live in an apartment, a special board known as the ***Opekunsky Soviet***, or Guardians Board, must approve the sale to make sure the children's rights are protected.

In 1994 the city government also forbade vulnerable people such as the elderly, the mentally ill and alcoholics to sell their flats without city permission signed by the mayor or the head of the administration of one of Moscow's regions.

Yuri Vlasov of the Justice Ministry said Muscovites today are more aware of what their apartments are worth and thus more cautious.

The Moscow courts are also reviewing over a 100 cases concerning housing scam artists, some of whom made millions of dollars from illegally selling apartments. One such case involves five people who claim they were sold the same apartment.