The Two Faces Of Moscow's Housing Crisis

You'd never know it from looking at the classified ads in this newspaper, but Moscow still suffers from a housing shortage.

It is a paradox. Need 170 square meters overlooking Patriarch's Pond? No problem. How about four bedrooms, bath and sauna in a "ministerial building" with guards at the door? Just call your local real estate agent. There seem to be no shortage of apartments for the upscale renter, which includes any foreigner looking for a decent place to live. For a fee (often outrageous), just about any apartment can be had, it seems.

Yet Moscow's housing shortage persists. Lines for apartments were one of the features of the Soviet era, just like lines for bread, lines for beer and lines for everything else. The main problem was, and is, that everyone wanted and still wants to live in Moscow.

I have a Russian friend who is now in his 11th year in line for an apartment. He is your average Muscovite, who grew up in a three-room apartment in a modest khrushchevka (those boxy five-story apartment buildings Nikita Khrushchev is credited with putting up all over Moscow).

Since three families are now registered in that 29 square-meter flat, he lives in another three-room box across town with his wife, son and in-laws. He has never had a place for his own family. He gapes with a mixture of awe and anger when he sees the sprawling former Communist Party Central Committee flats his foreign friends live in.

If it weren't for perestroika, my friend figures, this year he would finally have gotten his new apartment. He does not dream romantically about the past, but soberly points out that economic and political changes have wreaked havoc on the housing line. Construction stops and starts in fits, and the few apartments that become available are handed out for huge bribes, even more than before. Despaired of ever getting an apartment by waiting in line, he has finally looked into a new apartment sale program offered by the state. If he qualifies, the state will subsidize up to 70 percent of the purchase price of a new flat. He will have to add only about $6,000.

To qualify, he must get a spravka from every person registered in his apartment, which includes his brother, the brother's current wife, the brother's former wife and her family and all the children. The spravki must state where each person works and how much they earn. The spravki for the children must state where they study and the amount in subsidies they get for hot meals at school. He will have to look for the former wife; the brother doesn't know where she is.

If each family member earns about 150,000 rubles ($34) or less per month, my friend will qualify for the 70 percent subsidy. If not, he gets less. (How does someone who earns 150,000 rubles a month come up with $6,000?). At least one member of the family must work for a state organization. His brother is a cop, so that takes care of that (it doesn't matter that the brother is not the one getting the apartment).

If approved, my friend will then receive a flat in one of those slapped-together skyscrapers that are still going up as though the Soviet era never ended. The flat will be either outside the city or closer in on Nizhniye Polya, the site of Moscow's main sewage treatment facility.

Meanwhile, I am looking for someone to repaint my guest room.