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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Landlord Wars: The Fight for Moscow Flats

Foreigners often complain of not feeling settled in Moscow to the same extent that they might at other expatriate postings, and there is no mystery as to the reason. I call it landlord terrorism.


In the absence of a civilized system of leases and rent controls, all foreigners live day to day in their apartments pretty much at the grace of their landlords. At any moment, a landlord may choose to renegotiate a lease, and the foreigner has little recourse but pay the blackmail or move.


Lately, landlord terrorism seems to have hit a new peak. The reason is no mystery: As inflation has withered Muscovite's savings and salaries, many have turned to the only asset they have, their apartments, as a way of generating income.


This has created an entirely new kind of businessman whom I call the "trade down" broker.


In the West, brokers speak of "trade up" buy-ers who sell a smaller house and use the equity to buy a bigger one. But here, brokers are doing it in reverse, which enables Muscovites to convert the value of their apartments into a monthly income -- with foreigners paying the bill.


Here's how it works. Muscovites with apartments located in the center are bombarded by flyers from brokers who assure them that foreign companies are willing to rent their apartments for fantastic sums (by any standards) of $1, 000-$2, 000 per month.


The brokers then offer to find these "trade down" Russians apartments farther from the center for a fraction of the price. The Russian pockets the difference.


This phenomena has caused rents to skyrocket. It is not uncommon now to hear prices of more than $1, 000 for a two-bedroom apartment in Moscow. Russians, naturally, pay far less.


As a Russian may live well on as little as $200 per month, it is no wonder they are clinging to their apartments as their last hinge against inflation.


But the attendant sense of responsibility of being a landlord hasn't quite kept pace with the rising rent figures.


Few Russian landlords, despite asking world-class prices, are willing to do something as simple as remove their possessions from the flats, much less make repairs and honor leases. Who hasn't heard the story of the landlord who gave three days notice of a doubling in the rent? Or of the landlord who clears away one half of a closet in an apartment full of things? Or the tenant who comes home to find the landlady having tea in the kitchen?


In these times, there's a risk of trivializing the genuine hardships of the country by complaining about rising rents and unstable landlords. But I suspect even most Russians would call three-days notice to evict a "genuine hardship".