Posted August 6th 2013 at 7:55 am by
in First Person Policy

The Life and Times of Social Housing in Estonia

“A netted sack in one hand, a wet nosed child in the other, a drunken Ivan on the back, and a five year plan ahead.”   – Russian proverb about Soviet women

The Life and Times of Social Housing in Estonia

Renovated social housing in Lasnamae, Tallinn, Estonia. Photos by Lily Song.

While on summer holiday in Estonia, my husband and I have been visiting with friends and family in the town where he grew up. This afternoon, we had a nice chat with Kadri over a home-cooked lunch of ground beef and cabbage, boiled potatoes, cucumber and tomato salad, and black bread.

Gathered in the living room of her cozy two-bedroom flat in a Soviet era apartment block, she told us about how her neighborhood has evolved over the last thirty plus years – from state socialism, through the fall of the USSR, to the transition towards market democracy.

Before moving here (in 1981), we used to live in a sectioned off house near the city center, where we shared a bathroom and kitchen with several other families. Back then, the official housing assignments were doled out through the central committee allocation system, but different institutions and state companies also had their own housing allocation quotas. We got ours through an arrangement with the university where my husband worked; he agreed to spend a summer leading a voluntary student construction brigade to build roads near Gagarin, Russia in exchange for this apartment. We were very excited to move into our own place.

The neighborhood had an interesting social mix during Soviet times. Our neighbor was a taxi dispatcher, her husband a truck driver. The unit below was an engineer. Next to them was a chemistry professor. The next stairwell over had a family of alcoholics that were always fighting. The stairwell next to that had a guy who worked for the Communist city government; he had a black Volga with a driver waiting outside. Back then, we all lived off the salaries set by the state and bought what we needed from the state run stores that had little in terms of selection but enough to get by on. No one really thrived but then again no one went jobless or hungry either.

The toughest times came in the early 1990s when the state collapsed and the new democratic republic was being established. The building maintenance office disappeared, and they privatized all the units. Initially there was no condo association and just apartment owners. The stairwells and other common spaces had no owners, and they fell apart. Only five years later did they form the condo association and things got better. A lot of people lost their jobs back then, and more importantly, their social positions. One guy went from being a physics professor to a janitor at a store. It was dangerous for the boys to play outside. There were lots of muggings and people getting beat up on the street for no good reason. Some of the neighborhood kids tortured animals.

Once there was a housing market and more options available, those who could afford to moved out of the neighborhood. The business savvy initially sold goods on the black market, some of them making more than three times their monthly salary in one day. In general, the enterprising types that embraced business moved up and out and those used to the old system or less able to respond to new opportunities, like single mothers and the elderly, were left behind. Estonians are traditionally people of the land, and many have built themselves houses with big yards and gardens in the suburbs. Others have moved to renovated apartments or new multifamily housing complexes built by private developers near the city center with better access to shops, schools, jobs, public transportation options, and other amenities.

Over time, the values of these apartments have fallen, as people don’t want to live in the Soviet-built social housing quarters; there is a kind of stigma. The socialist state engineered in-migration from other places in the Union and maintained a social mix in these neighborhoods. Marketization led to segregation, and these older neighborhoods have gradually become lower income and older in population. I’ve heard that in some countries, governments still build and maintain social housing but they are nice and coexist with markets and people are free to make choices. Why not take the best parts of different systems and make them work together? This makes sense to me.

One of my friends who used to live nearby moved out to a new townhouse on the outskirt of the city, where she has her own plot to plant vegetables and flowers. But it is far away, and she doesn’t drive, so I hardly see her. Still, I have other friends and old neighbors here to visit with, and we support and keep each other company. Times have been tough, but we are survivors.


The Life and Times of Social Housing in Estonia

Social housing in Annelinn, Tartu, Estonia.

For me, Kadri’s story suggests a critical role for urban planners in addressing the gap left by the collapse of state socialism and spatially uneven tendencies of capitalist development.

Among planning questions that come to mind:

In the absence of a central housing authority, are these dilapidating mono-functional residential neighborhoods on the urban peripheries doomed to failure? Or can different entities, including public agencies and private sector and civil society actors, step in to fill the void in a concerted, forward-looking fashion that generates shared value?

To the extent the neighborhoods have existing forms of social organization, ranging from mutual support networks to condo associations, how might these be harnessed to improve environmental quality in the neighborhoods?

What is the role of culture and identity? For instance, given that the common areas between the buildings tend to be in worse condition than the residential units themselves, could parceling some of these “dead” spaces and allocating them as small gardens or other “desirable” uses to the residents foster a sense of investment and pride in the neighborhoods?

Finally, how might the experiences, skills, and aspirations of the residents themselves be put in the service of neighborhood regeneration?

Post, interview, and photos by Lily Song.

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