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The Bottom Line

Why Lawyers Buy Flats in New-Buildings!
By: Moskovsky Piloti, with apologies to the real Piloti

A few months ago, something happened which we had been anticipating for a year – we found out that our house had been slated for ‘reconstruction’.

The flat that we lived in always seemed too good to be true. 130 sq. m. near Krasnye Vorota on a quiet side street, top (5th) floor, views of two Stalin skyscrapers, high ceilings, old parquet floors, stunning levels of natural light from windows on three sides of the building and a price that was good value for the area.

The injury

However, things started to go wrong almost as soon as we moved in. Spring came and as the ice on the roof started melting, leaks appeared in all the rooms along the front of the house apart from our six-month-old baby’s room. We should have thought about that a little more, for within a couple of days, an expanse of sodden plaster five feet in diameter and two inches thick crashed to the floor next to our baby’s cot. Mercifully, our son was out for a walk with his nanny at the time.

The roof turned out to be in a pitiful condition. Whilst the municipal authorities are supposed to maintain roofs, the only suggestion they had for our landlord was to buy materials himself and pay one of their employees to moonlight. I got to inspect it with the moonlighting workman and found rusting metal sheets, turned up at the joins and dotted with holes where generations of workmen had risked life and limb to stab at the ice with sharp implements in the first weeks of spring.

Whilst we were able to withhold rent until our landlord got the roof fixed, we could have no such influence over two other events, which were altogether on a different scale.

When we moved in, a municipal heating pipe was being erected on pylons set in concrete on three sides of the house. Many of the cracks that appeared in the ceiling and walls of our flat and the flats of our neighbors appeared to date from that time.

A few weeks after we moved in, the patch of land next to our house became the sort of residential construction site that shakes the neighboring buildings to the core and takes heavy deliveries in the middle of the night. One year on, when they had just started digging foundations, the ‘party’ wall near the corner of the building had visibly sunk downwards and moved laterally towards the construction site, dragging the window and doorframes with it. My gut feeling is that the horizontal metal beams that they bolted to the outside of our walls, lacerating the pretty pre-1917 painted plasterwork, were not so much to support the building (the structural engineer who took a look on our behalf was skeptical), but for the sake of making the house appear visually beyond hope and therefore fit for demolition.

The insult

If there is such a thing as a ‘Considerate Constructor’s Scheme’ for Russian building sites, it does not go beyond the sign that apologizes for any temporary inconvenience. If a diesel-belching piece of machinery is difficult to start on cold winter mornings, it is left running, occasionally revved, all the previous night, as was explained to me at 3am by a drunken man who appeared to be in charge. If a long vehicle carrying steel beams needs to be unloaded with a crane, searchlight and language that the bearers’ mothers could only have taught them after a spell in prison, what better time than between the hours of 11pm and 3am? If a road needs a hole dug with a pneumatic drill, 10pm is as good a time as any.

I called the site manager on his mobile phone at 3am one night, so he could listen to my woken baby screaming. To my amazement, he answered his phone. Apparently, he sympathized, but there was nothing he could do, as Moscow needed new elite houses to be built at 3am. The next time I tried calling him in the middle of a noisy night, he was not quite so naive. Presumably, he valued his sleep.

I called the police a few times, but I do not believe they ever came.

We probably took all this too much to heart. I refer to it as ‘our house’, but we were only renting. It was precisely for fear of something like this happening that we have never bought. The people who gathered one Saturday morning in our podezd to listen to Natalia Petrovna, an owner who appeared to know how to set up an owner’s association and fight for the house, are less fortunate. We, rats deserting a ship that shakes and cracks on the shifting seas under its wooden beams, have moved elsewhere.

According to Natalia Petrovna, if a house is declared to be in an emergency condition, the city will move flat-owners to a new development on the edge of the city. This appears to be a slightly different situation from the case of old houses that simply have wooden floorboards, where displaced owners these days have the right to replacement apartments in equivalent locations and therefore relatively similar value. It seems that if a house reaches an emergency condition, there is a loophole that results in owners losing the majority of the value of their investment.

We tried to get our landlord to act a year ago, but he preferred to keep his head firmly buried in the sand. Today’s owners’ association seems to come too late. Everything seems to suggest that the residential developers next door have a plan, and I would stake my pension on their getting hold of the land under our old building before too longer.

So what went wrong? It strikes me, and I offer my apologies for this pet theory in advance, that the concept of property rights that is so integral as to be an obsession in British or American society is still so new in this country that neither owner nor state respects or understands its value. Hence, our landlord preferred to pretend that nothing was wrong. When we said we were moving out, he was upset, but not at the people who have destroyed his property and are shortly to cause him to wind up with a $150,000 flat in Yuzhno- Butovo as a replacement for his $500,000 flat in the centre of Moscow, but at his tenants whose child might have died under his plasterwork a year ago.

As I tell our story to friends and colleagues, I find that many of them have faced similar situations. One colleague, who had done her due diligence as thoroughly as is possible, found shortly after buying that her building had become the subject of an investment contract. Whether or not the hotel next door takes control of her building, the value of her investment is damaged. Another colleague had the sense (and money, together with friends) to buy up an entire building and replace its wooden beams.

I recently stood on the roof of a central Moscow building with its Russian owner’s representative looking down on the rundown residential building next door. He explained to me that they were going to pull it down and redevelop it as elite housing. I asked about the current inhabitants. They would be moved to some new residential area on the edge of Moscow. “However you look at it, there is nothing for them here. There are no shops that they can afford to go into. The centre is for elite housing, not for these people.” Nor, it seems, for middle class professionals like our former landlord with aspirations to financial security.

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