​The Russian housing dream vs reality

What kind of property Russians are dreaming of and what they end up buying, plus how the dead influence the housing market.

Many Russians dream about having a house of their own, but have to make do with living in an apartment instead. They feel uneasy about moving into a place where someone recently died, but accept the poor standards of the surrounding urban environment. They value a close proximity to schools and kindergartens, but don’t mind living further away from a hospital. Strelka Magazine talked to anthropologist Mikhail Alekseevsky about the results of a study undertaken by Strelka KB’s Center for Urban Anthropology in six Russian cities.

Market analysis can tell us only so much about the actual preferences of Russians that guide their purchasing of housing property — we don’t know how the decision to choose one option over another is made and what factors play the crucial role in that process. The dreams and expectations of the ordinary citizen remain a mystery to us. However, given that the housing sector is undergoing an all-encompassing transformation right now, these questions are becoming more and more important.

As part of a contract with the Russian Agency for Housing Mortgage Lending, Strelka KB has prepared a study of six Russian cities of different populations and type in order to find out how Russians choose their new homes and what constitutes their ideal kind of housing.

On 11 October Strelka KB launched the Open International Competition for Standard Housing and Residential Development concept design. Learn more.

The lesser evil

Despite the evident differences between various cities, the motivation behind purchasing new housing in most cases is the same: to improve one’s living conditions. The only notable exception is the southern city of Krasnodar — the current construction boom and relatively low real estate prices created a large share of buyers who purchase apartments in new condominiums as a form of long-term investment. The buyers rent these apartments out with the goal of selling them later at a higher price.

The purchase of new housing is almost always driven by marriage or divorce, the birth of children, or the need to move to a different city or closer to elderly relatives. Most buyers cannot afford to make the purchase using their own savings and either have to get a mortgage or try to receive governmental financial aid via one of the social support programs.

Only a few wealthy people can afford their own “dream home.” The rest of the population has to operate on a very limited budget, and low price becomes one of the decisive factors when choosing a new house. As a result, buyers accept the reality of living in a property with a number of disadvantages attached to it and choose the “lesser evil”. This creates demand for low-quality residential development with inefficient transport links and bad infrastructure.

“Untouched” apartments

Buyers have to decide whether to buy their property on the primary or secondary housing markets. Thanks to the booming construction in recent years, the new housing market has plenty of options to offer. However, in smaller cities with a population below 50,000, the situation is different: there is barely any new multi-family housing.

The research indicated that buyers ascribe special symbolic importance to the “newness” of the property. Newly-built housing is considered fresh and clean and easier to adapt to one’s preferences and needs. Some of the interviewees stated directly that they wouldn’t want to buy an old apartment because they don’t want to end up in an apartment where one of the previous owners had died. They are only comfortable with the “untouched” apartments in newly-built buildings. The fresh and bright look of the new buildings together with convenient flat layouts, newly installed amenities, and often a better-off community also contribute to their appeal.

One of the more important disadvantages of new housing is the absence of proper social infrastructure such as schools and kindergartens. Better infrastructure increases the market attractiveness of properties and new residential blocks. Overall, the very fact the property is new is more important than any disadvantages.

Dreaming of a suburban house

A suburban house is considered by most of the survey participants to be the best possible type of residential property. Russians love the idea of a private house. It is also important to have a plot of land that they can fence for greater privacy. In many ways this is a reaction to the Soviet past, when people had no options but to live side by side in large residential blocks.

But the costs of building a private home and installing new utilities remain too high for most Russians. Many technical difficulties accompany construction and gaining approval for it, as well. The maintenance and upkeep of a private house is not cheap, either, while the lack of retail and recreational services in close proximity increases the dependency on cars.

Stalin- and Brezhnev-era housing vs Khrushchev panel buildings

Russians often express mixed feelings about Soviet-period housing. On the one hand, it still remains the prevailing type of development in Russian cities and the majority of urban dwellers live in this type of housing. On the other hand, due to age and the consequent wear and tear, the overall condition of these houses is quite unsatisfactory. “Khrushchevki” — the type of housing built in the 1950s-1960s and named after Nikita Khrushchev — are considered particularly out of date. According to the interviews, people are especially negative about them. Their small rooms and tiny kitchens are often cited, as well as bad sound insulation and inconvenient layouts, in addition to outdated technical systems. In smaller cities experiencing high levels of out-migration, “khrushchevki” are on the verge of becoming totally abandoned.

Among the favourites are the so-called “stalinki” and “brezhnevki” — introduced during the Stalin and Brezhnev period, respectively. The lush and decorative appeal as well as the larger, high-ceilinged apartments of the Stalin-era buildings contribute to their desirability. “Brezhnevki” steadily remain in demand on the secondary housing market, especially in smaller cities and towns lacking new construction. They also offer larger apartments, better layouts, and sound insulation. But both types of housing suffer from the bad condition of their outdated technical systems. The main advantage of Soviet housing in general is a generous provision of social amenities as well as greenery and good access to public spaces, from playgrounds to parks.

Another two types of development that have acquired a negative reputation over the years are the individual houses in rural areas, often lacking access to proper utility networks, and the ramshackle and deteriorating wooden housing of the late 19th-early 20th century.

Disregard for urban environment

The quality of housing and convenience of apartment layouts are another two important factors for buyers. Brick or monolite housing is especially highly valued, in addition to high ceilings, larger rooms and kitchens, as well as a balcony and a good condition of utility systems. In some regions, buyers express more specific preferences: for example, in Krasnodar, due to the popularity of hosting guests and organising large social gatherings at home, a more spacious living room is often cited as an advantage.

Good transportation links are also considered important by property buyers in Russia. This proves to be especially important in larger cities, where living in the suburbs implies frequent use of personal and public transport. If the estimated commuting time to and from a particular district exceeds 1 hour, buyers are less likely to purchase properties in it.

Families with children value close proximity to schools and kindergartens, as well as opportunities for extra-curricular activities for their children, such as music schools. People are often driven to stay in low-quality housing just to retain access to these amenities. The proximity of hospitals and other medical services play a much lesser role in their decisions.

The quality of the urban environment is one of the least considered factors when choosing new housing. High level of crime or a poor ecological situation can affect the decision-making process when choosing a particular area, but badly designed public spaces, a bad condition of streetscape, a lack of parking spaces, playgrounds, and pedestrian zones are often considered as less important factors. The happiness derived from owning a high-quality property is often more important than the difficulties arising from the use of shared spaces.

Text: Mikhail Alekseevsky
Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina