A look at the deeply humanistic Soviet attitude towards housing in the early 1980s.
Well-Built and Ahead of Schedule!, Soviet housing poster, 1955
The Soviet English language magazine Socialism: Theory and Practice had a feature where they would answer questions that had been sent to them about various issues confronting Soviet society and socialism. In February, 1982 a STP correspondent answered a question about Soviet housing policy and its opposition to commercialized housing.
The answer is a succinct and quite informative glimpse into the subject which was of huge concern to the Soviet party and leadership. The USSR was born out of war, revolution and civil war and had been devastated during the Second World War.
Yet it was the first country in the world to guarantee all citizens not only housing but affordable housing in its constitution. Soviet housing policy, accordingly, was deeply humanistic. As the writer notes in the USSR at the time "invalids, participants in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), labour veterans, large families, single mothers, etc. profit by privileges and preferences enabling them to obtain a flat, or increased living space, ahead of the general housing queue. Thus the deciding factor is the principle of justice and not the material qualifications of a family. In providing housing we are above all concerned about social aspect of the matter—the creation of equal living and leisure conditions for all Soviet citizens."
This was something that could not possibly have been said of capitalist housing anywhere then or now.
As the author noted, if the Soviet Union adopted a commercial approach "some of the most well-to-do families or families with a small number of members would be able to obtain a flat more quickly and would live in luxurious flats or individual dwellings." But from "the Soviet viewpoint this is inhuman."
Towards the end of the Soviet Union rent amounted to no more than approximately 4% of the average family's income and it had not increased since 1928, a simply astonishing fact. Housing was heavily subsidized by the state as were utilities.
By the 1980s millions of new apartments were being built each year, though standards in the larger and older cities lagged behind those in smaller centers and new towns and cities both in terms of quantity and quality as older housing stock was often relied on more.
The response here looks at objectives, housing co-operatives, rent, protections against eviction and other aspects of housing policy at the time.
I cannot see why your state should finance the bulk of housing construction, all the more so since it cannot yet provide people with dwellings they would like to have. I believe that a commercial approach would have changed a lot, facilitating and accelerating the solution of the problem. - Dietrich Krause, West Germany
Truly Mr. Krause, I won't be original if I say that housing is one of the primary necessities for normal life. But to put a home in direct and rigid dependence on one's financial qualifications would be unfair to those members of society who for some reason or another (large family, young or pensionable age, disability, etc.) may not have sufficient means to purchase one.
GUARANTEE OF SOCIAL EQUALITY
All citizens in the USSR have the right to a home. This is not only a constitutional right but a real fact (incidentally, the USSR is the first country in the world to proclaim this right). True, with our huge population growth we cannot for a while create and at once make normal housing accommodation available for all, i.e. to provide comfortable flats for each Soviet family where each member has his own room. But invalids, participants in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), labour veterans, large families, single mothers, etc. profit by privileges and preferences enabling them to obtain a flat, or increased living space, ahead of the general housing queue. Thus the deciding factor is the principle of justice and not the material qualifications of a family. In providing housing we are above all concerned about social aspect of the matter—the creation of equal living and leisure conditions for all Soviet citizens.
You write that the commercial approach to the housing problem would considerably alter the situation. Without doubt, some of the most well-to-do families or families with a small number of members would be able to obtain a flat more quickly and would live in luxurious flats or individual dwellings. At the same time large families or those with less material advantages would stay in straightened circumstances. From the Soviet viewpoint this is inhuman, and that is why we have our housing accommodation distributed according to the numerical constituent of the family—a large family has a large flat and a small family a small one.
You write, Mr. Krause, that not all Soviet people today are satisfied with their accommodation (undoubtedly, to no small degree on account of a rise in demands). Yes, this is so. Self-contained flats are possessed by only eighty per cent of town-dwellers. On an average every urban dweller has 15 square metres of living space. The state, however, has set the task of providing each family with a self-contained flat by the end of the present decade. It also bears the main responsibility and expenditures of house building and maintenance in the country.
Besides, with the growing rates of housing construction its quality is also rising.
Naturally, additional comfort costs more. Increasing the quality of a house makes it more expensive (for instance, in 1965 one square metre of housing cost the state 120 roubles, now it is 170 roubles*). More expensive but not for the people. The Soviet Constitution, proclaiming the right of people to a home guarantees constant low rents for flats. That is why the state shoulders the main expenditures. State investments in housing over the past fifteen years have almost doubled. Thus, in 1965, 9,600 million roubles were spent on housing and in 1980 more than 18,000 million roubles.
THE ROLE OF HOUSING COOPERATIVES
The personal means of the population serve as an additional source financing the housing programme. This, first of all, is because the scale of state housing construction does not satisfy all requirements. Therefore some prefer to invest their savings to more quickly celebrate a house-warming party. Annually, citizens invest about 500 million roubles in co-operative and individual housing construction equivalent to 15 per cent of the housing being built in the Soviet Union. The state helps here too. It allots land to housing cooperatives without charge, grants loans to them at an interest rate of 0.5 per cent per annum for a term ranging from 15 to 20 years. Incidentally, this is the lowest loan interest rate in the world; in the US, for example, it is almost twenty times higher. The state makes itself responsible for all building work. Those joining the housing cooperative deposit 40 per cent of the cost of their future flat in the state bank. In some instances the first deposit is 30 per cent, sometimes even 20. These so-called privilege cooperatives are mainly for young families.
On average every year, 10,000 cooperative flats are built in Moscow or, approximately one tenth of those built at state expense. When finally occupied the co-operative house is connected to state services. Electricity, gas, heating, cold and hot running water are paid for precisely by the same tariffs as applied to houses owned by the state. The same principle is used to pay for the services of plumbers, electricians and other personnel concerned with keeping all services maintained in proper working order.
HOW MUCH IS THE RENT?
In spite of the development of housing cooperation the majority of Soviet families live in state flats. They are rented without preliminary charges for an unlimited period of time. Flats in actual fact pass from the parents to the child-ren. The rent is so low that it is not a burden for anyone irrespective of family income. Thus a three-room flat, living area 80 square metres including bathroom, toilet and large kitchen, with hot water and gas costs a month approximately 25 roubles. This amounts to 4-5 per cent of the average family's income. In the capitalist countries rent for a flat generally comes up to almost one third of a working family's income, and flats specifically intended for low-paid workers (the cheapest and without many conveniences) take approximately 20 per cent of the worker's total family income.
Rents in the USSR have been kept at the same level since 1928 and average 13 copecks per square metre. Areas of the corridor, kitchen, bathroom and the like are not charged for according to the system of rent payment adopted in the USSR. Communal service charges were established in 1934. They are also low and have been the same since that year. Despite more costly fuel which in recent years is being extracted mainly in the north and east of the country, in poorly developed areas with severe natural conditions, the domestic tariffs for all kinds of fuel and energy have not been increased and for some energy car-riers have even been lowered. For example, previously for the use of gas Soviet people paid 32 copecks per month for each member of the family and now 16 copecks. Thus, you can see Mr. Krause the right of USSR citizens for housing is assured also by the low payment for it which is within the reach of everyone.
RECENT CHANGES TO HOUSING LEGISLATION
I want to mention that in resolving the housing problem the Soviet Union is constantly searching for new effective ways, applying specific measures. The latest of them is the adoption of the Foundations of Housing Legislation (June, 1981) at a session of the USSR Supreme Soviet. The main purpose of the legislation is to define more precisely and consolidate a citizen's right to housing, fixed in the USSR Constitution, to assure this right to a higher degree. No person can be evicted from his home other-wise than in the order prescribed in the law. In case of an eviction the citizen must be given other accommodation. You must agree that all this is a striking contrast to the dramatic situations in which residents with moderate means find themselves in the capitalist countries, literally thrown out into the street by the rich house property owners.
In the Soviet Union the right of a citizen to permanent use of living accommodation (flats) in state and cooperative houses is legislatively fixed. In accord with the new law the standard living area is established by the legislation of every Union republic and this standard must not be less than 9 square metres per person. Among the citizens who have priority in receiving a new flat or improve their housing conditions are: invalids of the Great Patriotic War, the families of those soldiers killed or posted as missing, mothers of large families, mother-heroines, single mothers and some other citizens (particularly, industrial and office workers who have for many years conscientiously worked in industry). It seems to me that the above answers your question why the USSR is against commercialized housing. - Victor STAROSTIN, APN observer
*One rouble (100 copecks) is approximately equal to 1.4 US dollars—Ed.
Give Joy to the Housewarmers!
We Will Build 2.3 Billion Square Meters of Housing by the Year 2000
- Social Housing Poster, USSR 1988