Gorbachev Reverses Communist Policy, Mandates Private Housing : Soviet Union: He wants to ensure that each citizen has an adequate place to live within the decade.


To cope with the Soviet Union’s chronic housing shortage, one of the country’s most acutely felt social problems, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Sunday ordered the government to develop a private market in housing as part of a comprehensive program to ensure that the whole population is adequately housed within the decade.

Gorbachev, in a far-reaching presidential decree, said that the program should reverse such long-held tenets of Soviet socialism as public provision of housing for all and the state’s absolute ownership of land and that it should shift massive resources from industrial projects to double the construction of housing.

While the state would continue to ensure adequate housing for government employees, pensioners, invalids and low-income families, it would, under the decree, “form a housing market where a citizen would be able to buy housing legally to satisfy his family’s needs"--and the current prohibition on such transactions would be abolished.

Rents, which are now generally less than 10% of a worker’s monthly income, including utilities, would be raised significantly for larger and better quality apartments in order to finance new housing and to pay for the upgrading of existing buildings.

In rural areas, small towns and the suburbs of major cities, state-owned land would be allocated under the program to individuals so that they can build houses that they will own, be able to leave to their children and be able to sell.


After decades of emphasis on public housing, in the cities and in rural areas, the program calls on the government to “make a radical turn in the construction of individual housing, to support the initiative of individuals and to make the construction of individual homes of special importance to the state.”

“The seriousness of the housing problem has not lessened,” the decree said, explaining what will be a fundamental shift in Soviet policy as well as the failure of a program launched just two years ago to resolve the problem. “It is obvious that solving the housing problem with current methods is impossible.”

An opinion poll published Sunday in the weekly newspaper Argumenty i Facty showed that 42% of the country’s urban population listed housing conditions as their biggest problem, ahead of even shortages of food and consumer goods.

Yevgeny M. Primakov, a member of the Presidential Council and a key Gorbachev adviser, said that the move will affect the lives of tens of millions of Soviet citizens. He said it is intended to alleviate one of the most critical socio-economic problems facing the nation.

The scale of the problem, which has worsened despite Gorbachev’s promises two years ago of fast action, is daunting. The failure of one program after another to resolve the problem, despite a constitutional right to adequate housing, has been both an acute embarrassment to the ruling Communist Party and a source of growing social discontent.

More than 14 million urban families are waiting for housing, according to government figures; half of those now live in apartments that they share with other families, and nearly 4.5 million of those have less than 55 square feet of living space per person, half of the minimum guaranteed by Soviet law.

In industrial cities such as Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk and Ufa, more than 30% of the population is waiting for adequate housing, which in many Soviet cities is regarded as 65 or 70 square feet per person. However, whatever the size of the family, housing rarely amounts to more than three rooms plus a kitchen and bath. The wait for public housing is measured in years and often is as long as a decade.

In practical terms, Gorbachev’s program will require that at least 30 million new apartments and houses be built in this decade.

Primakov said that Gorbachev had ordered the full resources of the state be used to honor the commitment that every Soviet family be properly housed by the year 2000 and that the government’s investment program would be revised to allocate more money to housing.

However, as the country moves toward a “regulated market economy,” the current goal of Gorbachev’s economic reforms, Primakov said that greater reliance will be placed on development of a housing market so that individuals can build their own homes in rural and suburban areas and purchase apartments in cooperatively owned buildings in Soviet cities.

“The emphasis is on the private building of homes,” he said in a television interview. “The path towards the creation of a housing market is opening.”

The program says that a sizable expansion of the Soviet construction industry, including new factories and the conversion of older plants, will be required to provide construction materials to those building cooperatively and privately owned housing. Banks are to make loans at favorable interest rates, tax incentives are to be given construction companies undertaking the work and foreign companies will be invited to form joint ventures.

The government’s program, however, will bring sharp increases in housing costs, both in the prices charged for apartments in cooperatively owned buildings and cottages in outlying areas and in the rents charged by local governments, state ministries and enterprises that together own about 70% of urban housing.

Urban rents will be adjusted to take into account the size and quality of apartments, with a surcharge for “excess living space,” according to the decree.

The program seeks to cushion the shock of these changes by exempting low-income families from paying rent.