Buildings Are Not Enough

Everything Not Forbidden Is Allowed - Mariam Gegidze, David Manjavidze, Nicole Opel

After Georgia gained its independence in 1991, a severe political, economic, and social crisis struck the former Soviet republic. The construction sector, which had already been faltering, virtually collapsed. Housing was in desperately short supply, and apartments were hopelessly overcrowded. Back in 1989, a law had been passed allowing "balconies, recessed balconies, and verandas' to be added to individual housing units. However, residents interpreted the law to mean they could make up for their shortage of living space by ex-tending their apartments. As a consequence, the years of political turmoil between 1991 and 1995 saw building extensions cropping up unchecked all over Tbilisi.The number and size of these exten-sions is unprecedented in other post-Soviet cities.

When Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, his program of perestroika, Russian for "restructuring' was Intended to reform the Soviet Republics, grown weak after decades under a centrally planned economy. This change also placed greater significance on the human factor on Improving the living situation of individuals. Though housing had been declared a basic human right in Article 44 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution, neither centrally planned housing construction nor centralized apartment allocation policies had proven capable of overcoming the housing short-age a problem that prevailed throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union. In 1917, in the Decree on Land, Lenin had abolished private ownership of property, with no compensation paid to former owners. The 'rich,' whom Lenin defined as people with the same number of rooms in a living unit as permanent residents, or people with more rooms than residents, were asked to give up these "extra rooms” or "extra apartments" immediately and "voluntarily" (2).

In 1919, a new sanitary standard was introduced to govern how living space would be allocated per capita.(3) Initially, an adult was allowed 10 square meters; by 1926, this number had decreased to 8. Beginning in 1923, those who had space beyond these minimums paid fees for their "excess square meters:' Rooms in apartments that were used as studies, workshops, offices, or studios were seized. As early as 1920, a decree made it possible to drive former owners from their homes and have them resettled "for the efficient distribution of the population(4)." The resulting form of involuntary coexis-tence, in which multiple people with no connection to each other lived in the same apartment, sharing a kitchen and bathroom, remained one of the most com-mon forms of housing until the very end of the Soviet Union. Only starting in the mid-1950s under Khrushchev were apartments finally allocated by family instead of by square meters per person. Khrushchev's mass-housing construction program did manage to curb the housing scarcity to a certain extent, but failed to fully eliminate it. In the mid-1980s, there was generally a 20-year waiting period to be allo-cated an apartment, and only taken into consider-ation were "needy" people or families whose per capita living space came below the local average(5). In 1988, 334,800 households in Moscow, or 12 percent of all households in the city were waiting to be allocated an apartment; in Tbilisi this figure was 59,000 households, or 19 percent (6). Residents in the city’s cramped one- to four room apartments have an avarage of 10.7 square meters of living space person.

Housing 2000 (ЖИЛИЩЕ 2000)

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the entire Soviet Union, including Georgia, underwent a severe economic crisis. These "years of stagnation" were defined by corruption, cronyism, and black market dealings. Housing construction was hard- hit by the crisis, further exacerbating the shortage of housing in major cities. In February 1986, the new Soviet government under Gorbachev decided on an accelerated solution to the housing problem. The housing construction program adopted by Gorbachev,"Housing 2000"(7) made the euphoric promise that, by 2000, free of charge, every Soviet family would have an apartment or house of its own. At the same time, the program aimed to gradually increase the average percapita living space from 14.6 square meters (1985) to 22 square meters (2000). But the housing construction program had little basis in the economic reality of the Soviet Union, and by 1987, it had become clear that perestroika couldn't be achieved without incorporating elements of the free market.

Pristroika ("Extension")

Peaceful protests began breaking out in the Baltic and Caucasian republics in 1988; in Tbilisi, there was growing demand for Georgian independence. In March 1989, Gorbachev presented a plan that would grant the Soviet Republics more rights than ever before, in order to "develop the maximum potential of every nation, each of the Soviet peoples.(8)" Despite Gorbachev's promise, however, the Russian military violently crushed a peaceful protest held in Tbilisi on April 9, 1989. To appease the population, Georgia's Soviet administration issued a quick series of decrees, including one on May 18, 1989, which allowed apartment holders to use private funds to build "recessed balconies, verandas, balconies, and other ancillary areas on the rear facades of stateowned and cooperative buildings with a maximum of nine stories."The size of these extensions could amount to 25 percent of the size of the apartment, according to authorities. State companies proceeded to build steel base structures for these extensions, marking the spatial boundaries permitted for expanding one's apartment. Initially, the state also oversaw the planning, structural engineering, and technical realization of the extensions, as well as coordination with neighbors, but by early 1990, the amount of construction had outgrown the government's capacity for supervision.

Most extensions were built onto standartized residential buildings constructed in the mid 1950s or later under Nikita Khrushchev buildings in line with his mottos, "better, cheaper, and faster" and "a few square meters for everyone.(9)" In this period, new Soviet construction standards (SNIP) defined the maximum area of apartments as 16 square meters for a studio apartment, and up to 40 square meters for a four-room apartment. The standards also specified the number of rooms, ceiling heights of 2.5 meters, and a kitchen size of 4.5 square meters. By the early 1990s, it was typical for several generations of an extended family to live together in the cramped quarters dictated by these rules. The 1990's also saw the country's domestic problems erupt into military conflicts, with the enforcement of laws and regulations lapsing as a consequence. Given the lack of state control, the population took matters into their own hands, and began upgrading their domestic arrangements themselves. What resulted was a veritable building frenzy, sometimes yielding highly dangerous structures. Some apartments were extended by up to 60 percent, even in buildings over nine stories tall. By the time the new constitution took effect in 1995 and the domestic situation began to cool off, most of these extensions had already been built.

Total Privatization

Shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were four types of residential property in Georgia: state-owned property (45 percent), union and institutional property (35 percent), and, ever since a decree from 1981, private property (12 percent). Of the available housing stock, 8.5 percent was owned by what were known as building cooperatives associations of at least 24 parties that could construct residential buildings by drawing on private funds and state loans. When the program for "Housing 2000" was made public in 1988, the building cooperatives pointed to its promises of free housing and immediately stopped making payments on their state issued loans. A few years later, the apartments owned by the building cooperatives would also be the first apartments to be privatized. 

In 1991, the Georgian government allowed the state owned and cooperative housing stock to be privatized. Current residents of an apartment merely had to submit a request and pay minimal administrative fees to have their apartment signed over to them as private property, free of charge.(10) This process soon gave way to "total privatization," in which responsibility for the buildings' maintenance, safety, and insurance was transferred to the residents along with the apartments. But in this process of privatization, the building extensions constituted a special case. Although they had been built with private funds, they had counted as state property in the Soviet era yet as state property that didn't officially belong to the apartments. Thus, they were not privatized alongside the apartments. The majority of the extensions, to this day, still have no legal status, meaning that, officially, they don't exist. As a result, they are beyond the control of both planning and legal efforts.

The extensions built in Tbilisi between 1989 and 1995 were only made possible by government decree. They are regarded as informal structures, but the building process only really became unregulated after 1991. The 1989 decree on building extensions was intended to be a quick political fix, the swiftest possible response to the population's urgent need for better living conditions, a solution requiring no major effort or expense. Therefore the extensions that now shape the cityscape of Tbilisi cannot be considered independently of the political situation in which they were built. Seventy years of centralized power and legislation were followed by a few years of lawlessness. These were also the years of total privatization, in which residents suddenly transformed into owners without any prepa-ration. The collapse of basic services in this period gave rise to other priorities. For this reason, the haphazard appearance of Tbilisi's extensions still, to this day, calls to mind the crises of the 1990s. Although they are generally perceived by the public as an eyesore with a negative impact on the city-scape, this does not affect attitudes toward them as apartments. In the interiors of buildings, there is no longer a distinction between the added rooms and the original living spaces. The extensions are fully integrated into the apartments, even if ownership of these "extra living spaces" has not been officially clarified.
Whereas the bureaucratic process for the total privatization of apartments in the early 1990s was explicitly simplified, the legalization process for extensions is still highly bureaucratic. To obtain legal status for the extensions, applicants must not only document their structural safety, but also submit a topographical analysis of the property and other documents for review. If an extension is legalized, the resident accepts full ownership of an extension alongside full responsibility for it. However, if the review of the submitted documents determines that the extension is structurally unsound, it must be torndown. To date very few of these legalization processes have been completed.

One way or another, the fate of the extended living spaces is up for discussion whether they will persist as illegal housing, or risk failing to meet the official requirements for legalization.

1. The title derives from a quote from GyOrgy Dalos, Gorbatschow, Mensch and Macht:. Eine Biografie (Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2012), 185.
2. "On the Requisition of Flats of the Rich to Relieve the Needs of the Poor," Addenda to the Draft Decree on "The Requisition of Articles of Warm Clothing for the Soldiers on the Front,"1917. See Lenin Collected Works, 2nd English edition, vol. 42 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 35-36.
3. In the Soviet era, kitchens, bathrooms and hallways weren't counted as living space.
4. The policy of confiscation intensified under Stalin's regime. A rule about "residents' behavior" made it possible to denounce disagreeable neighbors anonymously and have them thrown out of their rooms.
5. The minimum living space varied from place to place, but was the lowest in major cities. In 1974, a family in Moscow was only eligible to be allocated an apartment if the living space per person would be less than five sq m.
6. Although 47 percent of Georgia's entire urban population lived in Tbilisi or its satellite city Rustavi by this point in time, the two cities possessed only 41 percent of the total urban living space.
7. The program for "Housing 2000" was published in three volumes in 1988. As of January 1, 1991, a total of 24.2 percent of all households in the USSR were on the waiting list for the program.
8. Gorbachev's speech on the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, November 3,1987. Empowering the individual Soviet republics also extended to national legislation. In practice, the result was that individual laws and resolutions from Moscow and those of the individual Union Republics sometimes obstructed each other or were mutually exclusive.
9. Nikita Khrushchev, "On Wide-Scale Introduction of Industrial Methods, Improving the Quality and Reducing the Cost of Construction," speech delivered December 7,1954 at the All-Union Conference of Builders, Architects and Workers in the Building Materials Industry, in Khrushchev Speaks: Selected Speeches, Articles and Press Conferences, 1949-1961, edited by Thomas Whitney (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963), 173.
10. The state-owned land where the now-privatized residential buildings stood was not privatized until the late 90's

The article was originally published in the English Version of Arch + Journal for  Architecture and Urbanism, Legislation Architecture, May 2016.