Living under the Threat of Demolition
September 20, 2017
Around 200 residential buildings have been deemed unfit for habitation in Barnaul. But people have gone on living in them for many years.
Four years ago, in July 2013, an apartment building collapsed in broad daylight. A 64-year-old woman and 60-year-old man died under the rubble. The other residents were “only” deprived of their papers and property, left without a roof over their heads. The neighboring houses are still standing, although they are much more dilapidated.
Currently, Barnaul, the capital of Altai Territory, has officially deemed around 200 apartment houses dilapidated or unfit for habitation. No one can tell you the exact number of buildings that could collapse at any minute. It would be a huge exaggeration to say that officials at the mayor’s office are worried about preventing another tragedy.
In 2013, the ruins of the house on Emilia Alexeyeva Street were hurriedly demolished, and now the local boys play football on the empty lot. A criminal investigation into “official negligence” was opened, but quickly closed.
“We were unable to find anyone at fault or evidence of a crime,” Yevgeny Dolgayev, head of the investigative department in the Russian Investigative Committee’s Altai Territory office said at the time.
Empty lot where the house collapsed in 2013. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
But people live in their collapsing houses, afraid of the spreading cracks in the walls and accustomed to picking up chunks of façade that have crumbled and fell to the ground. Residents of the dilapidated buildings see no way out of their circumstances.
A huge number of houses have been condemned in Barnaul’s Potok microdistrict. They are primarily two-storey buildings, with one or two staircases, built after 1945 in the 1950s, mainly by Japanese POWs. The city grew rapidly in the postwar years. It was built quickly as well, and the builders did not especially bother to observe construction standards.
People have fought for years to have their homes declared dilapidated. Those who have succeeded are far and few between.
As late as last year, the residential building at Timurovskya Street, 44, was in excellent condition, according to inspectors. This year, on the contrary, it was declared 86% dilapidated.
You would imagine the building should be demolished, its residents moved out, and a tragedy avoided, but that means looking for funding and building new housing.
It is much simpler to feign, year after year, that these houses and people do not exist. However, sometimes, the so-called populace is made vague promises so they will stop pestering officials for a while.
At first glance, nothing has changed on Timurovskaya Street over the last four years. The dilapidated houses with missing chunks of plaster that has fallen off still stand where they stood then. They are not ruins. But if you look a little closer you will notice the foundation has crumbled in one part of the house, while the brickwork has disintegrated in another, and a crack runs from the sidewall through the entire building.
“That’s nothing! The juicy parts are inside,” says an elderly man who looks like a local. We introduce ourselves. Alexei Oleynik is 76 years old, a retired electrician who worked for nearly fifty years in the trade. He was allocated a flat at Timurovskaya, 44, in the early 1970s when his son was born.
Retired electrician Alexei Oleynik. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
It really is “juicier” inside the building. A piece of fiberboard has been glued to the ceiling in the entryway.
“The ceiling beams here collapsed in winter,” explains Oleynik. “Workers cleaning the snow from the roof were careless and caused the accident.”
According to Oleynik, they were not all that much to blame: the ceiling beams had rotted long ago. The management got a dressing-down from city bosses and sent over other workers, who patched up the hole with fiberboard and left the site with a clean conscience.
Oleynik’s neighbor Olga Pautova is indignant.
“Well, of course, it’s no one’s fault! The heating system had burst in the attic again. The ceiling beams sagged for three months or so, gradually swelling, until they collapsed. People from the management company and city hall would come and look at this bubble. They would say, ‘What can we do? You all don’t have it bad. It’s much worse in other buildings.’ That was really comforting, of course.”
Pautova bought a flat in the building ten years earlier. The house had seemed quite tolerable. But soon it crumbled right before her eyes. First, there were small cracks, then the cracks became more serious.
“I have no light in either room,” says Pautova. “The wiring short-circuited and burnt out. It was a good thing I was home. I turned off the power and called an electrician. He went up into the attic. He said there were moisture and leaks everywhere up there, so it was pointless to install new wiring. It would also short-circuit and burn, and it would be a good thing if that was all that happened. A year and a half ago, large chunks of the ceiling collapsed in the living room, right on the sofa, where my brother, who was visiting me at the time, had been sleeping. It’s a good thing it didn’t happen at night. My brother had already got up.”
Olga Pautova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
“I patched up the hole. It didn’t last for long. The ceiling collapsed again. The management company offered to cover the hole with a piece of fiberboard, as they had in the entryway. I rejected their offer. It’s utter rubbish. I have been up in the attic. Everything up there really has rotted. The ceiling beams have been fastened to something with wire. There’s still a hole in the living room ceiling. Rubbish and leaks are constantly pouring through it. I sweep and wash it all up every day, but what is the point? There are mushrooms [sic] growing there,” says Olga.
As a rule, old residential buildings have a single-pipe heating system installed in the attic rather than the basement. The pipes are old and rusty, and they burst often, leaving the ceiling sagging in five minutes and flooding the flats with boiling water. It is a good thing if someone is at home. They can run up to the attic and switch off the water.
Will It Collapse or Not?
People are eager to discuss the topic of when the house will collapse. They say the building at Emilia Alexeyeva Street, 33 (a mere two minutes’ walk from their house) looked better, but it collapsed anyway.
A year ago, the residents of Timurovskaya Street, 44, chipped in and commissioned a private inspection of their building, hoping it would be declared dilapidated and they could count on resettlement. They got the results of the inspection back quickly, but they were just the opposite of what they had hoped for. According to residents, the inspector hastily examined the house and issued a finding it was in “excellent” condition.
Olga Pautova decided to fight till the bitter end and paid Tercet, a design and engineering company, for another inspection out of her own pocket. Their analyst took three months carrying out his inspection. He measured the size of the crack running through the entire building and recorded its growth. According to his calculation, the house was 86% dilapidated. 65% dilapidation is enough for a house to be deemed dilapidated and unfit for habitation.
Timurovskaya Street, 44. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
According to Pautova, the municipal interdepartmental commission for housing assessment, at which the outcome of Tercet’s inspection were presented, was dead set against granting Timurovskaya, 44, the status of dilapidated building. However, Tercet’s analyst had fight in him.
“According to my calculations,” he insisted, “it is dangerous to live in this building. I’ve done my job. It’s up to you to react to the outcome of my evaluation, to declare the house dilapidated or not. But you will be responsible for what happens.”
The commission’s members had no desire to take on that kind of responsibility, and in June of this year the house was declared dilapidated. Residents have been receiving “letters of happiness,” signed by Barnaul’s Deputy Mayor Alexander Alexeyenko, in which he demands the house should be demolished no later than June 21, 2018.
Galina Buloychik is skeptical about the news from the mayor’s office.
“I don’t believe they will demolish the house and issue us new flats. It’s useless. The house will collapse with me in it, and that will be the end of it. That is what is meant to be,” says the 69-year-old woman, who shares a flat with two of her children and her grandchildren.
“I do give a damn,” says her daughter Anna, interrupting. “I have children, and the building is crumbling right before our eyes. You always hear a creaking sound, as if the house were not standing still. My brother installed a PVC window. It would close at first, just like it should have, but now have a look. You cannot close the sash. That means the building has sagged, but somehow crookedly. Don’t pay any mind to the fact the walls in the rooms are even. We covered them with gypsum plasterboard, as if we were doing real repairs. But there is a nightmare underneath them. I saw you taking a picture of the crack that runs from the sidewall of the house. It’s hidden beanth the plasterboard, as if it weren’t there.”
When we were saying goodbye, a photo fell from a chest of drawers. I picked it up and put it back.
“That was me when I was young,” Buloychik explained. “Was I beautiful?”
The Sky in Diamonds
House No. 38, also on Timurovskaya Street, is even famous in a way. In April, the roof beams collapsed and you could see the sky through the hole that formed, as if the building had its own planetarium. Reporters came, TV channels shot footage, the city bosses made calls, all to gaze through the hole. It was also patched up with fiberboard, but not in one piece. Several overlapping pieces were used. When it rains, you do not leave your flat and go into the stairwell without an umbrella.
But to get such minimal care the house’s tenants had to bow and scrape to the management company and city officials. They could have done nothing at all. So, the verdict of the officials in the mayor’s office was that the collapse of the roof beams in the stairwell occurred, most likely, not because the house was dilapidated, but due to repairs: the beams in the attic were being replaced. Since, at the time, the building had not been officially deemed dilapidated, it was the responsibility of residents who owned their flats to fix the problem or the management company’s, seeing as how residents pay them for the building’s maintenance. Only how much money can you make off a two-storey house inhabited primarily by pensioners? Besides, the companies responsible for the maintenance in their building change so rapidly you don’t have time to remember what they are called.
Svetlana Balchis, a resident of Timurovskaya, 38, recounts the accident.
“I got a call at work. I came running home. Horror of horrors! The stairway was piled up to the railings with chunks of slate, broken brick, mangled boards, slag, and shingles. I live on the second floor, and I barely made my way through the wreckage. My youngest daughter was supposed to come home from school at the time. I nearly lost my mind until I got home.”
Fortunately, her daughter arrived home later. Subsequently, Balchis learned that shortly before the beams collapsed, two young mothers had agreed to take their toddlers out for a walk together. One of them, Balchis’s next-door neighbor, was held up at home for five minutes or so. If she had left earlier, the ceiling would have fallen on her and her toddler in his stroller.
Resident of a house in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
“Before that, I don’t know many times we called the management company and the mayor’s office: the roof leaked as if there were no roof. In winter, it was still okay, but the snow began to melt in February. There was a lot of it on the roofs: it had been a quite snowy winter. The day before, the Emergencies Ministry guys had done a drive-through inspection, and they ordered the management companies to clean the snow off the roofs right away. The workers fell through the roof! Everything up there had rotted, after all. We have been fighting to get it fixed since 2001,” recounts Balchis.
Balchis has lived in the building since birth. She was brought there from the maternity hospital in 1959. She grew up there, then had three kids, two of whom are grown-ups and live on their own. It was her father who was allocated the flat as an employee of Central Heating and Power Plant No. 2, which, in the 1950s, built several houses for employees. Balchis says it was a fine house as long as the power plant’s own maintenance office took care of it. The dilapidation began when the building was turned over to the city.
“Do you know how the furniture in our flat stands? At an angle to the floor. That’s the only way to keep the doors shut, because the floor slopes, although it used to be as even as could be. If we put something under one edge, the doors don’t jam. It doesn’t last for long, though, and then we have to put something else under it, something bigger,” says Balchis.
Some tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, decided to replace their old windows with PVC windows. Measurers came to have a look.
“You don’t need to replace your windows,” they said. “If we touch the wall now, it will collapse.”
Elena Romanova has joined the conversation.
“Until the roof started to collapse, and the boiler rusted, it was tolerable. But, in the winter, boiling water poured into the basement, sent off steam, and the walls would freeze. All that needed to be done was change the boiler valve. But we were told they didn’t have the money to do it. So the foundation burst. The building literally came unravelled. I have a crack in the wall in my hallway. I could run my hand through it. They covered it with plasterboard, but what’s the use?” she says.
“I have the same trouble,” says Balchis. “Between my flat and the neighbor’s flat you could suddenly hear everything perfectly. I removed the rug from the wall, and there I found a crack as wide as the palm of my hand.”
It’s Your Problem, So You Demolish It
The tenats of Timurovskaya, 38, also received notifications their building had been deemed dilapidated and should, therefore, be resettled. But hardly anyone believes it will happen. They doubt they will get new housing a year from now. They say that other buildings that received similar letters have been waiting years for demolition.
“The building next door has also been declared dilapidated, but hasn’t been resettled. And in that one, too, and that one, and that one. The tenants in that building way over then have been evicted, but I don’t where they went, since they were not allocated flats and are waiting for them,” Balchis says as she points in different directions.
“But we must do it ourselves!” says Romanova. “We have to find a developer ourselves who would buy the land plot under the house.”
Timurovskaya Street, 38. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
It is true that, in the letter from the mayor’s offices, it says in black and white, “Dear Housing Owner Elena Pavlovna! In accordance with Article 32, Paragraph 10, of the Russian Federal Housing Code, we demand that the dilapidated house be demolished before June 21, 2018.”
“Meaning, the city demands that I demolish my own building. Should I make my own arrangements with a construction company? Hire an excavator? Where should I move all my neighbors? If they sent a letter like that, it’s pointless to expect help from the mayor’s office,” Romanova argues.
No one here counts on help from the federal program for overhauling apartment buildings, either. They do not believe such happiness will shine on them. Several years, when the federal program had just been launched, the tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, were told they had been slotted into the program for 2018. That is, they should have only a year left to wait. Recently, however, they decided to check up on the program’s progress. They called the mayor’s office and were told they had been rescheduled for 2025. The overhaul of Timurovskaya, 44, had also been postponed (to 2022), although right after the collapse of Emilia Alexeyeva, 33, the mayor’s office had promised to resettle the tenants of the building next door, Emilia Alexeyeva, 31, and the tenants of Timurovskaya, 44.
Take the Old Woman Outside at Least Once in a While
Every weekend, Lydia Kostomarova is a hostage. The building is empty: all her neighbors are at their dachas, everyone in Timurovskaya, 38. Kostomarova is ninety. She lives alone. She has been living in the building since it was built in 1957.
“I haven’t complained to anyone my whole life or asked for help. My husband died when he was forty-eight: cancer consumed. I have loved only one man in my life. Then Mom passed away. She lay paralyzed on that bed over there for seven years. She forgot how to talk. I bought her an alphabet and taught her to talk again using letters and pictures.
Lydia Kostomarova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
“I looked after her, worked, and raised the kids. It was tolerable: it was all part of life. But then I had an accident. I went to the shop when the ground was covered in black ice. I fell and broke my hip in three places. The doctors said I couldn’t have an operation, because my heart couldn’t take it. Lord, why, oh why did you not take me away then? Now I am shut in here. I haven’t been outside for two years. But I can’t die just yet. I cannot afford it. Of course, I had been saving up for my funeral, but I spent it all on a caregiver. I paid her five thousand rubles a week. That’s more than my pension. Now I’m saving up again. Renovations? No, I’m not going to repair anything. What’s the point? The ceiling leaks, but you can’t patch it up anymore. The tank in the toilet should be changed. It’s quite old. They don’t make them like that anymore. It’s the kind that hangs on the wall over the toilet. A repairman came to look at it and said to install a new toilet he would have to pound holes in the floor and ceiling, but since the house was old, it couldn’t withstand it and would collapse.”
Kostomarova walks around the flat very slowly, leaning on her walker. Although it is painful, she walks. I ask whether the local social workers come to visit her. Maybe they bring groceries and help with the cleaning?
“Good Lord, what good am I to the social workers? Although no, that’s not true. They inquired about me once. They called from the medical clinic. They said, ‘Get a chest X-ray done, grandma.'”
“Are you making fun of me?” I said to them. “How can I go to the hospital when I can’t leave my flat and get downstairs from the second floor? And what will I take to get to this X-ray of yours?
“They were stubborn. They told me they wouldn’t give me orthopedic shoes if I didn’t do it. But it was so very painful to walk. Did I really need those shoes? Oh, those shoes came at a hefty price. I had to rent a special Italian device to get downstairs. It cost me two and half thousand rubles. But they did give me the shoes. Then I would daydream all the time about renting the device again so I could at least putter around the entryway, touch the flowers and the earth. But where would I get the money?”
“But when that building collapsed, why didn’t you move to your daughter’s place? She lives nearby. You really are like a hostage here.”
“How can I put it to you? It’s hard with her. She’s already sixty-eight, and she gets angry with me all the time, saying I love my son more. She’s stupid. How could I love him more? They’re both my kids. I’m just not used to people helping me. I’ve always counted only on myself. Dad was shot in 1938. Mom, my sister, and I lived in a bathhouse after we were kicked out of our house. Then we built a byre. Things got better and we didn’t starve. I raised kids. I used to ask the Lord to take me away, but now I think that no, I have to wait until my daughter’s house is resettled. They have it worse than we do. It’s like a barracks over there. Nine-storey buildings have been plopped down on either side, and their house is like an eyesore. When they give them new housing, I’ll die in peace. But for now I’ll go on living, because I have to. I also have grandchildren. They work in Moscow and Petersburg as managers? Did I get that right? I’m hanging in there. What else can I do if the Lord won’t take me. Look what cucumbers have grown on the balcony? I love the earth so much, and flowers, but you see I’ve been locked up inside four walls.”
I left. Kostomarova was already out on the balcony, standing and smiling amid the lush thickets of her cucumbers. It was a mere three meters, no more, from the front garden under her windows, with its luxurious golden balls of gladioli, to Kostomarova’s flat. Three meters to happiness. You would imagine social services could have helped. All she needed to get downstairs was that same Italian wheelchair. They could take the old woman outside at least once in a while.
A yard in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD
An old woman in a colorful flannel dressing gown calls to me.
“Did you go see Kostomarova? The whole neighborhood knows you. You want to help resettle us? Oh, you’re so young and naive. Here is what I have to say to you. Those guys from the mayor’s office are only waiting for everything here to fall to pieces. You saw that building over there collapsed? The people who died there were young: a man and woman who were in their early sixties. They had years ahead of them. It’s terrible to remember how the children crawled in the ruins and howled. I think that if all our buildings, these ones here, built after the war, were to collapse the same day, and we all died under the ruins, those guys from the mayor’s office would only rejoice. The excavators would have the bricks and us cleaned up in a jiffy, and they could build nine-storey buildings to their heart’s content. People are moving to the city: they need a place to live. But we are a burden to them: we old people and our old houses. What is my name? I don’t want to tell you. I don’t need the trouble. But I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Every time we get together, everyone says in unison, ‘If we and our houses vanished, they would be so glad.'”
Blame It on the Snow
According to official data, 319 residential buildings have been declared dilapidated in Altai Territory, 183 of them in Barnaul. All of them are subject to demolition, since they are unfit for habitation. Most of these buildings are in the Potok and VRZ districts, the old city center, and Soviet Army Street. There are also many dilapidated houses in Biysk and Rubtsovsk.
In 2017, there were particularly many emergencies in February and March, when a lot of snow had amassed on the roofs, snow packed down by above-freezing temperatures. The old housing stock cracked at the seams. In Barnaul, the roof of the two-storey building on Telephone Street, 30, collapsed under the weight of snow. In Biysk, part of the wall of Leningrad Street, 22, collapsed, while part of the wall and facade of Socialist Street, 34, collapsed. These are only a few examples of the houses that were destroyed.
“After we got the letters, we called the mayor’s office,” says Svetlana Balchis. “We were told that if Putin extended the program, they would begin resettling.”
Translated by the Russian Reader