Thousands of residents scramble for new housing

  • 2002-04-18
  • Aleksei Gunter

Thousands of people living in apartment buildings that are being reclaimed by pre-World War II owners or their families may need to look for a new place to live this summer, when Estonia's new property reform law comes into force.

Under the law, which is valid beginning July 1, owners who reclaim property are allowed to raise rents and evict tenants who do not pay.

About 22,500 people currently lived in reclaimed buildings throughout Estonia. Roughly 12,000 of those live in Tallinn.

Building reclamation has become an issue across the Baltic states with owners, usually émigrés or their families, at odds with tenants, many of whom have lived in the buildings for several years.

In Estonia the tenant may accept a higher rent or apply for an apartment in one of several government-funded apartment buildings that are being planned.

In Tallinn about 3,500 people that will be affected by the law have applied for municipal housing. About 800 of them will move into new government apartments this year.

The Tallinn city government hopes to house about 2,000 families. But the buildings to house all of them won't be completed until 2008.

Helle Kaldo, a member of the Estonian Renters Association and the head of Tallinn's Mustamae district, said the Association has requested that the Parliament extend the deadline for terminating rental contract and allow local governments to set a rent price ceiling.

"That would give the state more time to settle the problem," she said.

Urve Paeorg, an advisor with Renters Association, said about 800 people have come to her looking for advice. Thousands more have called.

Most want to know what their rights and how to become a "privileged tenant," who have special rights and are often immune from rent increases.

Paeorg said she advises them to fight for an extension in their current rental agreements.

"I recommend they go to court now, get a court decision stating they are privileged tenants and demand extension of the rent agreement for another five years," said Paeorg.

Many of those who fail to get court orders will look to the city for housing.

The national and city government plans to spend a combined 1.2 billion kroons ($70 million) on new housing between 2003 and 2008. Roughly 25 percent of that will come from the national budget.

In addition, about 500 families will receive direct government aid to find housing themselves.

The new apartment will range in size from 25 to 90 square meters and will be located in the Tallinn districts of Lasnamae, Kopli and Kristiine.

Jaan Moks, Tallinn's deputy mayor, said the new buildings will help ease Tallinn's housing shortage.

"The municipal building project will stop rent rate price hikes," he said.

But not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

Former Tallinn Mayor Juri Mois said the problem of tenants forced out of reclaimed buildings is being blown out of proportion.

A few years ago, he said, there were an estimated 30,000 families in Tallinn that were under threat of losing their homes because of property restitution.

"Now there are 3,000," he told the daily newspaper Postimees. "In three years there will be 1,000. The problem is decreasing by itself."

He calls the city's spending on housing "imprudent" and says it create tension among city residents.

"It would be unfair if some people will get a new apartment for free, and some will not," he told the daily newspaper Postimees.

"(The city) has to spend more on road construction," he said. "Tallinn's streets are full of holes."