From One Room to A Spacious Abode

IT'S a dreary, rainy day in Vilnius, but Gintaras Tumenas is gamely loading up bricks and mixing cement on the construction site that will soon be home for his growing family.

After a year and a half of paperwork - including 80 visits to various city administrative offices to seek permission - and a year and a half of building, the young accountant-turned-auto-mechanic is zeroing in on the next milestone of his mammoth project: getting enough of the house completed to take up residence.

"As soon as one room is finished, we'll move in, so we can be independent from everybody," says Mr. Tumenas, wiping the rain from his glasses. "We just want to live normally."

With a six-year-old son and another child on the way, Tumenas and his wife are particularly eager to move out of their current accommodations: a room in Tumenas's grandfather's house, where they have lived for the past six years.

Building a house is nothing new in Lithuania, or in the rest of the former Soviet Union, for that matter.

Typically, city-dwellers live in massive government-issue apartment buildings and then build their own "dachas," or summer cottages, outside the city. What's unusual about Tumenas's house is its size, its urban location, and the fact that it will be his primary residence.

Restrictions on the dimensions of private homes have now been lifted, and the mild-mannered Lithuanian has spared no modesty. The location is a matter of birthright.

Like many Lithuanians during World War II, Tumenas's grandfather was sent to Siberia. Upon his return in 1958, the government granted him about three-quarters of an acre of land. Now he has granted his grandson permission to use about a quarter of it.

"Technically it's government land, but it's Grandpa's right to use it, so he can give me the right to use it," says Tumenas.

Thousands of other would-be homebuilders in the Lithuanian capital aren't so fortunate. And they represent only a part of the severe housing crunch that has plagued the entire former Soviet Union ever since its founding - despite grandiose promises from a succession of leaders of "housing for all."

Gediminas Kazlauskas, the head of Vilnius's housing office, says he has 10,000 applications from people who want to build their own homes, but there's little available land.

The government of Vilnius hopes to expand the city's size by incorporating parts of neighboring regions, but negotiations aren't going well. Those outer regions are dominated by ethnic Poles, who are reluctant to open up their area to settlement by Lithuanians.

If agreement can be reached, says Mr. Kazlauskas, 3,000 to 4,000 building lots can become available.

Of the 550,000 people in Vilnius, Kazlauskas estimates that 10 percent would like to improve their housing conditions - which, in the worst cases, consist of just a room in a dormitory shared by several people.

If one waits in the government line for better housing, it will take 10 to 15 years, he says.

The breakdown of the production and distribution network in the former Soviet Union has resulted in a shortage of materials, such as steel and wood, and government construction of housing has slowed, says Kazlauskas.

Tumenas maintains he has had no problem buying the materials he needed. The biggest challenge with getting his project going, he says, was getting permission to use his grandfather's land.

"All the problems were because of that plot of land," he explains. "They didn't like our first plan."

What did they not like?

Tumenas chuckles.

"Well, I'm not really sure.... It was my understanding they wanted a bribe. I didn't give bribes, because it was my grandfather's land."

He pauses.

"Well, OK, I brought them some cognac."

Having approved the use of the land, the city has inspected the project only once - after the foundation was laid.

When it came to the actual drafting of a plan and the construction, Tumenas enlisted family and friends. He hired an architect friend to design the house. His father helped him put in the foundation.

All along the way, he says, he's been getting advice from his 85-year-old grandfather, who built the house he and Tumenas's family are sharing.

So far, he has spent 40,000 rubles on the project - worth only about $400 now, and in the context of the former Soviet Union, about 125 times the typical monthly salary for last year.

The house will have four rooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms, a garage, and a large "sports hall" above the garage, which Tumenas says he can convert later into four more rooms.

"I understand this work, and decided it's better to do it myself because it's hard to find good craftsmen here," he says. "If you do it yourself, you know it will be done right."

"I consult with friends," he adds, "but you know, every Lithuanian man must build a house during his life so he can consider himself a complete person."

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