New Moscow Homes 'The Beav' Could Love
KHIMKI, RUSSIA — OUTSIDE the concrete-block apartments of Soviet-era Moscow, once-forbidden mansions begin to appear in the rolling Russian countryside.
They are the kitsch castles of the new Russian rich, built in red brick in defiance of the detested monotone panels that box in most urban Russians.
And they are almost always empty.
The owners, thrilled with the freedom to build such bourgeois fantasies, often pay little attention to such mundane matters as hooking up to utilities, heat retention, the distance to the nearest school or grocer, or even the cost of the finished house.
But a next generation of houses, something much closer to the American dream, is appearing at Moscow's fringe. The joys of a house with a patio and garage and yard of one's own are now possible for Russians who have never watched ''Leave It to Beaver'' and don't know Ozzie from Harriet.
Developers are building suburban tracts with single-family homes and townhouses, sports complexes, schools, and shopping centers. The designs and the building materials are Western imports, aimed at prosperous Muscovites rather than the super-rich.
So far, they have very few buyers.
''Our main problem,'' says suburban developer Kirill Gorelov, ''is that there is no civic culture in Russia where a person works in the city and lives outside the city.'' Now there are urban Russians who want to raise their children in the fresher air and greater safety outside the city, Mr. Gorelov says, ''but the number of such people is extremely small.''
''Our people have never lived in such houses,'' he says. ''Our Russian man doesn't know how to make the choice of which house is best for him.''
Russians are not complete strangers to the free-standing house and the pleasures of stepping out the front door onto terra firma. Perhaps 10 percent of the houses built in the past 70 years are single-family dwellings. But the Brady Bunch wouldn't live in one. They are nearly all without indoor plumbing of any kind. Most are in provincial villages or outside small cities.
Urban Russians also commonly have dachas, or cottages, often little more than huts, where they spend summer weekends growing vegetables.
But throughout the communist years, the builder was the state, the material was the factory-produced concrete panel, and the housing form was the large, high-rise apartment. A thousand people to a building was not uncommon. Families of all backgrounds, vocations, and education levels were put together.
''The main point was that all families were absolutely equal,'' says Yevgeny Pronin, chairman of the residential building department of the Moscow Architectural Institute. In '60s, buildings, state planners required each family to get 95 square feet of living space per person, not counting a small kitchen and bathroom. In the '70s, space was stretched to nearly 140 square feet per person in new construction. Personal space expanded again in the '80s to 190 square feet per person, but counting the bathroom and kitchen.
For comparison, the average new American house today has something like 500 square feet per person.
NOW many efforts are under way to create some choice and expand homeownership on the Russian landscape. The World Bank, for example, is lending $400 million to a project with the Russian Ministry of Construction to promote the development of low-rise and single-family housing in Russian cities.
Around Moscow, various developers are trying their hands at lower-density building, and mainly finding sales slow. In some cases, plans to sell not-yet-built houses through model homes, and collect 30 percent of the money up front, had to be scrapped for lack of takers.
A major missing link is the humble mortgage - the engine that drove America's great postwar suburban expansion. Russian banks have not developed a long-term mortgage system, and if a bank should make a house loan, the market rate is 30 to 35 percent annual interest for a five-year loan. So buyers must usually have the whole sales price in cash.
Gorelov's company, Podmoskovye, sells single-family houses in gated, self-sufficient villages within easy Moscow commuting distance for $200,000 to $400,000. These prices are comparable to the average apartment in central Moscow, the Russian real-estate equivalent of Manhattan.
Podmoskovye has sold 34 houses in the 125-house development it is building here in Khimki. None are finished, and only a handful have risen above their foundations. But when complete, the new village will include a sports complex with pool, a school, a number of green areas and boulevards, and a shopping area.
The public buildings are contributed by local government, which is Gorelov's partner in the company.
The house designs are from Sweden and the Czech Republic, as are the building materials. A Finnish design for a timbered lodge-type house is not selling, a Podmoskovye agent says, because it reminds Russians of a dacha - not a real house. The houses the Russians are choosing, the few who are choosing any, look very much as if they were in a new tract in suburban Milwaukee or Kansas City, with the slightly unusual twist of red-tile roofs.
The buyers are not the flamboyant rich, but Gorelov estimates them to be in the top 3 percent of Moscow incomes, and mostly over age 40. ''The younger generation still prefers to live in Moscow,'' he says. And so do most older generations as well, as yet. ''Perhaps they don't yet believe in the stability of Russia,'' he says of reluctant would-be buyers. ''Or perhaps they just prefer to stay in the city.''
To lower prices, Podmoskovye is building a factory near Moscow to prefabricate up to 1,000 houses a year. The company will also issue five-year mortgage loans to buyers at the way-below market rate of 10 percent annually, with 30 percent down.