Muscovites defy building codes - and gravity

Nina Dimshitz lives under a cloud. Literally.

Wealthy upstairs neighbors recently installed a swimming pool in their apartment, and now the ceiling of her book-lined living room sags and creaks ominously under the strain.

"I am beside myself over this, but there seems to be nobody who can do anything about it," says Ms. Dimshitz, who occupies a modest three-room flat in a five-story apartment block near Moscow's Pushkin Square. The middle-aged film critic says she used to love the 1920s-era building's old-fashioned 4-meter-high ceilings. Now she's afraid to look up.

"I've tried to talk to the neighbors about this, but they simply refuse to even open the door," she says.

Dimshitz is not alone.

In Moscow today, the rise of the nouveaux riches in old buildings is creating a class of city dwellers who regularly defy building codes, property rights, and even gravity.

Experts say that thousands of unsanctioned and ill-planned renovations in Moscow apartment buildings over the past decade have created any number of nuisances, eyesores, and in some cases deadly hazards, all over the city.

Dimshitz has also tried to interest the city authorities in the problem, but has been rebuffed. She suspects her neighbors must have bribed the right person. "When people have money in Russia, they can do anything," she says. "I cannot even get an official to come and look at this situation."

Vladimir Shmyglyov, an engineer with the State Construction Committee, the body that is responsible for building new housing, explains: "Everyone became the owner of their flat a decade ago, but we haven't developed the municipal laws and neighborhood checks on wild and unplanned alterations."

"People view private property as a license to do anything they want, without thinking even about the safety of others," he says.

In Soviet times, the government built vast numbers of multistory apartment blocs and crammed people into them by the millions. As the Soviet Union collapsed, a law was passed giving every family the right of ownership over the apartment they had formerly possessed only on state sufferance.

As some Russians became rich in the wild '90s, they began purchasing apartments - especially in prestigious downtown areas - and renovating them according to their own, often bizarre whims.

"There was no experience with private renovation, and there still are no control bodies to examine planned changes," says Mr. Shmyglyov. He describes cases where oblivious tenants knock out load-bearing walls, try to build their own private entrance or elevator, enlarge their space by tearing out vital ventilation shafts, or even construct an extra room jutting out from the side of their building.

The Moscow State Housing Inspectorate is theoretically responsible for catching and correcting violations of the loose and inadequate Soviet-era housing code. But the Inspectorate's chief, Alexander Strazhnikov, refused all requests for an interview, saying he didn't wish to discuss Moscow's housing problems with foreigners.

But in remarks made recently to the Russian daily Kommersant, Mr. Strazhnikov said his department intends to launch a crackdown on what he called "a plague of construction abuses," and complained that the largest fine his agency is entitled to levy against violators is just 50 rubles ($1.70).

Tales of woe abound. Olga Yumashova lives on the 4th floor of an elegant six-story stone building within sight of the Kremlin. A wealthy businessman whom she knew only as "a dealer in nonferrous metals" bought the apartment above her a few years ago, and proceeded to construct an enormous stone fireplace in the area over her bedroom.

"This building has wooden floors, so this was sheer madness," she says. "This businessman sent his people to our neighbor two floors above and demanded she let them construct a chimney right through her flat." Ms Yumashova says calls to the Moscow Housing Inspectorate went unheeded. She also smells corruption. "It's clear they were bribed," she says. "How else could the authorities have no interest at all in such goings on." Yumashova's problems were solved when the businessman suddenly sold his apartment a year ago and moved out, for reasons unknown.

Yelizaveta Babayeva narrowly escaped when her ceiling collapsed, sending a cascade of wooden beams and heavy furniture into her kitchen, after an upstairs neighbor smashed through a load-bearing wall. "My neighbor had the goodness to repair all the damage," says the elderly linguistics instructor. "But why have we no protection against these activities? Why do people think they can do just whatever they want?"

The renovation madness will eventually end as wealthy Russians move into new buildings, or build homes outside the city, says Dmitry Stoyanov, an architect with the Moscow city government. "For now, unauthorized reconstruction in old apartment buildings is really out of control," he says. "It is the biggest single threat to housing safety in this city. I guess we should be grateful that - at least so far - no building has collapsed onto its tenants."

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