Friday, June 12, 2009

Riga, Latvia - Day 64 : Communist era apartments

We got to Riga yesterday and have been staying with our friend Sergey's aunt. Sergey's family has been warm, hospitable and the best hosts despite not speaking a word of English.

The apartment itself has every modern convenience imaginable, but from the outside these apartments tell a very different story. Rows of concrete apartments buildings stand tall and straight, devoid of any color, architectural style or embellishment. The windows are evenly spaced and shaped, every building has the same number of floors and looks exactly like the one next to it.

A young woman (a friend of the family's) - let's call her "M" told us these apartments were built by the communist government to serve as accommodation for factory workers. So for example, a Soviet electronics manufacturing plant would allocate apartments for its employees in these buildings based on their rank and tenure. Chaos followed the fall of USSR - factories got privatized often in fire-sale prices and apartments such as these became 'private' almost overnight. If you stayed in a state-owned apartment at the time of the fall, you became the default owner by virtue of being the residing tenant. Today, these buildings look dilapidated and in need of repair if not a complete facelift.

In recent years Latvia has seen a real estate boom fueled in part by families looking to upgrade to newer apartments but also by the U.S phenomena of 'easy' home loans for an individual of average means. The economic crisis has hit this little country hard, unemployment is at 14.5% and the real estate market has tanked. Here is a recent story by PBS which our Lithuanian friend Ivona helped translate/produce. The morning that we left Riga, a TV news report stated the government was about to pass a budget to avoid immediate bankruptcy.

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