One group is working with landlords and city officials to solidify the future of the Latvian capital’s suburban concrete relics.
Activists in Riga already have their hands full finding new life for its disused city center buildings, where over 500 properties are officially designated as “environment degrading objects.” But that’s nothing compared to the task of upgrading the under-maintained Soviet “microrayons” (micro-districts) which currently house most of the city’s population. Convincing the Latvian capital that there are benefits to organized cooperation, with all the Soviet baggage that hangs around that notion, might be an even bigger challenge.
The Soviet Union occupied Latvia from 1940 to 1991, a period remembered for mass deportations, arrests, and executions. Many Russians migrated to Latvia during the occupation, often to work in factories producing military goods and electronics as Riga became an important hub of Soviet manufacturing. The USSR, as it did throughout its occupied territories, built microrayons outside of Riga’s city center. Many of these are still standing long after their intended 50-year life expectancy and now house 68 percent of the city’s population.
Since joining the European Union in 2004 it has been estimated that 200,000 Latvians have left the country in search of work and better wages, largely in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany. Latvia’s low birth rate has contributed to the declining population, too. Nearly 30 percent of the working population today is over 50.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, Free Riga—a group dedicated to mapping vacant properties, advocating for redevelopment, and mediating between city officials and property owners—saw a steady demand among unemployed Latvians for low-cost, creative spaces in the capital, which are now used for everything from beer brewing to soap making, mostly by people aged 25-45.
Free Riga offers such spaces by occupying disused buildings as house guardians. “We do not charge rent for our spaces, we charge a membership fee,” said Mārcis Rubenis, co-founder of Free Riga. “This fee is benchmarked at half of what it would cost to rent in the area, and the members are expected to use the space for creative and other activities.”
House guardianship benefits the private owners of the properties too. By allowing the NGO to take on a property and repurposing it in ways that enrich the local community, it achieves a special public benefits status. This status offers the private owners the opportunity to save 90 percent on their property tax costs. “Property tax obligations can push owners into demolishing old buildings that are both structurally sound and of historical interest,” said Harijs Rozensteins, the private owner of Zunda Garden, a Soviet hangar occupied by Free Riga from the summer months of 2015 through 2017. Free Riga also takes care of building maintenance and security.
For inspiration, Free Riga looked to early-2000s Leipzig, where the HausHalten Association gave empty properties to Projekt Wächterhäuser—an initiative in which four different usage models for revitalization were established in response to the nearly 60,000 vacant housing units in the city after the fall of the Berlin Wall and ensuing decline of industry in the former GDR. The Dutch guardianship schemes of the 1990s were another source of inspiration, in which property owners would make use of house guardians as a way of keeping squatters out. The national government banned squatting in 2010.
The NGO observed the ways in which house guardianship quickly leads to the gentrification of a neighborhood, as seen in the area around Leipzig’s Eisenbahnstraße. After increasing the value of the neighborhood through community work, NGOs are promptly dismissed, and the private owners profit from the raised value of the area. Mārcis hopes that Free Riga will work as co-developers in the future, so that “the benefits of the projects are shared more equally and the positive social effects are sustained for longer.”
Free Riga is yet to experience pushback against their work out of any gentrification fears. In fact, the organization claims, the word “gentrification” hasn’t yet entered common parlance in Latvia as it has elsewhere in Europe.
As a post-Soviet city, Riga faces unique challenges. “People are skeptical of organized cooperation because it was forced on them during the Soviet era,” said Mārcis. “We had to adapt the German and Dutch models to fit our own post-Soviet state, and to convince people of the benefits.”
While much of Free Riga’s work currently involves the housing built before World War II, the maintenance of the aging microrayons will soon become a major problem for the city. The issue is not confined to Riga.
Most microrayons were built on the outskirts of Soviet cities so that planners did not have to work around existing infrastructure. This also offered inhabitants easier access to nature and prevented added congestion in city centers. But because they were built according standardized designs, a problem in one district may presage further, identical problems in other microrayons. “It's not quite that everything from Kaunas to Tashkent is the same, though there is massive homogeneity,” Owen Hatherley, author of Landscapes of Communism recently told CityLab.
Līva Kreislere, who works with Free Riga, describes a potential domino effect throughout the former USSR. When it was announced last year that Moscow’s ‘Khrushchevka’ flats, named after former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, were to be demolished in a move that would see the city lose a full 10 percent of its housing stock, some felt the decision was motivated by the high value of the land the apartment buildings sit on more than the age or dilapidation of these structures. For Maroš Krivý, an urban critic who has studied microrayons in Bratislava and Tallinn, the problem is institutional and about maintenance, rather than the expiration of prefabricated apartment buildings.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, adjoining apartment blocks are maintained by their private owners who were sold the properties in the 1990s—a move inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” scheme in the U.K. Maroš describes a typical situation in these housing estates where one apartment block might be painted pink, another blue and yellow, and the third not at all, because of the difficulty in getting 60 people living in one block to agree on the improvements needed. If a consensus is reached by the homeowners association, they must then find the cheapest offer from a private contractor, then apply for a grant, and commission the work. Often this complex process is navigated by older residents.
“In the Soviet Union there was a saying that ‘everything is paid for.’ You were only expected to work, and the state would provide housing and everything else for you,” Līva tells me. “It will take many generations for individual responsibility to be bred back in to the population.”