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“I Am Just Nowhere to Go.” Why Hundreds of Russian Orphans Who Are Entitled for Housing by Law Cannot Obtain It for Years

Annually only 15% of orphans who have a legislated right to obtain housing receive it. The rest of them line for years or litigate with the state. Important Stories explore why two thousand people remain homeless while the authorities easily find money for other projects.

11 Feb 2021
Editors, Polina Uzhvak
“I Am Just Nowhere to Go.” Why Hundreds of Russian Orphans Who Are Entitled for Housing by Law Cannot Obtain It for Years
Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS. Orphan Alexander Sidorov protests behind the State Duma

Sasha Bunin from Voronezh is 19, and his parents passed away four years ago. Their elder brother and his wife took him and his younger brother Dima under the guardianship. When he aged 18, he was asked to leave the flat. “I was thrown out to the street without anything. Somehow I tried to scratch along, settled into a students’ dormitory”, Sasha recalls. It was a tough time while he was re-registering social payments from the guardian to himself: “I attended classes in the morning, after the classes I worked as a mover for 12 hours shift and went to classes again. I slept for three or four hours that time.”

Reportage "Why 200 thousand orphans in Russia cannot get housing" by "Important Stories"
Cameramen: Gleb Limansky. Gleb Limansky, Georgy Malets ("Martin"), Sergey Pankov, Sergey Chernykh. Video editor: Gleb Limansky. Script: Polina Uzhvak, Yulia Alykova, Roman Anin. Voiceover: Alesya Marokhovskaya.

When the COVID-19 pandemics began, students were evicted from the dormitory. Everybody went home, but Sasha was nowhere to return. “I just didn’t know where to go, I begged them to allow me to stay in the dormitory, but they told me that I couldn’t”, he reminisces. The problem was solved because of the attention of journalists: the NTV channel broadcasted a report about orphans from Voronezh who had nowhere to go, and Sasha became one of its characters. “After the report, the college principal was phoned and talked to, so he found an opportunity for me to stay. But now he dislikes me.”

This problem would not exist if Sasha received the flat legally due to him. But in Voronezh orphan children wait for their housing for a very long time, and so they do in the majority of Russian regions. “I was 1640th in line when I was 16. After a year I moved 10 people down, that is, I appeared to get even further.” It happened because those who win a trial for housing are placed to the beginning of the list. According to the Ministry of Education, only those who sue obtain their flats in the Voronezh region since 2017.

Alexander Bushin
Alexander Bushin
Photo: Gleb Limansky

After the report on NTV, the prosecutor’s office drew its attention to Sasha’s case. The Voronezh region prosecutor helped the teenager to prepare a suit and represented his side in court. The case was won. However, it was not the end to the housing problems. “I won the court, but I have to wait for a flat at least for two years”, Bushin says. Now I have student debts, I am trying to close them, but I am afraid to be expelled. If I am, I have nowhere to go”.

According to the Unified State Information System of Social Security (USISSS) for December 2020, almost 192 thousand Russian orphans are in wait for housing. They should have moved to their flats strictly after the graduation from an orphanage, but they could not do it.

A share of orphans who finally manage to receive a housing has been declining since 2014. In 2019 only 15% of children that have a legislated right to be provided with housing obtained one.

To reduce waiting time orphans may go to court. Such cases are almost always won, and the court obliges the local authorities in charge to provide the needy with housing. Although, the judgment does not guarantee the immediate flat receiving, it inhibits the process. According to statistics of the Ministry of Education, more than a half of Russian orphans obtain housing through the court. In the 11 regions, orphans can obtain flats exceptionally through the judgment.

Sometimes orphans decide on a protest. In 2018, Tuvan orphans slept in a local Administration building to obtain the issuance of housing, but instead of flats, they got detentions and administrative proceedings. And the orphan Alexander Sidorov whose photo is placed on the article’s cover, lived on the streets for 10 years; in 2015 he protested behind the State Duma, then near Lenin’s Mausoleum on the Red Square requesting a flat legally due to him. From the Red Square, he was taken to a psychiatric hospital.

Just before issuing of this article, Sasha Bushin received his flat after all. In the Voronezh region, about three thousand orphans still remain on the list for housing.

“Children’s fates had been broken down due to lack of housing”

Human rights activist, a head of a charitable center “Complicity in Fate”
Alexey Golovan
“I observed how children’s fates had been destroyed due to lack of housing. Kids became involved in some criminal things, got to jail”.

“Obviously, housing is not sufficient, but necessary condition for children to socialize normally. Of course, it doesn’t mean that after getting a flat a child will definitely not become antisocial, and his life will turn out well. But at least you can tell him: “You have a basis, you have a foundation, and now everything depends on you”. And when we return a child to parents deprived of the parental rights, or when an orphan is forced to live with some marginal persons – it is a dong-water and cynicism to tell him that he should be a normal person and conscientious citizen”, considers a human rights activist, a head of a charitable center “Complicity in Fate” Alexey Golovan. “I observed how children’s fates had been destroyed due to lack of housing. Kids became involved in some criminal things, got to jail”.

Anatoly Ivanov from Cheboksary is 26 now. He had lived with his father and grandmother until he was 13. When his father started to drink, Anatoly’s aunt granted custody of the nephew. But their relations did not work out – the boy wanted to live with his parents, he ran away frequently. When he was 14, the aunt put him to an orphanage.

“If I had somewhere to live after the graduation, I would not get hung up on this company at all, I would have started a family. But what’s the point when you have nowhere to go”.
Aantoly Ivanov
26-year-old graduate of the Cheboksary orphanage who cannot obtain housing

Ivanov is registered in his grandmother’s house and although he does not own even a part of it, a social counselor did not list him as a child who needs housing. After the graduation, he returned to the relatives. He says that the aunt insisted on his help with the housework while Anatoly was busy with the preparation of the documents for college: “When I refused to help building the bathhouse, I was told: “You can pack your things and get out”. That’s what I did: packed my things and left”.

While in college, Anatoly lived in a dormitory. After the graduation, he expected to get housing in the immediate future: “I was waiting that they are about to provide me a flat, and then I decided to go and check with the guardianship authorities. It appeared that I am not in the list and nobody is aware about me. Due to the registration in the grandmother’s house, the social counselor considered that I don’t need housing. Now my orphanage does not exist, so you can’t find anyone responsible”. In his 22 Ivanov started to prepare documents from scratch, it took him half a year.

Until Anatoly haven’t had money, he lived with the elder orphanage friends. In 2017, he went to jail. Ivanov is not very forthcoming with the details: “We were resting; there was a bunch of drunk guys, one thing led to another, a fight, a person in a hospital, a report [to the police]. And that’s it – I was put in jail for two years”. After his release, Anatoly does not keep in touch with the old mates: “I realized that contacting with them leads to the wrong way. If I had somewhere to live after the graduation, I would not get hung up on this company at all, I would have started a family. But what’s the point when you have nowhere to go. I worked on construction sites in different regions for months; I wouldn’t carry a wife and a child with me around Russia”.

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“The state will not chase after you”

Sometimes orphan children even do not know about their right for housing. Olesya Suvorina left the orphanage when she was 16. She moved to her native town Voronezh, found a job, met her future husband; they rented a flat together. Only when Olesya was 22 years old and had already given birth to two children, the young woman accidentally heard on TV that orphan children have a right for housing. “Then we decided to try: maybe suddenly I’m lucky”, Olesya resembles.

She managed to obtain a flat. “If you need something to be done, do it yourself. The state will not chase after you and offer you apartments. Our guardianship authorities did not take any part in my obtaining the flat. I came to the Department of Social Security to inquire how to apply, what documents I need. But they were not interested in explanations. We looked for all the information and lawyers in the Internet”, Olesya says. She had been gathering documents for several months, applied to DSS for housing, filed a lawsuit to the court, attended the court hearings. Once her file was just lost in the court.

Olesya Suvorina
Olesya Suvorina
Photo: The Suvorin family archive

After three years, the young woman finally obtained a one-room flat. There were three kids in her family at that moment. “At first I was promised I would be given the additional square meters for the children, but they were not given because the children were registered in the husband’s house in the country. DSS considered that they are already provided with the accommodation, although there are few square meters in his part of the house for all of us”, Olesya says. Now Olesya’s flat is empty: it cannot be sold or rent out for the first five years. She lives together with her husband and children in a three-room flat bought on a mortgage.

“Often the main goal of guardianship authorities is not to protect an orphan’s rights but to save the budget”.
Alexey Golovan
Human rights activist, a head of the charity center “Complicity in Fate”

“Often the main goal of guardianship authorities is not to protect an orphan’s rights but to save the budget. Instead of enlightening an orphan about his or her rights and how these rights can be applied, the guardianship authorities try to hide this information or prompt some incorrect actions which lead a person to losing the right for housing”, the human right activist Alexey Golovan considers.

“It is impossible to imagine that now I will move and live in a flat with complete strangers”

Not all orphans have the right for housing, but only those who have an accommodation that is established to be impossible to live in. “Impossibility of residence” is commonly established if:

  • there live parents deprived of parental rights;
  • there live parents or relatives suffering from alcoholism or severe illnesses that make cohabitation impossible;
  • the housing is recognized to be dilapidated or hazardous;
  • there are less square meters for every person residing than it is established by the local laws.

If the fact of “the impossibility of residence” is not established, after the graduation a child will return to relatives who often appear to be almost strangers for her or him. E.g., the lawyer Alexey Golovan has been fighting for a brother’s and sister’s right to obtain housing. The children are registered in a flat where their uncle and his family live. They have not contacted with the uncle for 13 years and even do not remember him. “It is obvious that they can’t live in that family, they should go somewhere. But where to?” Golovan asks.

As the human rights activist claims, such stories when authorities refuse to put orphans in a list for housing, so they are forced to defend their right in court, are widespread in Russia. In such cases, the authorities in charge of the providing with housing in a region (e.g., a housing committee, a department of capital construction department or a ministry of education and science) and guardianship authorities usually are the respondents. According to Alexey Golovan’s experience, representatives of the guardianship authorities often are the ones who challenge children’s right for housing and it influences the court’s verdict.

“Judges are convinced that guardiansip is always on a child’s side, for example, in divorce or parental rights depriving cases. If it challenges housing, the court usually decides on the legitimacy of refusing such child. Thus, such cases are almost impossible to win without engaged lawyers. I had a case when the guardianship’s representative herself gave a girl my phone number, supported the child’s side before the trial, and acted against her in court”, Golovan says.

For instance, the guardianship officers told Olesya Ostapcuk from Chelyabinsk that she did not had a right for housing because she had already had an accommodation, although she has nothing to do with this place except the recording in her passport. Olesya lost her parents early and lived with the grandmother. She knew about her right as an orphan for the state provided housing accidentally from her friends. She had already entered a university and moved to Moscow to that time.

Olesya Ostapcuk
Olesya Ostapcuk
Photo: Gleb Limansky

“I even didn’t have an opportunity to visit home, because I had to support myself, to work and to study. Sometimes I came to Chelyabinsk on holidays. Once I went to DSS and asked what I should do. They provided me with a list of documents to collect”, Ostapchuk says.

At the age of 22, the young woman collected all the documents and went to Chelyabinsk to apply for including her in the list for housing. Her case was considered in detail, and she was told that she couldn’t obtain housing because she had already got a registration in a small room in the communal apartment in a small town of Chebarkul. Olesya’s father as a military officer once received this room and registered her there.

The girl came to observe the condition of the room in which she was offered to move. “It is a three-room flat in a very old house. I am registered in one room and other people are in the other two rooms. A woman met me on the doorstep; she was very displeased of my arrival. I thought that my room stayed closed for all these years, but it appeared that the woman and her son settled in it, although they didn’t have a legal right to do so. It is impossible to imagine that now I will move to a presidio and live in the same flat with the complete strangers”, Olesya says. But the guardianship authorities told her that technically she had the accommodation and she would not be given another one.

Photo: Ildar Garifullin / Unsplash

A month before the girl’s 23rd birthday she applied the “Complicity in Fate” fund where she was told about the possibility to argue the guardianship’s decision. “When a lawyer appeared, the manner of communication had changed dramatically”, Olesya says. “Before it, the communication was only oral and no written refusals were given. After the lawyer and I composed an official letter, they agreed with my right for housing, but only in Chebarkul. Then we insisted on housing in Chelyabinsk because I have lived here all the time. They agreed with this too, but now they request my permanent registration with my grandmother in Chelyabinsk, although the law doesn’t require it”.

“It is not their fault that one was born in Moscow and other in a less wealthy region”

One of the main reasons of not solving the problem with orphans’ flats is underfunding. The State have guaranteed housing for orphans by the Federal Law, but it delegated responsibility for its enforcing to regions. But the majority of Russian regions (72 from 85) are subsidized (receive money from the Federal budgetEd. note) and have difficulties with providing housing to all in need.

“The state supports regions by subsidies only since 2007, but a huge “tale” of children who couldn’t obtain housing legally due to them gathered to that time. Today the federal subsidy is not enough to provide just listed orphans as planned, and at the same time cover the [before] accumulated demand. Thus, the number of regions’ obligations to children increases every year”, the director of the charity center “Complicity in Fate” Alexey Golovan explains.

For December 2020, about 192 thousand children orphans over 18 were not provided with housing. 25-28 thousand orphans obtain flats every year. Thus, it takes about seven years to provide housing only to these children orphans, and yet the list of orphans claiming housing increases by more than 10 thousand persons every year.

Important Stories counted, how long an orphan who turns 18 in 2019 will be waiting for housing in different regions if he or she does not go to court, and flats are given in the same quantities as in 2019. He or she will manage to receive accommodation during a year only in five regions. In other 31 regions they will have to wait for one to five years. Orphans will have to wait over 20 years in 12 regions situated mostly in the east of the country. Outsiders in timing are the Tuva Republic, the Udmurt Republic and the Astrachan region: waiting time is over 40 years there.

The human rights activist Alexey Golovan considers that the money for orphans’ flats should be funded from the federal, not from the regional, budget: “We state that all orphans should have the equal rights. All of them are Russian orphans; and it is not their fault that one was born in Moscow and other in a less wealthy region. The new edition of the Constitution says that the state acts as a parent with regard to orphan children. So, what kind of parents cannot meet the basic demands of their children?”

In some regions, orphans who are waiting for housing can receive a compensation for a temporary rent and utility bills, or they can move to dormitories or social hotels. However, according to the Court of Audit, only five per cent of those in the line use this support. “The State Duma members for several times offered to implement a federal compensation for orphan children waiting for housing. But the government says over and over again that it requires additional expenses for which there is no money”, Alexey Golovan speaks.

According to the Court of Audit, in 2018 30.8 billion rubles was spent on providing orphan children with housing (excluding the budget of Moscow, which was not included in the general statistics). 24,235 orphan children obtained housing with that money (excluding children who obtained housing in Moscow). It turns out that the national average of money to provide one orphan child with housing is 1.3 million rubles. And at least 250 billion rubles is required to occasionally give flats to all orphan children who had right for them for the end of 2020.

“We are able to build a bridge to Crimea, but we aren’t able to provide orphans with housing”

The funding now allocated to solving the problem is not enough. Nevertheless, even this money is not spent completely. 30.8 billion rubles was spent in 2018, another 3.2 billion was planned in the budget but not used.

There are regions where percentage of a budget execution (how much money will be spent from the funded Ed. note) is critically low. The same regions have a rather low level of providing orphans with housing.

Sevastopol is one of those regions. Healthcare and Social Policy Committee of the city told Important Stories that the price at which the Sevastopol authorities offer to purchase flats for orphans is much lower than their market price. For the last three years, the price charged by the government almost doubled in the region, however, it did not help to reduce the gap. In 2020, a square meter of housing with finishing in Sevastopol was at an average price of 98 thousand rubles, while the marginal price of governmental purchases was 75 thousand.

Due to that difference, the public procurement of housing can fail. By 26 March 2020, 154 of such procurements were placed in Sevastopol, but none received an application. Suppliers were not ready to sell flats 25% below market price to the government authorities.

Important Stories submitted several requests about incomplete budget execution and measures of supporting orphan children to other regions (Primorsky Krai, Saint Petersburg, the Republic of Ingushetia, the Republic of Tuva), but have not received answers at the time of the publication.

The gap between the real market value of housing and the estimated cost of the Ministry of Construction is the all regions’ problem. The head of the Ministry of Construction Vladimir Yakushev said that the methodology applied today estimated the value of a square meter of housing 1.5-2 times below the marked price. In summer 2020 the Ministry of Construction offered to change the calculation methodology, but the Ministry of Finance did not support this proposal.

Eventually, regions either are unable to purchase housing and execute the money, or the money are executed but the housing purchased or built is of the low quality. Sometimes orphans acquire flats in remote or sketchy districts without infrastructure and regular transport links, where mold appears and wallpaper peel off shortly after the settlement.

The human rights activist Alexey Golovan is sure that the formal approach to the housing purchasing contradicts orphans’ interests: “The logic is that we’d better spend a certain sum of money not on two flats but on three; we will make children sign a social rent agreement, but it is not our concern if they will live here or not”.

Valeria Afonina from the village of Novaya Maina in the Ulyanovsk region had been waiting for a flat for five years – all that time she had lived in a rented accommodation together with her husband and children. Several tract houses for orphans had been built in the village at a time, the construction was delayed, but in 2017, the future tenants finally received their keys. The long awaited flats resembled seasonal weekend cabins. The temperature there did not rise above 11 Celsius; the water froze in pipes; the drywall walls could not stand the weight of radiators and shelves; tiles fell off in the bathroom. “We switch on the boiler at the full capacity and put on heaters to increase the temperature. When we are going to bath the baby, we put on a heater to the bathroom for 15 minutes and only then come in. As a result the electricity bills are enormous, about seven thousand rubles only for the heating”, Afonina says. Almost all the residents moved out from their flats in a year.

Valeria Afonina
Valeria Afonina
Photo: Sergey Pankov

Valeria did not move out, she decided to fight for the housing conditions improvement. But constant requests to the Ministry of Construction did not solve the problem: “Auditors came, gasped and sighed, and left. If I hadn’t posted this situation on the Internet, they would probably keep coming and going”.

In 2020, Valeria wrote about her living conditions in a local group on the website “VKontacte”. The governor paid attention to the problem and met the developer. After that meeting, the developer fixed up the Afonina’s flat: winterized the floor, patched the drywall, glue wallpaper. It got a little better, still the temperature inside raised only to 17 Celsius, thus, she needs to continue switching on the heaters in winter and keep the water on, so that it does not freeze in pipes.

House for orphans in the town of Novaya Maina in the Ulyanovsk region
House for orphans in the town of Novaya Maina in the Ulyanovsk region
Photo: Valeria Afonina
The condition of houses built for orphans is poor
The condition of houses built for orphans is poor
Photo: Valeria Afonina

The developer mended only Valeria’s house. The neighboring houses sill stay empty: their owners keep renting and accumulate communal debts for housing received from the state.

At the end of 2019, the government of Russia discussed the problem of providing orphan children with housing at the meeting; according to the former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the problem is “of a long-standing origin”. Together with the Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova they discussed the increasing of the federal budget to solve the problem, they spoke about ineffective money executing in some regions, about the low orphans’ housing quality, about the long wait. At the same time, Tatyana Golikova announced the six-year debt elimination program “without the dependence of how many resources it will require”.

Human rights activist, a head of a charitable center “Complicity in Fate”

 Alexey Golovan
"People’s life is been passing, and the problem still cannot be solved. We are able to build a bridge to Crimea, but we aren’t able to provide orphans with housing”.

It has been a year since that meeting. The Ministry of Education has not yet published the information about providing orphans with housing for 2020, but according to the human rights activist Alexey Golovan there are no radical changes.

“The Ministry of Construction should have developed the program by 1 March 2020, then the deadline was postponed to September 1. The program has never been published. There is no regular increasing of funding too. The only thing that is done is that two billion rubles was found for the most sensitive regions. But it is not the ongoing support but a one-time action, Golovan says. At 30 November [2020] there was a session with the chairperson of the Federation Council Valentina Matvienko. Orphans topic was raised here again. It is so frequently discussed these days that it becomes embarrassing: the state talks so much and does nothing. People’s life is been passing, and the problem still cannot be solved. We are able to build a bridge to Crimea, but we aren’t able to provide orphans with housing”. (The Crimean bridge construction cost the State 228 billion rubles. The bridge was built in four years. Ed. note)

Editors: Alesya Marokhovskaya, Alexandra Zerkalyova



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