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Rising From Ruins
Still emerging from the long shadows of the Cold War, former communist countries find hope in new kinds of housing solutions

by Shala Carlson
Slide Show
Tajikistan: Seeds of Success
Kyrgyzstan: New Frontiers
Room to Grow
Serving Exponentially More Families
A misty drizzle has enveloped the entire afternoon. Heavy clouds hang low, casting shadows over the city of Khujand, a northern outpost in the former Soviet territory of Tajikistan. Wide avenues crisscross the city, cutting through low-slung private residences, outdoor markets and neutrally-colored high-rises. In the distance, rust-colored mountains reach up into the haze.

A new kind of Habitat for Humanity project stands tall at the foot of those mountains. The nine-story building sat half-finished and empty for 13 years, until Habitat and Khujand State University came together to complete its construction--construction that had abruptly halted when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. As a result of the Habitat-KSU partnership, the completed building serves as a beloved beacon, providing 52 homes for qualifying faculty and staff families.

As the day's rain begins to fade, residents venture out onto balconies. Two young girls giggle and play on the second floor; a few stories up, a dark-haired boy watches as his grandfather repairs a chair. One floor above them, music escapes from a half-opened window, mixing with the sounds of a family making dinner inside. After a day shrouded in gray, the setting sun breaks through the red-rock foothills, racing past the dark, unfinished frame of a neighboring ruin to illuminate the brightly painted hope of Habitat.

A Statue of Vladimir Lenin stares out over Khujand, Tajikistan.
Emerging from Soviet Shadows
Khujand's 2,500-year history plays out on its city streets. A bust of 15th-century poet and native son Kamal Khujandi sits in a public square on a main thoroughfare, a reminder of the rugged city's legacy of Persian poets and scientists and its once-vital position on the storied Silk Road of commerce and culture that swept through Central Asia.

Alexander the Great is said to have journeyed as far east as Khujand. He is not the only conqueror to have come: On another busy street, a weather-burnished statue of Vladimir Lenin stares out over a public plaza. At the height of Soviet power, newly married couples came to Lenin's feet for their wedding portraits; today, with decades of Soviet control replaced by political and economic uncertainties, curious tourists are his only visitors.

Poetry and poverty are the twin legacies of Tajikistan. Like so many of its regional counterparts, the country has struggled to emerge from the shadows of the Soviet system. Always one of the poorest Soviet republics, agriculturally oriented Tajikistan declared its independence in 1991 and plunged immediately into a destructive civil war that ended in 1997.

The chill of the Cold War is still felt here every day. Moving away from Khujand's bustling center, in any direction under Lenin's gaze, many residents live in aging and often-overcrowded block-style housing. More desperate families form squatter communities in partially abandoned, deteriorating buildings. Crowded residences often sit near partially constructed apartment buildings, projects deserted after the central Soviet government and economy gave way. These cement skeletons, worn by the elements and empty except for the winds that blow through them, litter the landscape.

Partially completed apartment buildings of all sizes and shapes dot the Tajik landscape.
Tajikistan is not the only country with Habitat affiliates that face the particular challenges of post-Soviet-era housing. In many Eastern European and Central Asian countries--Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Romania, Armenia--Habitat for Humanity must deal with the high costs of new construction and an abundance of large and decaying or only partially constructed multi-family housing units.

"One of our goals is to increase the number of families served and also decrease the cost to those families," says Robin Black, Habitat construction manager for Europe and Central Asia. "Continuing only in the method of traditional construction (of single-family houses), we're simply not going to achieve that. So what we have done is not just come up with housing solutions to housing shortages, but we're also evaluating what housing poverty means. Because there's also poverty in terms of quality of housing. We still have new construction, but in addition, we're doing a variety of other things to address that need, like reconstruction and renovation projects."

Farzona and Manizha Zohidov stand on the balcony of their Habitat apartment in the renovated nine-story building.
A Nine-Story Solution
Habitat Khujand constantly pursues new, single-family-house construction projects. But, says executive director and Khujand native Fakhriddin Kuziboev, the price for materials has continued to rise. In 2000, house construction cost US$5,000; by 2006, the figure was closer to $7,000. In Tajikistan, where the World Bank estimates that more than 40 percent of the population lives on $2 a day, that difference can be insurmountable.

So when the affiliate was approached by officials from Khujand State University with a partnership proposal, Kuziboev was open to their ideas. The university, which has faculties in 15 fields of study and nearly 12,000 students, was steadily losing professors and staff. In the years following the initial transition from communism, nearly 400 teachers left the school and sometimes the country because--even though many of them worked two or three jobs to provide for their families--they struggled to make monthly rent payments on the overcrowded, poorly maintained apartments available in Khujand. Those who stayed often found their families living in one-room university dormitories, alongside the students they taught.

KSU proposed a solution, a means of providing better living conditions for its educators in hopes of keeping them. The university would donate a partially constructed building on its campus to Habitat and invest $60,000 in infrastructure work. Habitat would then invest $250,000 and use its construction expertise to provide necessary renovations in conjunction with the appropriate governmental agencies and utilities departments. Habitat agreed--"we saw how great the need was," Kuziboev says--and the end result is nine stories worth of simple, decent homes, finished in two phases of construction and purchased by partner families for $4,630 each.

The Zohidov family now lives in the renovated KSU building.
Habitat's family selection methods were implemented by a joint committee of Habitat staff and university officials, Kuziboev explains, and each family chosen made a 10 percent down payment, worked 500 sweat equity hours during the renovation process and pledged to make mortgage payments over an eight-year period.

"In the beginning, the building was just blocks, empty blocks," says Kuziboev, shaking his head. "No pipelines, no windows, no doors, just the structure. I tell you, it was dry." Government regulations on construction in Tajikistan meant that certain facets of the project--welding, roofing, electrical and plumbing work--required the hiring of professionals. Habitat oversaw all work, and partner families helped to clean and prepare the site and to plaster and paint the apartments and common areas, among other tasks.


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