Improving what we have -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Improving what we have

By Robin Black

“Poverty housing” encompasses to two broad categories: The shortage or lack of housing: to deal with this, we need new or extended housing. The quality of housing: to deal with this, we have to improve what we have.

In 2006, for the first time ever, the world’s population in urban environments overtook the population in rural settings. Consequently, for Habitat for Humanity in Europe and Central Asia, it has become evident that much of our work must focus on the improvement of housing, in addition to increasing the quantity of the social housing stock.

This article will focus on improving the quality of housing, and will take the renewal of specific building components in condominium-style apartment blocks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as an example.

At the time of construction in 1976, the five-floor, 130-unit “Eirenna” block was one of the more desirable social housing solutions provided by the state which was, at that time, responsible for social housing.

The attractive features of the block included:

  • Private apartments.
  • Only four families per shared toilet and bathroom.
  • Eight gas cookers per floor in the communal kitchen.
  • An elevator.
  • A common laundry and individual storage room in the basement.

Though the Eirenna condominium was once a relatively desirable place to live in Bishkek, when I first visited the block in December 2005, I witnessed some of the most pitiful living conditions I have ever seen in a multi-unit apartment block:

  • Water was running in through the roof and down the walls.
  • Various types of mold grew in each apartment, and fungi growth was rampant in communal areas.
  • The stench of mold and dampness lingered with the occupants for hours after leaving the block.
  • Frequent short circuiting of the electrical system from water in the system.
  • The elevator was not functional for many years.
  • The sanitation system functioned only in some of the shared toilets.
  • The kitchens had been converted into additional apartments.
  • The little insulation in the prefabricated wall panels had long since failed.
  • Single glazed windows rattled in their frames.

The ramification of this on the quality of life for the residents manifested in numerous ways:

  • High incidence of pulmonary disease, specifically among children and the elderly.
  • Nothing could be left or stored on the floor, which continually flooded.
  • Cold and damp conditions.
  • All children sat/played on top of the beds.
  • Those who had rubber boots could play on the floor of the apartments and communal hallways.
  • Everybody wore outdoor shoes inside the home (culturally in Kyrgyzstan, it is the norm to remove outdoor shoes at the entrance of a home).
  • Time and energy wasted from walking to improvised toilets outside the building because of the inoperable elevator.
  • Risk of electric shock.
  • Families were stripped of their dignity, and embarrassed to invite friends to visit due to the condition of their home.

Prior to the change in politics in the region in the early 1990s, the state, which owned the apartment block, took care of repairs and preventative maintenance. Immediately following the change in politics, industry and social housing were privatized across the country. Many families—specifically those who worked in the privatized industries—bought their apartments and while they had jobs took care of their apartments.

However, no one was made responsible for preventative maintenance of and repairs to the communal elements and areas in the block. This resulted at first in a gradual deterioration of the block and failure of many of the components. Once this reached a critical stage, the failure of the components became more sudden—specifically, the total failure of the roof covering.

The residents of Eirenna mobilized themselves as far as they could to take control of the situation. They formed a representative group to become legally registered and joined the city-wide Condominium Association Group,[1] which would give them a voice and represent them to government and other supportive organizations.

From here plans began to take shape. The prioritized needs were identified by the families, and HFH Kyrgyzstan, as the legal entity, was named to manage the repairs. The condition of the building was surveyed and repairs discussed between the families and HFH Kyrgyzstan. A democratic decision was taken to renew the roof. However not all families—specifically those on the ground and first floors—agreed to this as they were not directly affected by the defective roof covering.

This required a lot of deliberation with the families. The representative group from Eirenna would collect the payments from the residents and pay HFH Kyrgyzstan in one lump sum. Many of the families could not make a financial commitment for anything more than the roof renewal. Since this was a new model for HFH Kyrgyzstan, this project would demonstrate if the model suited the families, the association and HFH Kyrgyzstan. The roof was renewed in late 2006.

I visited again in October 2007. From the outside there were few noticeable changes to the block. Inside, my first impressions were that the lights were working and people gathered in the communal areas. The walls still bore the staining of years of water running down. However, the mold growth had stopped.

The greatest impact on me was the absence of the stench of mold and damp. There were children running through the corridors and playing on the floors. In the homes, people removed their shoes at the entrance to the home; beds were no longer used to keep household items off the floors. The floors became part of the home again. The atmosphere inside the homes and throughout the communal areas is remarkably different, a change for the better.

The renewal of the roof appears to have been a catalyst for families to take the intervention further. With the common water and sanitation areas now taken care of, residents have been able to paint some of the formerly wet walls. Two families that I met stated that there have been some improvements to their families’ health.

The transformation has begun, yet there is much more to do. Once the families and association have demonstrated their commitment to the project and payments are received on time, the next construction phase can begin.

The estimate is that there are between 150 to 200 apartment blocks like these in Bishkek, whose residents are within HFH’s niche. The roof construction is finished, but the end of poverty housing for these families has just begun.

Robin W. Black is construction manager of HFH E/CA. Robin has a master’s degree in housing and urban development from Oxford Brookes University, and has 24 years’ experience in the building trade. Prior to joining HFH, Robin was involved in development work in Zimbabwe, and post-emergency reconstruction in schools, health centers and refugee camps in Macedonia.

Robin may be contacted at


[1] This group manages, maintains and repairs apartment blocks.