Peace Instead of Sacking

Article, 25.04.2016

Roughly 130’000 Georgians live as internally displaced people in emergency shacks in their own country. Some of them have been living in these conditions for decades. With social housing developments and political lobbying, the SDC attempts to change the living conditions of the internally displaced and socially weak for the better. Not an easy task.

Social Houses in Tbilisi, Georgia

The Georgian dream of peaceful independence didn’t last for long. After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in April 1991, bloody conflicts broke loose in Georgia’s two renegade regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Roughly 260’000 people were cast out of their homes and were forced to leave their homeland. An estimated 50 percent of them still live in makeshift shelters today. Going back to their native areas, where peace is still only a far-away dream, is practically impossible.

Dodo Lakia is one of the internally displaced people suffering from these circumstances. When paramilitary troops massacred about 700 people in her hometown of Sukhumi in Abkhazia back in 1993, the 54-year-old fled her home together with her husband and their two daughters. “For ten years we’ve lived in the backyard of a run-down chemical plant. It has caused great damage to our health”, Dodo says. Today, she and her family live in a social housing in the city of Zugdidi. “We are happy and safe here. Our only complaint: the 1-room apartment feels a little cramped at times.”

Construction-boom without a plan

As part of the project „Social Housing in Supportive Environments“ (SHSE), the SDC has built 19 social houses with a total of 168 apartments in seven different Georgian cities between 2007 and 2013: the first in the Caucasus state, where social housing was unknown prior to the start of the SDC’s project in 2007. The apartments belong to the city council of the respective cities and are given to internally displaced people who can’t afford paying rent or buying their own apartment. With the project, the SDC’s Humanitarian Aid Unit aims at supporting the Georgian government that – back in 2007 – decided to sustainably improve the situation of the internally displaced. “It’s the goal of the SHSE-project to close all makeshift shelters in the coming years and to promote the idea of social housing on a political level”, says Patrik Olsson, programme officer for the South Caucasus at the SDC.

Besides the internally displaced people who fled their homes, the project also aims to support needy seniors, homeless people and those living on the social margins of the Georgian society. All of them can apply for apartments in the existing social housing units. Despite of the construction boom Georgia has seen over the past years, these social groups have no fair chance to find a decent apartment on the free market.

Gocha Khuphatsaria belongs to those forgotten by the Georgian land use planners and city designers. As a bus driver, Gocha makes ten Georgian Lari (roughly four Swiss Francs) a day. “When my mother got sick a few years ago, we had to sell our house to pay for her treatment”, says the 51-year-old. Together with his family, he moved to a rental apartment he couldn’t really afford and was kicked out by the landlord shortly thereafter. Gocha’s family enlisted themselves on a list for a SHSE-social apartment in Zugdidi – and they got lucky. “We don’t have to be afraid that someone sends us packing anymore just because we can’t afford the rent”, says Gocha. “Without the SHSE-apartment and the support we get from our new neighbours, our lives would still be very, very hard.”

Document of hope

After finishing building the social housing units in 2013, the SDC started focussing their efforts on lobbying for their project at meetings with city councils and political representatives. Their goal: to win them over for the project and convince them of the necessity of a continuation of the social housing project. The SDC’s efforts were successful in some parts. For example: the Ministry for Economy and Sustainable Development has adopted the construction-standards for social housing units developed by the SDC. Swiss architect Rolf Grossenbacher has assisted the SDC during this last phase of the SHSE project, which ended in April 2015, with his expertise. “I’m confident that social housing construction has a future in Georgia”, says Grossenbacher. However, he fears that the lack of a national agency for land use planning could be a serious threat to the social housing projects of the future. “Up until today, it’s the municipalities who are responsible for these projects. Many of them are struggling financially and won’t be able to support further social housing projects in the future”, Grossenbacher says.

Tamuna Tsivtsivadze, who assisted the SDC with the SHSE programme as a senior programme officer from the very beginning on, is carefully optimistic. Building the social housing units was the easy part, she says. “Convincing people and agencies of their importance is much tougher, particularly because of the continuously changing political power-balance in the country. However, what the SDC was capable of doing within the relatively short time-frame in which the SHSE project has been realized, is almost revolutionary by Georgian standards.” A new document published by the Ministry for Labour, Health and Social Affairs gives here additional hope. The document with the promising title “Overcoming Homelessness” calls for the construction of special housing units for homeless people throughout the country. “We’ll use this opportunity to further promote our concept for social housing and to put it on the national political agenda”, says Tsivtsivadze. If the Ministry is going along with their recommendations, that would be a major step for the advancement of social housing projects in Georgia. It would further be a guarantee that the Swiss efforts would outlast the presence of the Humanitarian Aid section of the SDC which withdraws from Georgia by the end of the year. The situation would be similar to the one in Serbia, where social housing construction sees a veritable boom – even without the presence of the SDC in the country.

Students‘ visions

To win over the academic youth for the topic of social housing developments, the SDC has convinced several universities to hold lectures on social housing construction. Furthermore, the SDC has launched a contest for architecture-students asking them to hand in their own social housing-concepts. Sandro Lobjanidze won the contest in 2015. “In Georgia, social housing is a relatively new idea. That’s what fascinates me about it”, says Sandro. “As architects, we can do pioneer-work in the area of social housing development. It’s up to us to come up with new ideas and designs, so that no one will ever have to be ashamed of living in a social housing unit anymore.” His idea: “Why don’t we integrate social housing apartments in regular apartment buildings? That would be a big step towards integrating the socially marginalised into society.”


Source: Eine Welt. Written and translated by Samuel Schumacher