In Abkhazia, vulnerable people who don’t own housing can find themselves neglected by the government, and consigned to poor living conditions. But some families, supported by the opposition, are determined to change that.
Last week, protesters frustrated with cycles of rental and poverty in Sukhumi (Sukhum) took matters into their own hands, demanding financial support from the government, and calling for an abandoned building to be repurposed as housing for those in need.
The approximately 100 people attending the rallies on 17 and 20 January were mostly members of large, low-income families who rent accommodation, and were asking the state to provide them with financial assistance to purchase housing.
Abkhazia’s Government defines those in acute need of housing as families with five or more children, orphans, people severely injured in the first Georgian-Abkhaz war, and those who have at least three children of whom at least one has a disability.
But for many of the participants of the protests, while they are not eligible for government housing support, their circumstances remain challenging. And for large families with low incomes, not owning housing exacerbates the other issues they face: low wages, an inability to work due to childcare, poor health.
Eliso Gogokhia, for example, has four children. Together with her husband, the family of six live in a one-room flat. The family is dependent on Gogokhia’s husband’s salary of ₽15,000 ($215) a month — barely enough to get by, let alone change or improve their living conditions. With no other options visibly available to her, Gogokhia decided to join the protests.
But on 20 January, the protesters weren’t just asking for financial support. In addition to demanding housing support from the state, participants of the protest identified an abandoned building that they saw as meeting their needs.
The unfinished nine-storey building in Sukhumi’s New District was originally scheduled to be completed in September 1992. However, after the War in Abkhazia broke out, the building remained unfinished. Thirty years later, it still lacks windows, doors, and a roof.
The protesters demanded that living space in the building be distributed to those in need. While representatives of the city administration claimed that this was not possible as the building was leased to a private company, protesters say that the government department that records building ownership stated that the house is not owned by anyone.
The second protest also attracted the attention of the police and state security officers, who were present along with the deputy head of Sukhumi’s city administration, Avtandil Surmanidze.
Surmanidze stated that, while he recognised the issue being raised, he considered protests and attempts to seize a building unacceptable.
‘Everyone understands the problem, people are in need, but you can’t use such methods. I think they will be listened to, and some outcome will be reached in the end. There are a lot of people in need,’ the official said told Abaza TV.
Surmanidze admitted that there were long-running issues with housing in Abkhazia, associated with semi-legal registration of housing ownership.
‘[There are] very serious problems in Abkhazia, you know. One [person] has five or six flats, five houses. They have already formalised everything, and someone else is suffering like this. And then people go and seize houses. I don’t know…’ said Surmanidze.
Supply and demand
According to information from Abkhazia’s Ministry of Social Security and Demographic Policy, last year, 416 applications were received for housing assistance from the Housing 2023–2025 programme, which operates across Abkhazia.
Of those applicants, 175 had three children and 91 had four; 44 were from the families of people killed in the War in Abkhazia, 16 were orphans, 23 were severely disabled, and 25 had children with disabilities.
The housing support budget for 2023 is ₽60 million ($870,000). But the programme is designed to support up to 110 families, and with the maximum amount that can be allocated to one family for the purchase of housing set at ₽1.2 million ($17,000), fewer than 60 families may receive support.
Christina Englas is one of those hoping to receive a housing certificate. She has three children, one of whom has cerebral palsy.
While her application for housing support was rejected last year, she is reapplying with documents proving her child’s disability. She hopes that, in light of her challenging living situation, her application will be accepted this year.
‘My three children and I live in my parents’ house. It’s very old and has no toilet or bath. It’s very difficult to live like that with a child who can’t walk,’ she told Abaza TV.
Romeo Cherkeziya, a representative of the Ministry of Social Security and Demographic Policy told Abaza TV that Englas would receive housing support. Given that Englas works as a cleaner and is raising three children, she will receive the maximum amount to ensure that she can buy a furnished flat, as she would be unable to repair or furnish one herself.
A new strategy
Before the launch of the ‘Housing 2023-25’ programme, other, similar programmes provided those in need with housing.
Cherkeziya claims that 154 families have received support to purchase flats over the past four years. He adds that the selection of candidates for housing support is thorough, and rumours that government assistance is occasionally allocated to those that don’t meet the official criteria were misleading.
According to the official, some of those who now require housing previously owned housing, but sold it. Many others have homes in villages but want to live in the city because their children are tied to schools and they themselves to their jobs.
Last week’s protesters were asking for living space in any condition, with some saying they were ready to take even bare walls and floorspace in the unfinished high-rise building.
And those protesting make clear that they have only taken this course of action because they have explored all other options available to them.
While some have looked into preferential mortgages, no such schemes exist in Abkhazia. It is impossible to take a targeted loan to buy a home, and current borrowing rates are steep; the minimum interest rate on a loan is 28% per annum.
The rally at the unfinished nine-storey building ended on a promising note, when the opposition leader and former minister of the economy, Adgur Ardzinba, arrived with good news: he had been in contact with Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab, and together they had come up with a new strategy.
A list of 29 families who had taken part in the protests would be considered by the government, and those who were in acute need of housing would receive financial assistance. The Prime Minister also promised to consider increasing funding for the Housing 2023-25 programme and expanding the criteria that made people eligible for free housing.
‘In actuality, there is money, because we have heard about the surplus and overfulfilment of budgets’, said Ardzinba at the rally. ‘You know that there is money for these purposes’.
As the government announces its plans and budgets for the year ahead, when and whether that money reaches the families most in need remains to be seen.
But even if a few families manage to buy a place of their own, one-off assistance will remain a palliative treatment of broader underlying issues. Incomes remain low and instability remains high, and with many still struggling to find housing, a long-term solution to Abkhazia’s housing issues seems unlikely to materialise any time soon.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.