BW Vihavainen organizing civil society granvik

Part of illustration by Karin Sunvisson.

Reviews Dissertation review Organizing civil society

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 61-62, 2 2011
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 30, 2011

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All real estate was nationalized after the 1917 Russian Revolution. State ownership and heavily subsidized housing led to a culture in which most residents felt no particular responsibility for collective concerns outside their own apartments. In conjunction with the 1991 privatization reform, a law was enacted that gave everyone the right to privatize flats or rooms in communal apartments, the kommunalka. By 2005, 85 percent of all housing had been privatized. As part of a new, large-scale housing reform in 2005, the private sector and citizens became responsible for managing and maintaining private housing — a phenomenon that can be described as a sort of experiment in democracy.

In Homeowners’ Associations in Russia after the 2005 Housing Reform, sociologist Roosa Vihavainen has captured this relevant topic in empirical studies of homeowners’ associations in St. Petersburg. Half of the book gives relevant background information. Here, Vihavainen discusses housing policy under the Soviet Union and afterward, and makes theoretical connections to the subject and her research questions. The remaining 100 or so pages comprise descriptions of the empirical work, the findings, and the conclusion. Her starting point is rooted in several lines of thought. Democracy and culture, power, individual/collective, self-government, rights, responsibility, social dynamics, and practical outcomes are key words and concepts representative of her work. Vihavainen brings three questions to the fore: whether homeowners’ associations are successfully managing and maintaining property; whether collective work and decision making are creating social relationships and generating social capital or leading to conflicts; and whether the social dynamic and other factors outside the associations such as local authorities are promoting or impeding self-government by the associations.

As self-governing organizations, homeowners’ associations are new in Russian civil society. These associations become channels for decision making for residents, but the opportunity to act and exert influence also entails commitment and acceptance of responsibility. The large state systems that characterized the Soviet era provided no appreciable scope for people living in state-owned housing to affect their environments. Consequently, there is still limited experience with the process of becoming engaged or initiating local management of collective concerns. How well adapted are post-Soviet people to the tasks imposed by the new law on self-management of property?

The theoretical underpinnings of the study are found partly in Elinor Ostrom’s common pool resources theory, where trust is the key concept in a functioning organization. Clear rules and clear responsibilities, interim goals, and conflict-resolution mechanisms are beneficial factors, while overuse, heterogeneous groups, and poverty impede cooperation. Vihavainen also discusses the problem of free-riders as a relevant concept in the housing context. The other theoretical link is to the concept of social capital, where she refers to Robert Putnam, James Coleman, and Pierre Bourdieu. Social capital is also based on trust between individuals. According to Putnam, social capital is generated by social norms of networks of relationships, reciprocity, and trust. Social networks can be either vertical or horizontal in nature. Vertical networks are based on unequal and hierarchical relationships, horizontal networks on equality and distribution of power. Vihavainen argues that homeowners’ associations are based on horizontal networks, even though not all members enjoy equal conditions, since their governing power is based on the size of their apartment.

The empirical evidence of the work is based on interviews conducted between 2005 and 2008 with 18 association chairs and property managers and 8 residents from a total of 17 home-
owners’ associations, as well as 11 housing experts. The sample of home-owners’ associations represent 9 of the 18 districts in St Petersburg and a variety of old and new buildings, large and small multifamily dwellings, and a range of standards, including both average and “luxury” housing.

In her empirical work, Vihavainen uses Ostrom’s design principles of a common property regime in order to study how self-government works in homeowners’ associations and the extent to which the associations are democratic organizations. One of these principles has to do with having clearly defined rules, which Ostrom relates to things like membership. In homeowners’ associations, however, this principle is complicated by the fact that membership in the association is voluntary and that some homeowners use common pool resources but are not members of the association. Another principle is that of collective-choice arrangements in which most individuals affected by the rules of the system are also allowed to participate in its design. This is a vital prerequisite for democratic decision making. The material shows that several associations are struggling with free-riders — residents who use facilities, but do not contribute personally with commitment, time, or money. It is not unusual, for example, for some residents not to pay for heat and water, sometimes leading the heating company to shut off the heat for the entire building, since multifamily dwellings have central heating. Some homeowners’ associations have implemented their own sanctions against free-riders, such as denying them a parking space or access to services like plumbing. Some have pursued these matters further in court and posted court orders in the stairwells.

Vihavainen’s empirical evidence also shows that, although there are significant differences between associations, cooperation is usually better in new buildings. The primary reasons for this are that the composition of the housing and the socioeconomic conditions are more homogeneous in new buildings than in old ones, resulting in fewer conflicts. The homeowners’ associations have successfully created social capital among residents of similar social backgrounds through informal activities rather than official decision making. In many cases this has led to a stronger sense of community. One general problem, however, is the lack of participation in decision making, which a majority of the respondents explain as a legacy of the Soviet mentality. Inadequate knowledge of the reform, skepticism about new organizations, and fear of being swindled may be other likely reasons. The driving forces of the associations are usually a few very committed residents.

It also emerges that it is not unusual for authorities to act as impediments to the self-government of the homeowners’ associations. Some local authorities do not acknowledge the associations’ self-government and do not permit them to work independently. Meanwhile, according to some associations, good working relationships with authorities are important since they provide opportunities for financial aid and enable the authorities to support and defend the association should disputes arise with construction companies, difficult residents, or others. Finally, the results show that the new self-management reform has produced results in the urban landscape, since one no longer expects to find rundown and dirty stairwells or cracked facades. Vihavainen finds that the homeowners’ associations have succeeded where the privatization reform of the 1990s failed: in improving the condition of common spaces by making home-owners responsible for them.

The author elegantly interweaves the various empirical components with the theoretical concepts. I found the results section especially worthwhile reading. In offering many quotations, it gave an authentic picture of the reality and day-to-day affairs of the homeowners’ associations. However, I would have liked to see a more detailed review of the methodology and discussion of the sampling process for respondents, districts, and homeowners’ associations. The conclusion in the last chapter is largely a summary of what was already discussed, other than the part that deals with the results of the reform, which brings up new information that illustrates other developments.

Vihavainen’s discussion is confined to the empirical evidence. It would have been interesting to elevate the discussion to a higher level, where analysis of her data is put into a broader social perspective with a focus on democracy and evolution of the civil society. Home-owners’ Associations in Russia after the 2005 Housing Reform contributes to an understanding of the current state of democracy at the local level in Russia, which can also be set in a larger context, since the privatization of the housing sector and property management is a process that has taken place or is ongoing in all post-socialist countries. Might the 2005 housing reform be a successful experiment in democracy that has wider repercussions, and could perhaps even eventually erase the Soviet mentality? ≈

NOTE:  The review was previously published in Nordisk Østforum (Oslo).

  • piercepola

    After a long economic recession in the market, now the real estate investment market is moving towards stability. Has now become a safe investment, and a reward.

  • by Madeleine Granvik

    Human geographer, PhD in landscape planning and assistant professor in planning for sustainable development and management of urban-rural interactions.

  • all contributors

Roosa Vihavainen, Homeowners’ Associations in Russia after the 2005 Housing Reform, Helsinki: Kikimora , Publications Series A 20, 2009, 274 pages