Soviets stumble toward homeownership

November 04, 1990|By Vincent J. Schodolski | Vincent J. Schodolski,Chicago Tribune

MOSCOW -- Someday soon, perhaps within two years, Soviet citizens may be able to walk into a bank and talk about building up a little home ekviti.

Facing a massive shortage of housing, one of the country's most pressing social problems, Soviet authorities are in the process of establishing a system that would allow millions of Soviets to do exactly what millions of Americans do every year -- go deeply into debt.

With a helping hand from U.S. bankers and private financial consultants, the Soviet Union is exploring ways of setting up a private home mortgage system that would eventually allow people to buy their own homes and finance the construction of new ones.

In a country where the ownership of private property has been greatly restricted for nearly three-quarters of a century, this is a very new idea, but one whose time may have come.

Under today's circumstances, the average size of what a Soviet apartment is supposed to be is dictated by the government, which allows for six square meters per family member in Moscow. It is five in Leningrad. Thus, a family of four in Moscow would qualify for about 250 square feet of housing.

In practice, most live in far less space, including many in communal apartments. The space allowance can be compared with the median size of a single-family house built in the U.S. last year of 1,850 square feet.

"The desire to have a private home makes a person work better," said Yevgeny Desyatchikov, deputy chairman of HD, a Soviet government bank that finances construction.

"It makes the whole society more healthy," said Mr. Desyatchikov, who is one of the pioneers in exploring a fledgling mortgage system.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's 5-year-old effort to change the Soviet economic system has resulted in the toppling of many ideological and political taboos. But among the most resilient totems has been the question of private ownership.

Until now, Soviet citizens have been forbidden to own land, all of which belongs to the government, and have had their rights of private property ownership limited to such things as cars and small country cottages.

But the concept of private property -- ranging from shares in companies to private homes -- and the bond it creates between individuals and their economic performance has become a central theme of the economic reforms.

In addition, the Soviet people have huge cash savings at their disposal, estimated at hundreds of billions of rubles, primarily because there is so little for them to buy in their country. Confronted with continued shortages, this mass of rubles stands as a huge inflationary threat with money chasing after scarce goods. Eliminating the stock of cash is one of the government's thorniest problems.

And so the birth of the mortgage in the land of Lenin could be a blessed event.

"This country did not use this type of financing before because there was no private property and no mortgages," Mr. Desyatchikov said in a recent interview.

"We even had to develop a new vocabulary," he said, "like the word mortgage. Nobody had heard of this."

Indeed the Soviets appear to have approached the concept of home mortgages somewhat as innocents in the world of finance. Although HD and other Soviet banks have been involved in financing and international trade for decades, the area of such personal lending was a place where they needed help.

That assistance came in large part from St. Louis-based Citicorp Mortgage, a division of Citicorp, which is the largest mortgage lender in the United States.

Officials from Citicorp Mortgage have been guiding Mr. Desyatchikov and his band of would-be loan officers through the nuts and bolts of the business.

After preliminary meetings in the United States last summer, Citicorp Mortgage set up a three-day seminar in Moscow during which 200 employees of the HDbank were given a crash course in how the U.S. mortgage system works.

"They were a little mystified at first, but by the third day they were really getting into it," said Jonathan Russin, a Washington lawyer with the firm of Kaplan Russin and Vecchi, which helped bring the Soviets and Citicorp Mortgage together.

During the seminar the Soviets were involved in make-believe banking in which they used materials provided by Citicorp Mortgage to assess potential borrowers.

But more than just Russian and English separated the two sides. Some basic concepts had to be learned, not just translated.

So a glossary of such transliterated terms as brokyer, eskrooo and feekst raeyets (fixed rates) had to be understood.

While the seminar appears to have sparked a good deal of excitement on the part of the Soviet bankers, there is a long and complicated road to be traveled before the first Soviet buyer plunks down a pile of earnest rubles.

"It is like most of the tasks they are facing -- it's huge," said Citicorp Mortgage Chairman Bob Horner, who came to Moscow for the seminar.

"There is the strategic level: What kind of products can we offer, how will we analyze them?" he said. "Then there are the mechanics. How do you send out bills and what do you do with all the paper?"

Indeed the most pressing problems don't have to do with the ability of the Soviet banking system to learn how to write mortgages, but rather with the essential questions of reforming the economy.

"The main questions are about how they are going to structure their economy," Mr. Horner said.

Among these questions, and one to which Mr. Desyatchikov has yet to find an answer, is where the lendable money will come from. "We are looking into the idea of a secondary market for capital, something like bonds," Mr. Desyatchikov said. "But we are just starting to understand bond and financial markets."

With confidence in the government low at the moment, it is not at all certain that Soviet citizens would be willing to buy government bonds to underwrite mortgages.

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