What Does Gentrification Mean for Downtown Kyiv?
In many Western countries, the word gentrification tends to have a negative connotation. It rings of racial and economic inequality, a city “losing its soul,” the loss of “mom-and-pop” shops and restaurants, infiltration by “yuppies,” etc. But how do these assumptions about the nature of gentrification match up with the Kyiv context? Can an ancient European city that is still feeling the effects of being dominated for over 70 years by a Soviet empire that was in a state of almost constant decay really lose its soul, when that part of its soul has been dead over 30 years? Might gentrification in Kyiv simply be a return the vibrant days where downtown was filled with nice shops and restaurants and the people who frequented them actually lived nearby?
As a native of the Boston area, during my childhood we all knew of an area downtown that was known as the “Combat Zone.”
A small neighborhood of just a few city blocks, this area harbored every know vice to man at all hours of the day. Needless to say, the crime rate there was sky high and with time the area became more and more blighted. Eventually, the city changed zoning regulations, which led to the area being gentrified over a number of years, with the trend gaining serious momentum in the 1990s. Eventually the area became nice enough that some universities and hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton, moved into the neighborhood. Talk about a turnaround. Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find anything for sale there, and if it were for sale you would be looking at prices between $10-15,000 per m2. Not bad for a neighborhood that had such a nefarious nickname.
In downtown Kyiv, while not known as a hotbed of vices, you do have a massive issue with the condition not only of the facades of older buildings, but even the insides of the apartments can be much worse. Very often we are helping our investors purchase completely dilapidated apartments, some of which have not been renovated since the aftermath of WWII, more than 70 years ago. In doing so, we are also helping the sellers to get out of the trap that they are living in. Since most sellers inherited their apartments during the privatization wave that came after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many were left “property rich and cash poor.” Lacking the funds to refurbish what was already in bad shape at the time of privatization, the further decay has meant that many vulnerable people, namely the elderly and children, have been living in spaces that are unsuitable for human habitation. While some might call on the government to try and provide funding for such renovations, with necessary renovations costing easily tens of thousands of dollars, no one can reasonably expect the Ukrainian government, or any government for that matter, to be able to afford such costs. And that is where the “gentrifying” buyer enters the picture.
The typical buyer for a dilapidated apartment in the center of the city is generally going to fall into two categories: investor or future occupant. The investor would typically be looking to renovate and let out to well-paid locals or expats, and the one buying for themselves would tend to be Ukrainian of a younger generation, who more than the previous generations want to be closer to their favorite restaurants, office, parks, public transport, parks, etc.
Either way, the people who will come to live in these newly refurbished apartments are going to be very similar to each other but very different from the current tenants. The sellers of these places tend not to have even enough money to enjoy a nice restaurant once a week, even if that eatery is located in the same building. Also, after the sale the typical seller will take the money and buy a property in a newly constructed building, where the apartment will be new, the elderly can have access to new lifts, and the children can have access to a playground just outside.
With these points in mind, gentrification seems more like an evolution towards an equilibrium that raises the quality of life for all involved, as opposed to some destructive force.
There will always be the more conservative voices calling any change to be halted in favor of some romanticized idea of the “charm” of dilapidated buildings. However, once you have seen how many people live within these units in squalid conditions without proper kitchens or bathrooms, this romantic idea is easily washed away.
In addition, with the Ukrainian government looking to attract tens of billions of dollars of foreign investment in the coming years, this could be the perfect marriage of capital and dilapidated assets that need investment. In this way, foreign investors, especially from Europe, can implement the best practices they have seen and used in other Soviet bloc capitals that have already seen a major rejuvenation in the past couple of decades. Following the examples of Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw, in particular can bring about the much need renaissance, or gentrification, of Kyiv’s historical downtown.