WORLD

Capitalist crimes

Swindlers prey on elderly tenants of prized apartments

MALCOLM GRAY January 10 1994
WORLD

Capitalist crimes

Swindlers prey on elderly tenants of prized apartments

MALCOLM GRAY January 10 1994

Capitalist crimes

RUSSIA

Swindlers prey on elderly tenants of prized apartments

The voices on the telephone are usually soft, persuasive and insistent: bequeath your apartment to us and we will look after you for the rest of your life. So went one recent sales pitch received by Svetlana Antropova, 71, who lives alone in central Moscow. According to Antropova, most of the callers quickly lose interest when they learn that she has a middle-aged daughter who will inherit her spacious three-room flat. But other elderly Moscow homeowners have been less fortunate. Said Mikhail Yemelianov, the deputy commander of the city’s missing persons unit: “Privatization of apartments started in October, 1991, and it soon led to a new problem: homeowners, most of them old people, started disappearing.”

Fuelling Moscow’s current real estate boom—and accompanying crimes ranging from fraud to murder—is the right of tenants to buy apartments that they rented from the state during the communist era. City officials estimate that roughly half of Moscow’s 2.5 million housing units are now privately held, many of them changing hands through TV and newspaper ads placed by housing brokers. The trend is particularly noticeable in the centre of the city, where competition for prestigious addresses among members of Russia’s emerging business class and well-heeled foreigners has sent prices soaring. The area has many former mansions that the Bolsheviks converted into barracks-like communal apartments after the 1917 revolution. And for enterprising developers there is only one obstacle to reconverting those once-elegant buildings to high-quality private housing: the current tenants.

Antropova is one such obstacle. Two years ago, before the housing boom, her family bought the high-ceilinged, 1930s-era flat that she had rented for three decades. Said Antropova: “Andrei, my son-in-law, teases me by saying that I am now the bourgeois owner of a property that is worth more than $300,000.”

Antropova is lucky that her son-in-law is looking after her interests. Many tenants are easy targets for smooth-talking and sometimes ruthless fraud artists. In one recent instance, two young men befriended a woman alcoholic and persuaded her to leave them

her one-room Moscow flat after her death. The 50-year-old woman died shortly after signing an agreement to that effect. Police later arrested her supposed friends, who now face murder charges. Authorities are investigating at least 14 lease-related killings.

But murder is only the most shocking aspect of property-related crimes in a city where the weakest members of society are increasingly vulnerable. Indeed, the police

are not even sure how many tenants have been swindled out of their apartments and left to fend for themselves. Winter has come early to Moscow this year, and more than 30 people have already frozen to death on the city’s streets. According to officials, that grim casualty count of the homeless includes several victims of property scams.

MALCOLM GRAY

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow