Issue 5, 2017. October-November

   

A TBILISI EXODUS OR ALARMING URBAN SPRAWL?

Investor.ge looks at the growing impression that growing real estate prices, traffic congestion and air quality are pushing people to look for homes outside of Tbilisi.

Inge Snip

In a radius of 20 kilometers around Georgia's capital city Tbilisi are several small towns that are mostly deserted in winter. Kojori and Tskhneti in the south, Mukhatsk'aro and Tsodoreti in the west, and Saguramo and Buriani in the north are just a few of the many "dacha" towns.

Photo by George Surguladze


Only a few years ago, the majority of the houses in these settlements, with the exception of those in Tskhneti, were completely run down: windows gone, roofs caved in, brick walls falling apart. An occasional cow would roam through the streets going up in elevation to find fresher grass, and birds would chirp vividly while nesting in the rooftops of the houses.

You can find these so-called summerhouse towns all over Georgia, but it is the ones near Tbilisi that have seen an exponential increase in renovation and rebuilding over the past few years.

The house my husband and I bought a year and a half ago in Mukhatsk'aro is one of them.

Dacha towns are a legacy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. It started with the Tsars giving small plots of land for summer residences to the elite, and the tradition continued during Soviet times-with academics, artists and prominent bureaucrats given their own summerhouses.

They are easy to spot. As a rule, during the Soviet Union, their plots of land could not be more than 600 square meters and their living areas no more than 60 square meters. However, attics were not considered living space, so the houses are often slightly out of proportion, with large mansard roofs being built on top of them.

New Demand

And while during the dark 1990s in Georgia the dachas were left to fend for themselves due to harsh economic conditions, lately Tbilisi's population is rediscovering the charm of living outside the city, in nature-but not only during the summer.

Over coffee, I recently asked some of my colleagues at a large international donor organization if they knew people who had decided to either revamp their summerhouses or bought a summerhouse to live in year round. Without hesitation, they all jumped in to tell me their stories of renovating their summerhouses and plans to move there to live the whole year.

"The congestion, the pollution, because of those problems, the people who can afford it spread out to greener areas around Tbilisi," Irakli Zhvania, an architect and MIT-trained urban planner, explains.

Tired with the increasing air and noise pollution, unavoidable traffic jams, and decreasing green areas in the city, my husband and I decided as well that we wanted to give our then nine-month-old son a garden to play in. But to be fair, the rising dollar-and our simultaneously rising rent-were also a major factor in our decision.


And we are not alone.

Mariam Asatiani, RE/MAX Tbilisi Capital Broker/Owner, told Investor.ge that moving out of the city is becoming more popular, especially as people seek cleaner air and more green space.

"We clearly see an increase in demand from people moving from rural areas looking for apartments in Tbilisi's center. But, simultaneously, we see a huge demand from people who have apartments in the city center seeking to move outside of the city, a 25-minute drive away, to be in a cleaner environment," she said.

"Of course, I should mention this is a more premium segment. Unfortunately, the infrastructure in these places is not suitable yet, but I am confident that, with this increase in demand, developers and others will start investing in upgraded infrastructure as well," Asatiani explained.

Vasiko Tsotadze, one of the first developers of modern housing outside of the city, agreed that suburban living is the future for Tbilisi.

He added, however, that shifting from apartments to private homes is a "change in mentality" that takes time.

Currently most homeowners at his development, SunCity, are families who have moved out of the city center for the fresh air and cleaner environment.

"The minute you have a house outside of Tbilisi, and you have land and your kids are running in the yard, it is almost impossible to go back to living in an apartment. But it is a stereotype that Tskneti is a dacha and you have to have a summer home, but you have to have an apartment here[in Tbilisi]. So, we really have to change the mentality of Georgians," Tsotsade said.

On our little street, constant construction work is underway to prepare dachas for all-year-round habitation. Our neighbor Zura, a 40-something entrepreneur, says he's currently figuring out how to install central heating in his dacha. Two other houses across from our place were deserted when we bought ours, and have now been converted into full-fledged houses with anything you could wish for.

In the small corner shop at the entrance of Mukhatsk'aro, Lia-the lady who runs it-tells me how her business is flourishing. As a side job-besides being named by me as the informal mayor of our 500-plus person town-she operates as a real estate agent. Through her we found our place as well. And prices have gone up.

"A few years ago, houses here would go for $50k, but now it will be hard to find something like that," she explains to me. We bought our fixer-upper for $30,000, but recently friends of ours were unable to find anything below $70,000.

Fixer-Uppers

But even if you find a place for the right price for you, all these houses need to be renovated. They were never meant to be lived in all year round, so they are lacking sufficient insulation, heating systems, and, often, even water resources.

After workers ruined our new roof last year, and our tile worker was drunk on the job, forcing us to re-tile large parts of the house, we decided to do everything ourselves. And horror stories from people around us confirm such problems are widespread.

"You can't leave the house if you have workers," my mother-in-law tells me. "You have to be there 24/7 so they do it how you want it." And friends who had their house renovated a few months ago tell me how one day they came to check up on the progress, only to find their walls green instead of white: "They told me it was a nicer color."

Early Signs of Urban Sprawl?

The trend of people moving from urban areas to nearby rural settlements is a development that worries urban planners and environmentalists.

The phenomenon, often referred to as urban sprawl, usually involves moving to car-dependent communities-environmentally unfriendly and only affordable for those with at least upper-middle-class incomes-segregation, and can result in empty city districts.

"The city center starts to die when people escape to places outside the city. Open spaces and green spaces outside the city are eaten up. More money is spent on infrastructure, and you have much more traffic because all these people need to commute by car back into the city center for work," Zhvania explains.

With the Vake-Saburtalo district discussing incorporating Mukhatsk'aro and Tsodoreti, now part of the larger Mtskheta district, I am part of the urban sprawl problem. We even bought a car specifically to get to town more easily, as there is only one marshrtuka driving up and down three times a day. And that's not very environmentally friendly, even though, as freelancers, we do not have to commute on a daily basis.

But with a growing Tbilisi, high-rises popping up like mushrooms, and stuffy low-on-oxygen air, the decision to sell one's place in Tbilisi for a larger, greener, and cleaner place up in the mountains near the city is, unfortunately perhaps, not a difficult one to make.

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