Large Housing Estates in post-socialist cities: challenges and perspectives


By URBACT, on April 11th, 2022

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Cities across Europe are looking for solutions to develop fairer housing models. In 2020, URBACT and Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) developed a common ‘Right2Housing’ platform to exchange ‘housing as a right’ practices among cities. Although the debate on affordable housing in Europe has recently sent out important messages for policy-makers, the housing context of the formerly socialist countries in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries seems to be largely missing from these discussions.

It is estimated that about 40% of the urban population in European post-socialist countries live in socialist-era large housing estates, built between the 1950s and 1980s (Dekker et al., 2005). In some cities, this is even the case for the majority of the population.

Understanding the development of these settlements is therefore vital for the future of cities in the CEE region. Also, at the European level, we need to understand how post-socialist large housing estates (LHEs) differ from their Western counterparts, and what is the context of affordable housing in these European cities.

A consortium of scholars from Estonia, Germany and Russia studied the governance issues of the post-socialist LHEs in their countries from 2019 to 2021. Here are their key findings.

I. Fragmented privatisation and the problem of coordination

Since the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’, the privatisation of state and collective properties has been the single most important public policy applied to housing throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In most countries, it has left a wide gap between the state – setting only very general frameworks for the development of LHEs – and the millions of apartment owners who hold property titles on the ground and are responsible for the upkeep of the housing. In many cases, this gap leads to a stalemate in which important issues (like segregation, the development of green spaces, energy retrofitting) fall through the cracks.

For example, in many cities, it is not clear who should take responsibility for the maintenance of large vacant areas outside the immediate vicinity of blocks of flats. The outcome is unfortunate neglect which affects negatively the surrounding housing stock and hampers the development of the neighbourhoods in general.

Overcoming fragmentation in ownership structure, empowering actors and developing new forms of cooperation is therefore a crucial challenge which needs to be addressed in the future.

Photo: Marzahn-Hellersdorf (10th borough of Berlin), © Felix-Böhmer


II. Limited government capacities and poor management

In many CEE estates, the public hand only plays a negligible role in steering urban development. The major reason for this is the withdrawal of state responsibilities, the privatisation of properties and the dire budgetary situation of many municipalities. The outcome is often a form of ‘opportunity planning’, where only those issues are addressed for which collaborations with the private sector can be found, while other issues are left behind. This results in a fragmentation of planning in which difficult-to-achieve issues are not taken care of.

Therefore, it is necessary to give more attention to the issue of the estate management and supervision. The funding programmes applied to LHE-areas should not only focus on modernisation of the built environment, but also on reforming inefficient management models and facilitating resident participation in ‘care’ for the estates.

III. Affordable housing and concentration of poverty

After a long period of retrenchment, many CEE countries have started to provide new social housing. However, the volume of social housing programmes often lags behind the growing need for affordable accommodation, especially in the context of inflation of property prices in major cities.

Moreover, where new social housing is built, it is often located at the peripheries of the cities, in or at the fringes of the LHEs built in socialist decades. This may lead to new problems, including spatial mismatch (lack of access to job opportunities), stigmatisation of residents (both in social housing and former LHEs), and growing segregation in the long run.

Against this background, it is vital: a) to accept that the full homeownership model is in contradiction with the growing need for affordable housing, and there indeed is a need to make social housing accessible for wider parts of the population (thus avoiding a stigmatisation and “residualisation” of social housing, see Forrest and Murie, 1983); b) to make sure that social housing is spread more evenly throughout the city; and c) to invest in connectivities, so that access to opportunities and amenities outside the area is enabled.

IV. The growing importance of private renting

In many post-socialist countries (East Germany and the Czech Republic being noticeable exceptions), individual homeownership is the norm around which housing policies are designed. However, most cities have experienced a growing share of private rentals in subsequent years. LHEs are typically the districts where the proportion of private renters is increasing, for example due to the selective outmigration of more affluent residents who keep their properties as rental assets.

Yet, the regulation of the private rental market is rather underdeveloped and poorly regulated in CEE cities. In many cities, private tenants form a ‘forgotten minority’ (Shomina, 2010) which is very vulnerable and often lives under precarious legal conditions. By and large, policies have yet failed to address the housing needs of residents in the private rental market. And in the contemporary context of international migration, e.g., from Ukraine, the risk of unfair position of private tenants living in the estate neighbourhoods increases.

V. Energy efficiency and multi-apartment buildings

A significant part of multi-apartment buildings built in the 1970s or 1980s are in need of significant renovation today. However, the renovation of prefabricated multi-apartment buildings presents multiple challenges here.

Where the tenure structure is dominated by owner-occupation, in Estonia for example, the homeowners’ associations actually depend on the commercial mortgage market in receiving funding for renovation, even when renovation of buildings has been partly subsidised with public money. The research shows that the readiness of homeowners to undertake major refurbishment works tends to be lower in urban districts and regions where less affluent population lives and where renovations do not directly affect the property prices (see Lihtmaa et al., 2018).

Where the tenure structure is dominated by rentals, the opportunity of passing renovation costs to the residents can cause social hardship and lead to the displacement of low-income residents.

An overarching problem, in addition, is the coordination of energy-efficient renovations beyond the level of individual buildings, or apartments. Fragmented ownership structures complicate efficient solutions, such as block heat and power plants, and even make them impossible in many cases. Supporting participatory, neighbourhood-based community approaches towards energy-efficient renovations could offer a way forward here.

In sum, Large Housing Estates face considerable challenges across Central and Eastern Europe. If these are to be overcome, new planning approaches are needed that go beyond physical renovations and set the governance and management of these neighbourhoods into the centre. These approaches can, however, only be developed in context-sensitive ways which take seriously the reality of fragmented property structures, weak state capacities and poor management schemes, underdeveloped legislations on private renting and a weak social housing sector. European policies can play an important role in motivating political and economic actors to pick up on these themes and supporting capacity building for more adequate governance models.



  • Matthias Bernt (Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, Germany),
  • Kadri Leetmaa (Centre for Migration and Urban Studies, Department of Geography, University of Tartu, Estonia)
  • Oleg Pachenkov (European University at St. Petersburg, Russia)


A more extended version of this article and other materials on housing estates in Central and Eastern Europe can be assessed at

The research project “Estates After Transition” was collaboratively funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education (Funding No. 01DJ18002), the Estonian Research Council (Funding No. MOBERA14) and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR contract No. 18-511-76001) within the funding ERA.NET Plus with Russia – strengthening STI links between Russia and the European Research Area.



  • Dekker, K., Hall, St., van Kempen, R. and I. Tosics (2005): Restructuring large housing estates in European cities: an introduction. In: van Kempen, R., Dekker, K., Hall, St. and Tosics, I. (eds.) Restructuring large housing estates in Europe, 1-17, Bristol: The Policy Press.
  • Forrest, R., & Murie, A. (1983): Residualization and Council Housing: Aspects of the Changing Social Relations of Housing Tenure. Journal of Social Policy, 12(4), 453-468.
  • Lihtmaa, L., Hess, D., Leetmaa, K. (2018): Intersection of the global climate agenda with regional development: Unequal distribution of energy efficiency-based renovation subsidies for apartment buildings, Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 119(C), pages 327-338.
  • Shomina, E. S. (2010) Tenants – our “housing minority”: Russian and foreign experiences in the development of rental housing [Квартиросъемщики — наше «жилищное меньшинство»: российский и зарубежный опыт развития арендного жилья], Moscow: State University-Higher School of Economics Publishers


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Cover photo: Tallinn Lasnamäe, © Johanna Holvandus

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