By Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri
The U.S. government’s housing program for northern Armenia devastated by the 1988 earthquake has run into trouble in the region’s largest city, Gyumri, where a surge in apartment prices prevents many local residents from leaving their shacks.
Under the $15 million program launched this year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is underwriting the purchase of apartments by families still living in temporary shelters. Some 1,500 housing certificates have already been distributed in the Shirak and Lori provinces.
But scores of certificate holders in Gyumri complain that their value -- $1,960 -- is currently below the average market price of a one-room decent apartment. They say with that sum they can only buy apartments in remote city outskirts that often lack basic utilities.
“I want to return my voucher because I’ve been unable to find an apartment here,” said Gohar Avetisian, a local resident.
“If they don’t raise the value of the certificates the program is unlikely to be implemented,” said another resident, Hmayak Barseghian.
As was widely predicted, the USAID scheme has pushed up the housing prices in the economically depressed area. But the increase beat all expectations and now threatens the success of the program implemented by the U.S. Urban Institute. Its representatives refused to comment on the situation, saying that they need a permission from the USAID head office in Yerevan. The number of Gyumri households that have already bought apartments thus remains unclear.
The USAID chief in Armenia, Keith Simmons, said during a visit to Gyumri in July that the agency may consider boosting certificate values if the program does not move further forward. Its Armenian critics claim that a higher real estate demand will tempt more local people to sell their apartments and leave the city. Its pre-earthquake population stood at more than 250,000 and has shrunk considerably in recent years.
The U.S. scheme, however, has been praised by President Robert Kocharian who has pledged to completely rebuilt the area before the end of this year. The government vowed last year to raise $60 million for that purpose. The money includes U.S. assistance.
As many as 14,000 families in Lori and Shirak lived without proper housing as of last December.