Kaarel Tarand: House full of social heat and light

Kaarel Tarand.
Kaarel Tarand. Source: ERR

Kaarel Tarand asks in Vikerraadio's daily comment whether sides to the incoming coalition have taken into account, in their promise to compensate residents for energy expenses on a massive scale, the fact that the population census showed that a quarter of dwellings in Estonia are uninhabited.

The political drama of coalition talks has all but reached a happy conclusion after a month of what would otherwise have been dead quiet politically. The ebb and flow of this drama equally captivated the sides to the coalition and the press and was heralded as the birth of something epochal, even though the government will be formed for eight months left until Riigikogu elections and will effectively work for only a few of those.

No negotiating party failed to emphasize the seriousness of the situation because even though the Estonian people and especially the middle class survived last winter with timely assistance from the rulers, everyone would surely be doomed if the incoming coalition did not multiply its effort to deliver the people this time around. Problems are larger than life.

Fresh data from the population census and especially the part that concerns dwellings is hardly compatible with this picture of impending doom and the government's efforts at salvation. Allow me to present a few figures, without going into too much detail. Estonia had 738,000 dwellings around the end of last year, beginning of this one of which over 99 percent were ordinary dwellings or private residences and apartments. Most people still live in apartments, while their relative importance is slowly falling, and only as many new apartment buildings are being constructed as before the start of the occupying authorities' mass dwellings construction campaign in the 1960s.

But construction is still taking place where there is demand, while I would offer a few more thought-provoking facts about dwellings on the backdrop of political fits of panic on how the middle class, unable to pay its heating and electricity bills without state aid, will soon be homeless. Of all ordinary dwellings, 76 percent are permanently inhabited and 24 percent uninhabited. In other words, almost every fourth dwelling, that is to say residence or apartment, is empty based on the census methodology where every person is counted as occupying a single dwelling where they and their family live most of the time. An empty dwelling without permanent residents does not mean that it is unowned.

This suggests that every third Estonian households owns and likely also uses another house or apartment. These are summer houses of city dwellers, smaller urban flats of wealthy suburbanites where they can stay when in town or real estate investments currently without tenants. I'm sure other options exist. But a second dwelling fit enough to be called that definitely constitutes property that, despite irregular or seasonal use, likely requires power all year round, as well as to be heated at least seasonally etc.

We need to ask whether the sides to the incoming coalition have factored in this particular find of the census in their promise to compensate people for energy expenses. Will a number of residents qualify for cheap heat and electricity for more than one dwelling? Or will the benefit be limited to a single dwelling that would unleash a wave of schemes?

There is another thought-provoking aspect. Comparing the last three census' data for inhabited and uninhabited dwellings, the number of inhabited dwellings has grown from 538,000 in 2000 to 557,000 recently, while the number of uninhabited dwellings has grown by a staggering 110,000 from 66,000 in 2000 to 176,000 now. A chance for politicians to explain whether the change is due to impoverishment or growing prosperity. Let it also be said that while uninhabited dwellings sport more modest amenities, half of them nevertheless have central heating and three-quarters water and washing facilities.

Of course, the census data speaks of more than growing prosperity of Estonians and their preference for the socially more costly suburban lifestyle over tight urban confines in Tallinn and Harju County. Countrywide data clearly suggests people are coming together in areas where there is work, other nice people and where the value of one's real estate grows.

For example, the number of dwellings in Tallinn grew by 9 percent between the two recent censuses, while it only grew by 0.1 percent in Narva. In absolute figures, Tallinn got 20,000 new dwellings, while Narva got 18. The latter is just an example here the likes of which can be found all over Estonia. But because the city of Narva was the first to declare an energy emergency so it could secure cheaper heating, in other words, the right to freely pollute at the expense of other regions' taxpayers, I will use it as my example. As far as settlement is concerned, Narva and its peers in other counties have been living in an irreversible and irreparable emergency for years or even decades, no matter how much oil shale they burn to keep their residents warm free of charge.

It is necessary to help those in need, while it is equally clear we should not be forcing that help on those who have the skills and means to cope by themselves. Owning a second dwelling as well as other kinds of tradable property should automatically cut one off from compensation of one's main dwelling's expenses through state-level redistribution, including yours truly. I pay taxes so common expenses an individual cannot take care of, like education, medicine, national security etc. would be ensured and be of good quality, not so the rulers could "gift" a part of the money I've paid to me as a gesture of special benevolence and requiring boundless gratitude in the form of wonderful social heat and electricity.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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