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5 May, 2009 09:05

Mortgage meltdown in Russia

Russians bitten by the financial crisis are finding it difficult to pay their mortgages, and banks are pressing struggling borrowers despite government efforts to help debtors.

Varvara Aslapovskaya used to live in the Southern Urals city of Magnitogorsk. Hoping for wider opportunities, her entire family decided to swap a 3-room apartment in their home town for a 2-room flat on the outskirts of Moscow.

Despite downsizing in space, they needed to upsize their outlays – burdening themselves with a mortgage. They were looking to the future with optimism until the crisis bubbled to the surface.

“Back then, it seemed best to take a mortgage in dollars. But then the rouble rate slumped, and in January we practically had to pay twice as much. At the same time, employers started cutting wages. Now almost all of our money goes to pay the loan,” Varvara related.

Affordable housing has been an elusive goal in Russia for generations.

But with the prices for real estate sometimes even exceeding 10 thousand dollars per square meter, for many like Varvara. a mortgage is the only hope.

As people's incomes plunged, many simply stopped paying what was due. Bankers say even now attempts to retrieve their money through courts don’t bring any results.

“The problem is that judges are now turning down cases against non-payers. I believe that it's the government trying to protect those who fell victim of the crisis. It's understandable, but it cannot work that way,” noted Anatoliy Aksakov, the President of Regional Banks of Russia.

Some of the experts are now claiming it's the banks themselves that are at fault. For example, Aleksander Treshev, an EU lawyers’ chamber representative in Russia said:

“The banks have been giving out loans to all who asked for it, without checking their credibility. And now they often don't even try to find a solution that would suit everyone – they simply sell the debts to the collector agencies that usually blackmail people.”

Recently, the government proposed to ease the burden for unsustainable debtors by calling on the banks to restructure or, in other words, delay loan payments.

There are no official numbers on how many have decided to try this option, but one of the Russian newspapers claims 52% of them were declined by the banks. And in some cases, the debtors saw it as too costly.

“I also went to the bank to restructure my mortgage into roubles. But the prices they offered were simply way too high for me,” Varvara said.

According to the central Bank last year, the number of unpaid loans and mortgages rose 15 times over, while the overall debt increased 63 percent. And this may still be far from the limit.

Striving for a better life in the expectation of financial stability, thousands of families acquired bank loans to buy their new homes. But the current crisis has turned into a disaster for both banks and borrowers. And it seems that so far, the solution to the problem is nowhere on the horizon.