Saturday, November 9, 2013

And Then The Walls Came Tumbling Down

Unfinished building
Land disputes and issues surrounding land use are an ongoing battle here in Albania. According to a USAID report, 70% of all civil court cases involve unresolved land disputes with many stemming from claims over property ownership dating back to before 1945.  And this problem is more than just an urban legend.  I've had more than one conversation with Albanians from all walks of life regarding their on-going battles to (re)claim land that had been in their families for generations before being seized by the government during Communism then redistributed to others after 1991.  I don't recall hearing about any resolutions; rather the problems ebb and flow without a satisfactory answer ever arising.  But just because the land ownership isn't clear doesn't mean people don't build upon it.

The reality is that property ownership is just half of the land problem in Albania.  The more visible and prolific issue is that of the construction, most often illegal construction, of buildings that has left much of the country pock-marked with half finished concrete shells of buildings.  Zoning laws and their enforcement are virtually non-existent in Albania with buildings popping up seemingly overnight in the least likely or appropriate of locations.  (Albania's "urban planning" gives a whole new meaning to the term mixed-use with commercial buildings abutting houses, houses sitting atop industrial areas and more often than not, their all sharing the very same footprint).  There are so many times that I see a building in the most unlikely of locations and wonder why it is there in the first place. And because of the lack of clarity surrounding property ownership, it is all too common to see houses essentially built upon one another.  It is almost as though someone finds a spot they like, (half) builds a house, then someone else comes along who also likes the spot and builds their own structure.  The new structure may block a once spectacular view, driveway access, or even the road itself but that just seems to be the way it goes here in Albania.
The view from our house:  a partially finished "family" house on
the right and a painted but unfinished high rise on the left

I only have to look out my own window to see evidence of unfinished construction projects gone awry.  Sometimes, as is the case on our street, they are multi-story houses with "finished" and occupied first and second floors.  Several generations of a single family may live in the finished part leaving the top stories undone and exposed to the elements.  Other times the incomplete structures are large scale apartment buildings soaring skyward yet lacking windows, doors, and innards for years on end.  Most often, however, they are three to four story concrete structures with curving staircases but no walls or roofs.  You can see these in both urban and rural areas often making me pause and wonder why someone selected that particular location to build in the first place.

Albania's national elections this past summer swept the Socialist Party back into power after an eight year hiatus and with them came the promise of enhanced zoning enforcement and the destruction of illegally constructed buildings.   Call me skeptical but upon hearing this I wondered how these promises would be enacted.  The first evidence I saw of enforcement was the toppling of large billboards along the Tirane-Durres autostrade here in Tirana.  One day the median and roadways were lined with giant advertisements for cheap flights, imported liquors, and "designer" clothing and seemingly overnight the billboards were overturned, or at least crushed and partially knocked down, up and down the road.  I hoped they would be completely removed and sure enough, by the end of the week the only remnants of them were their concrete foundations.  But the enforcement didn't stop there.  A few weeks later an illegally constructed building here in Tirana was imploded.  Or at least that was the intent as a large explosion filled the Sunday afternoon air.  The building may not have fallen the way it was planned but eventually the concrete came down making a very public statement about buildings that had been illegally erected.

A part of the demolition campaign
This past week, we noticed even more evidence of buildings being torn down.  Driving along the shoreline in the resort community of Vlore, everything looked just a bit different.  At first we couldn't decide if it was simply the beach during the off season that made the area look so desolate but then we realized that buildings that had been sitting on the sand just last month were no longer there.  And it wasn't just a single structure; one after another there were vacant lots where shoddily built beachfront structures had once stood.  Some buildings were merely toppled over (like the picture on the left) but most had been completely demolished.  This included a very large concrete palace like structure that was rumored to have been built with the intent of becoming a resort but never reached fruition.

The difference was immediately noticeable and I wonder how far it will go.  The exact number of actual illegal structures in Albania is debatable.  It was estimated that in 2006 there were 220,000 illegal buildings in the country with between 80,000 and 120,000 additional ones being constructed since then.  That number just sounds high but then again, we've lost track of the number of new dwellings we've seen go up here in Tirana in the short time we've been in Albania.  I have no idea how many of them are legal, but I can't even imagine what the country would look like if even half of the illegal ones were demolished.   Just in the past few weeks alone I've seen buildings that were completely demolished with little evidence remaining that they even existed but I've also seen others that were simply toppled making them more unattractive than they had been in their incomplete, but erect state.

So how far will this clean up campaign go?  Only time will tell but it does appear that the government is at least off to a roaring start when it comes to fulfilling this campaign promise.  The concrete walls are definitely coming down here in Albania in more ways than one.

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