MOSCOW -- After decades of boasts about construction rates and promises of an imminent solution, the chronic Soviet housing shortage still ranks among the most visible failures of communist rule.
Noble goals continue to be trumpeted -- individual residences for every family by the year 2000 is General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's promise. But from decaying Moscow houses to a southern slum whose population can only be guessed, future hopes are accompanied by depressing current facts.
In Moscow, the figure for those in need of better housing is put at 2 million now. But the city government says 4.5 million residents -- half the current population -- will need help by the end of the century.
Overall, one in every five people in the Soviet Union is still waiting for a private house or apartment of any size. Although mass production of pre-fabricated apartments has been under way since the era of Nikita Khrushchev 30 years ago, that 20 percent figure apparently has been static in recent years.
'I phoned the housing department three months ago and inquired about my turn to have a new flat,' inventor Lev Termen said in a recent newspaper interview. 'A woman told me that my turn would come in five or six years -- not a very reassuring answer if one is 92 years old.'
The promise in 1980 was an apartment for every family by the end of the decade. In fact, the pace of construction in recent years has been falling behind the creation of new families.
The 1985 total of 2 million new apartments was the same number built for the far smaller population of 1960. Moscow's already mammoth waiting list rose by 15,000 between 1986 and 1987.
On the positive side, the boast that 'there are no homeless in the Soviet Union' is generally true. But the homes are not what a Western family would tolerate -- or what Soviets want.
In the smaller towns that foreigners rarely see, conditions are often those of the Third World -- poor sanitation, no running water, ramshackle housing. A Soviet journalist, calling those jammed into dormitories the 'lucky' ones, described a slum that has grown up in the industrial city of Sumgait on the Caspian Sea.
Between 'smoking, fuming' factories developed a 'city from old sheet metal, lumps of limestone and substandard concrete slabs,' he wrote. 'How many live here? Some say 14, some 16, some 18,000.'
The most obvious problem in large cities is communal apartments, where each family gets a room for sleeping but must share a kitchen and bathroom. In Moscow there are so many people still in communal apartments that 756,000 are not even on the waiting list for new apartments.
Related to that are grim 'hostels' that hold vast numbers of workers and their families in cities across the country, especially if they have moved to new jobs. These families wait years after arrival for a private apartment.
'Life in a hostel is unbearable even with one child,' Natalya Fomina, 26, a weaver at a textile factory in the Ural Mountains told the weekly Moscow News. 'By the time I get a flat I'll probably be an old woman.' A 20-year wait was termed 'the general rule.'
Most ominous is the situation of old buildings and the apartments thrown up early in the housing campaign -- the 'Khrushchev apartments' that were limited to five floors to bypass a law requiring elevators.
Although the new apartment towers dotting towns and cities across the country are notoriously badly built -- they often are only semi-habitable when turned over to tenants -- lack of maintenance has left many older buildings fit only for demolition. Much new housing will go to replace older structures rather than to provide additional space.
Despite publicity about the problem, the battle plan looks much like previous campaigns. Targets have been raised for state construction firms. The Russian republic, by far the largest, plans to increase the housing stock by nearly a third by the year 2000.
That is supposed to mean new houses or apartments for 8.5 million Russian families. There is considerable skepticism: plans are usually more impressive than the results.
Even if the goals are achieved, the result would not be the housing most in the West take for granted. Quality will remain almost unknown and space a luxury.
In Moscow, only those currently with less than 54 square feet of space per person, excluding the bathroom and kitchen, can join a waiting list for better housing. In 1995 that is to be raised to 75 square feet.
The average Soviet can only look in amazement at pictures of a typical American two-bedroom apartment with 1,000 square feet, much less at a house with double that.