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In Budapest, young and old join forces to solve housing shortage

Lajos Balogh and his wife needed an apartment. Olga Spitzer, 83 years old, needed live-in care. The solution: Mr. and Mrs. Balogh moved in with Mrs. Spitzer. The Baloghs cook and clean for her. In return, Spitzer has arranged for the Baloghs to become the apartment's legal tenants after she passes on.

These days, Hungarian officials promote such ``maintenance contracts'' as an effective way of dealing with two problems common throughout Eastern Europe: a desperate housing shortage and an ailing, aging population.

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``We don't have enough housing for young people, and many old people have large, empty flats,'' says Robert Donath of the Budapest City Council.

Budapest's housing situation is critical. Some 60,000 people are on a list of people waiting for public housing. But Mr. Donath says that figure is misleading; so few units are available that ``many people don't even bother to sign up any more.''

With the economy slumping, the government cannot afford to construct many new apartments. It encourages the rich to build or renovate by themselves. Many Hungarians work extra hours in second and third jobs trying to save enough money for a deposit on an apartment. Even so, young people often must continue living with their parents after marriage. Other couples are forced to move in with friends or relatives.

Poor housing is a key reason that Hungary's birthrate is one of the lowest in Europe, sociologists say. With few babies, Budapest's population is aging. More than one in five of the residents is a pensioner.

Most pensioners are poor. In recent years, pension payments have fallen well behind inflation. Today's average monthly payment comes to $66 a month.

On such incomes, few of the elderly can maintain their apartments, and in old residential quarters of the city, many pensioners' flats are in desperate need of repair. The so-called ``new rich'' have begun to buy them out for small sums of money, gentrifying run-down districts as ``yuppies'' are doing in American cities.

To speed this process, city officials recently offered some pensioners a stark choice: either move to ugly new flats in the suburbs or renovate their own apartments. About half opted to move out. The others are struggling to modernize their homes.

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In this atmosphere, maintenance contracts have thrived. Some 8,000 are signed each year. The City Council certifies the contract and sends a representative about once a month to make sure its conditions are being respected. Although about 300 court cases are reported annually, most of the arrangements work well.

The best contracts resemble those between the Baloghs and Spitzer. She has lived in her apartment for more than 50 years, alone since her husband and children were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp during Nazi occupation. In the last few years, she has found it difficult to keep the house in order. Council budget cutbacks meant she could find no affordable day care. ``I didn't want to go to a social home,'' she says.

When she put an advertisement in the local paper, Balogh responded. A former teacher from a small village in east Hungary, he found a better job in Budapest.

``We started looking for an apartment and soon realized it was hopeless,'' Balogh recalls. ``Moving in with a pensioner was our only solution.''

Both Balogh and Spitzer enjoy watching television in the evenings; they love opera. Balogh says it is no problem to cook and clean for one extra person. He adds that his age helps (he is 61). Younger couples have more problems moving in with a pensioner, he explains.

Spitzer concurs. ``I couldn't discuss much with a 20-year-old,'' Spitzer says. ``I don't like rock-and-roll.''

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