When 32-year-old Aygun Baghirova thinks about her life, it plays back like a movie, a film starring Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, bad apartments, evil landlords and back rent.

Each move—each chapter—reflects a slice of history in Azerbaijan and the capital Baku, for even as the country has grown rich on oil and gas money, many families--like Aygun--have fallen further into poverty, debt and instability.

Divorce, war and a new start

Aygun first moved house when she was five. It was 1995 and Azerbaijan was at war. The family lived in a village in Ujar district, a region about 230 km from Baku, in the center of the country. For little Aygun, it also felt like the center of the war that was raging between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia.
She could hear shots at night and how a neighbor was killed in an explosion.

The family lived with her father’s parents until they learned her father had taken a “new wife” in Russia and was expecting a new baby. Her mother, Aybaniz, tried to stay with her in-laws, but her sister-in-law was abusive.

In the end, they moved in with her parents. But there were too many mouths to feed and not enough food to eat. “My grandparents told mom ‘take your children away from here and build a good life,’" Aygun recalls.

At the time, there was a wave of people moving to capital Baku from rural communities. 

“Soviet-era collective farms had stopped in the regions, and there was a lack of work...In the early years after independence only men came to Baku and rented flats. They stayed together and earned money for their families, later they had to bring their families to Baku. Therefore, the number of people living in rented houses in Baku increased,” notes sociologist Sanuber Heydarova.

It was a difficult time to start anything in Azerbaijan. The country had declared independence in 1991, exiting the Soviet Union and falling into a war with Armenia. Officially, the average income fell to just a fourth of its pre-independence level between 1991- 1994.

For Aygun, it meant being born into the first generation in years that would not receive housing from the state. By 1995, the government was only helping families secure housing if they had someone in the civil services.

The family did not include any civil servants and there was not even enough money to start farming.
A friend of the family helped Aybaniz get a job at a bakery in Baku and so she took her children and set out to build a new life in the capital.

The move was a shock for the family.
“When I first came to Baku in 1995, I was afraid the nine-story buildings would fall on me,” Aygun says.
For Aybaniz, it was a constant struggle: she often had to bring her children with her on her shifts in the bakery.  

The new job provided enough money to rent a small place in Qara Şəhər (Black City), a southeastern neighborhood in Baku that was built in the 19th century and would, as the country developed, become the center of the budding oil industry.

When Aygun and her family lived there, their rent was 15 manat, or around seven euro. It was half her mother’s monthly salary. The area was full of people who had been displaced by the war over Nagorno Karabakh.

Today, however, it is a renovated part of town, now known as White City, where the average rent for a two-bed apartment is 350-400 manat, or around 200 euro.

A home in a dump

The family stayed for three years, before moving to Ahmadli in 1998. By that time, the country had already signed the deal of the century, paving the way for the oil and gas pipelines that would finance massive government projects in Baku and elsewhere.

Two years later, in 2000, the government started a project that, in theory, would help families like Aygun’s move into safer housing. 
Aybaniz thought it was a chance to finally secure a good home for her children. The government project seemed perfect for Aygun and her family: it offered families a chance to get safe housing at a subsidized price. Between the years of 2000-2018, nearly 25,000 families received housing through the project, according to official statistics. 

But when Aybaniz applied, she was told the family did not meet the criteria:  she and her children were not soldiers, civil servants or disabled. And their little family of three was too small to qualify as a large family or a young one.

Economist Togrul Valiyev notes that the fact families like Aygun’s were not eligible underscores how little has been done over the years to help vulnerable families secure safe housing.

Crashing out during the oil boom

By 2000, Azerbaijan had already started implementing international oil-gas projects. The first gas was extracted from the Shah Deniz field in 2006 and the first oil reached the port of Ceyhan via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

But economist Ilham Shaban notes that the oil and gas money has not improved the quality of life in Azerbaijan, in part because the social and political structure in the country does not support equality. “After the Sovet Union, those oil and gas resources passed into the hands of private entities. This means state property was replaced by private property, so whoever had the money,  began to control that resource,” Shaban says.

The oil and gas boom did not translate into a better life--or more stable housing--for Aygun’s family. In 2003, her mother remarried and, for a while, the family was able to move to a nicer neighborhood, away from Ahmadli which, while a nice part of the city today, it was like a “garbage dump” in 1998, Aygun says.

They shared a two-story house with several other families in Nakhchivanski, a neighborhood close to the city center with good schools. It was there that Aygun’s sister Aytaj was born and Aygun got her first job, selling school supplies, to help pay the bills.

Aygun’s stepfather worked as a bus conductor, but spent all his wages on alcohol.

When he wasn’t working, he drank and beat his wife and children. There was no chance to save money for a better place; there wasn’t even enough money to pay the rent. 

After accruing eight months of back rent, the landlord kicked the family out. By 2005, Aygun was back in Ahmadli and in debt: her stepfather rented another room for the family, this time using her ID as collateral. He disappeared after several months, leaving the family with months of back rent and little way to pay it. 

Without money to pay rent, Aygun couldn’t get her ID card back. And without her ID card, she could not receive her wages or enter university. 

Eventually, some of her old classmates helped her find a job as a tailor, work that allowed her to earn some money but not enough to pay off the family debt.

One night, Aygun came home after a long shift to find her mother, brother and sister on the street, surrounded by their few belongings. They would have ended up sleeping in a nearby park if a kind woman, who cleaned the park, hadn’t taken pity on them and taken the family to her building. They slept in the basement that night.

The following years were punctuated by debt, overdue rent, angry landlords and moves. 

Fast forward to 2009. By that time, the financial crisis had hit Azerbaijan, and the country’s economy also suffered. For Aygun’s family, that meant there was even less money and fewer opportunities. As the national currency struggled, rents rose quickly and the best they could afford was a house near Gara Garayev metro station. There was no bathroom, and they had to buy a big tub to take a shower in the house:  

“One day my mother came and did not find me at home. I had fallen asleep in the tub. It was also my cradle,” Aytaj Bagirova, sister of Aygun added.

Later the same year—the year her brother Seymur was sent to the military to serve his compulsory two years—the family moved again, to a house in Hazi Aslanov settlement.

The place had no floor. “It was full of mice, moisture and disease,” recalls Aygun. By this time, there was no thought about buying a flat: any money they earned went to surviving.

When Bahirov Seymur returned from the military, in 2011, things started to improve: they moved to a place in Razin - currently known as Bakikhanov settlement—where they lived for eight years. By all accounts, it was a peaceful and happy time for the family: Aytaj started school and both Aygun and Seymur got married.

But one cold February day, they were informed the flat had been sold. The new owner wanted them to leave so, once again, they raced to find new lodgings.

"It was February, with snow and ice everywhere. We stayed outside with our luggage again. We hurriedly rented a house for 300 manat,” Aygun mentioned.

The rent was too high—Aygun earns 400 AZN a month making tea at a large construction company. She scrambled to find something cheaper and eventually moved the family to a place that costs 200 manat a month.

But, now divorced and with debts from her wedding still to pay, plus rent and other expenses, there is little chance Aygun will be able to afford to buy a place any time soon.

“200 manat of my salary goes to monthly rent, what kind of income can we talk about at this point?” she asks. 

Shaban, the economist, notes that a person living in Baku needs a salary of around 700 to 800 manat to be able to afford to rent an apartment in the city.

“Azerbaijan has oil and gas resources and people think that the country is rich. But in reality, our country does not have enough projects that use these sources to provide people with good living conditions,” he said.




Chai-khana Survay