22 September, 2023
The poster to the “festival” of right to housing, which took place in Cluj Napoca in March 2019 (photo: Social Houses Now)

There is a rising movement for right to housing for all in European countries, including in neighbouring Romania. In Bulgaria the issue of social housing continues to be taboo

Vladimir Mitev

This article was published on 11 April 2019 on the Bulgarian section of the site “The Barricade”. 

In the context of the apartment scandals, which have shaken the Bulgarian governing elite, few people notice that Bulgarian politicians have taken a good care of their own housing interests, but have ignored completely their obligations towards society. Namely – they have ignored the need for conducting a state and municipal housing policy, which exists in all the civilised European countries. The few municipal houses, which have remained in use in the big cities, have been left “to their own means”. There are almost no new houses constructed, which get built only if some occasional European project funds are to be absorbed. At the same time hundreds of thousands Bulgarians suffer under the burden of rents, whose payment demands almost half of a medium salary in the country.

In this context it is almost unknown in Bulgaria that there is a right to city and right to housing movement, which unfolds in Europe. It defines housing as “right”, not as “goods”. This movement opposes the rising prices of rent in the big European cities, supports the construction of social housing, which are public property, defends the rights of the homeless and is an attempt for protection of public interest against the deviations of the real estate market.

The movement was in the centre of actions in the end of March and the beginning of April 2019, through which it expressed solidarity with the protesters against the rise of prices of rent in Berlin. The German capital seems to be the leader in the fight for “right to housing”. An example in this regard are the growing calls to referendum, which could return under public control 200 000 social apartments, which have been privatized in the last three decades. At this moment they are under the control of big companies, which rent them.

According to an opinion poll 44% of the citizens of Berlin look positively at such a “nationalisation”, which is expected to take place with a concomitant compensation for the present owners of the houses. The nationalisation demands are based on article 15 of the German constitution of 1949, which allows for the “socialisation” of land, natural resources and means of production – in other words, for their transfer in public property or under the control of other forms of public entrepreneurial activity against the payment of compensation. Also, article 28 of the constitution of the federal province (land) of Berlin states that “Everybody shall have the right to adequate housing“, while the province shall promote „the creation and maintenance of adequate housing, particularly for people on a low income”.

Bulgaria is among the few countries, which doesn’t have any representative in the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and Right to City. The news on a possible referendum for the nationalisation of housing in Berlin stirred some attention and discussions only in the social networks. But no organisation is seen, which does attract the attention of Bulgairans towards the issue, which organises events and which fights for better legislation in the interest of the people in the field of housing policy.

There is a rising movement for right to city and right to housing even in neighbouring Romania. In the end of March it organised a series of events – discussions, protests, presentation of an activist newspaper and others in Cluj Napoca – “the capital” of Transilvania. Guests from Greece, France, Ireland and Portugal were present. Just like in Timişoara and other big Romanian cities, a lot of students and young people flock to Cluj Napoca, which raises the prices of rents and of real estate. At the same time these are cities, which have problems with a large number of homeless people as Lorand Szakacs – an activist of the organisation “Right to City” in Timişoara told “The Barricade” in the autumn of 2017.

According to the Romanian activists there is an ongoing process of stigmatisation of poverty and its cleansing from the centres towards the periphery of the big cities – far from the eyes of the wealthy citizens and the foreign tourists. The activists oppose the forced evictions of poor people from their homes and insist on the construction of social housing (in 2011 only 2% of the housing stock in Romania was social housing, while in Bulgaria they were 3%, according to data by Housing Europe Review). The activists propose for public discussion the introduction of upper limits for the rents, so that the young people in big cities are not forced to overcrowd small apartments. The Romanian activists, among which there are also university professors and people knowing the legislative and economic dimensions of the problem, oppose the overcrowding, come out with appeals towards politicians for beneficial legislation, but also work among the ordinary people, trying to raise their social culture on this topic.

The history of the right to housing movement in Romania is related to the opposition of forced evictions. E.g. in December 2010 300 people from the former street ”Coastei” in Cluj Napoca were evicted, after which a process of ”urban regeneration” of the housing space started. Its former residents were pushed to the margins of the city close to the landfill. This led to the mobilisation of lots of people against ghetto-isation and racism”, says Eniko Vincze an antropologist from the Univeristy ”Babeş-Bolyai” and leader of the Cluj Napoca-based movement „Social houses now”. It is a movement member to the nationally representative group of such organisations ”Housing Block”. The other members of ”The Housing Block” are ”The Right to City” from Timişoara, ”The Common Front for Right to Housing” from Bucharest, ”The Association of the Rent Payers in Cluj Napoca”, the assocation of the Roma women ”E-Romnja” and the organisation ”Roma Just” from Constanţa (created to defend Roma in court, when they are threatened with eviction).

Of course, in Bulgaria there is no compassion towards Roma, but at the same time it is not being understood that the problem is not limited to Roma’s housing. The demolition of houses in the quarters of minorities, often becomes a media topic, when there are elections or the public frustration has to be directed in a way, that doesn’t bother the comfort of authorities. The Romanian movement for right to housing could serve as inspiration, if we realise that housing will become more and more a social problem for any social groups in Bulgaria too. According to Eurostat’s data 44,6% of the households in Bulgaria are overburdened by the housing expenditures – which means that they pay more than 40% of their net income for their housing.

The dimensions of the movement in Romania and the self-confidence of its leaders do impress. In Cluj Napoca and Timişoara there are activist media, which are being published on paper and online. There one can read what homeless or eviction-threatened people think, to find advice on legal frame of a certain urban problem, to read reports from marginalised areas, etc.

The organisations from ”The Housing Block” help tens of families to fill-in applications for social housing or to defend their interests in court. Pressure is being exerted on local authorities and parliament, documentaries on social issues are being shot and sometimes legal actions are taken in court. This happened after the old landfill of Cluj Napoca was closed and two new depots were opened in close proximity to the houses of the people, who were evicted in 2010 from the street ”Coastei”. In February 2019 ”A call upon candidates, running for the European Parliament” was published and it insisted on the promulgation of a European strategy on this issue. The Romanian activists of housing rights have ”weight” on international level too. They participated in a volume on the financialization of housing, which was published by the Bruxelles bureau of the Rosa Luxembourg foundation.

One can see the housing problem in Bulgaria in its acuteness – thousands of homeless people, high rents in the big cities, overcrowded houses, where live mostly young families. But ”the civil society” looks with scorn only at the politicians’ real estate, instead of getting angry in order to make them do something for the ordinary people too.

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