Separate, Unequal and Hazardous: The essential guide to Roma housing in Slovakia

By Marek Szilvasi

The right to adequate housing is a fundamental right and a crucial prerequisite for a decent life and personal development. The record of Slovak authorities on providing adequate housing for its citizens is dismal and Roma are disproportionately affected by this failure. 

The Slovak Anti-Poverty Network argues that “housing and the protection of the right to housing is the weakest component of public policies”.1 There is a shortage of affordable accommodation; despite the growing number of applicants for social housing, public authorities rarely build new flats, and the number of flats available for rent is low and falls way short of the demand. Programs promoting social mix (more affluent social classes living with the poorer) are entirely missing.

According to a government report on the implementation of the State Housing Strategy until 2015, just 2.7 per cent of all flats are owned by municipalities and the state. This is in stark contrast to other EU states, where the share of flats owned by the state is 18 per cent on average.2 There are 8.5 social housing units available per 1000 people in Slovakia.3

There is a plenty of evidence that many Roma in Slovakia live in poor and segregated settlements which are characterised by substandard or extremely substandard housing, a prevalence of environmental hazards including toxic industrial waste, rubbish tips, floods, and intermingling of waste and drinking water. However, what is shocking about the new surveys is the sheer magnitude of the problem which adversely affects tens of thousands of Slovak Roma.

Where are we now? Damning evidence of deep crisis

The Atlas of Roma Communities (a comprehensive survey of Romani neighbourhoods and settlements in Slovakia commissioned by the Ministry of Interior and executed by the UNDP and the University of Prešov), conducted in 2013 revealed that there are more than 800 concentrated Roma neighbourhoods in Slovakia, where hardly any non-Roma live. An average housing unit in a Roma neighbourhood is home to 6.2 people. The survey also pointed out that 18.4 per cent of the Roma population in Slovakia live in segregated settings outside municipalities, and 23.6 per cent live on the peripheries of municipalities.4 In the last couple of years 14 walls and barriers were erected to segregate Roma from the rest of the society. Most of the walls were either directly commissioned by the municipality or the municipality provided financial contributions to support residents’ initiatives to build walls.5

Spatial segregation and social exclusion are often accompanied by substandard living conditions including poor sanitation and a lack of public utilities, which adversely affects health conditions. According to the Atlas survey, there are more than 150 Roma neighbourhoods and settlements in Slovakia where not one house is connected to a public water supply. Apart from the totally segregated settlements that are not connected to public utility infrastructure, there are 65 Roma neighbourhoods where not a single household is connected to the water system of the municipality, even though every non-Roma household is fully connected.

There is no public sewage system in 453 Roma neighbourhoods (56.41 per cent) and about 33 per cent of these neighbourhoods do not even have a private sewage facility and houses discharge the sewage (a mix of waste water and secretion) to nearby surroundings. Although, most of the Roma neighbourhoods reported being connected to electricity networks – only less than 2 per cent are not connected, but many having a pay credit system locks - a centralised public gas network is missing in 356 Roma neighbourhoods (44.33 per cent). In more than 260 municipalities, only the Roma houses are not supplied with gas. The absolute majority of Roma houses (84.42 per cent) are heated with solid fuels – mainly waste wood and scraps.

More than 30 per cent of Roma in Slovakia live in informal settings with limited legal titles to land and no construction permit. According to the Government’s Roma Integration Strategy from 2011, about 16 per cent of all Roma families are living in non-standard forms of housing, 10 per cent in shacks, 4.3 per cent in wooden houses and 1.3 per cent in other non-standard types of housing including container houses.6

The updated data from the Atlas survey however suggest that the situation is even more dramatic. The research counted 29 406 houses inhabited by Roma; out of these 8701 are legalised brick houses and 202 legalised wooden houses. Additionally, there are 3662 brick and 399 wooden houses which miss to be administratively approved in the land registry. The remainder are informal houses such as shacks, container houses (“unimobunky”), and caravans.

Only about 35 per cent of Roma own the land on which their houses are built. The majority of Roma houses are thus built on the land owned by municipalities (31 per cent), private owners (25 per cent), church (2 per cent), state land stock and other state bodies (4 per cent), or other owners (3 per cent). Land ownership is even less common in entirely segregated settlements, where only 22 per cent of Roma home-owners possess land titles. Moreover, with regard to informal housing, many Romani families face the permanent threat of forced eviction. This is also due to the very limited legal protection against forced evictions as Slovak law favours the property owners disproportionately.

How did it come to this? Causes, consequences, and a short history of housing

Many Roma built their houses long time ago on state-owned properties with direct approval of responsible public authorities. However, after two decades of land privatisation and decentralisation which rarely benefitted Roma, these lands are now owned by private persons, business companies, or municipalities who may at any time initiate eviction and demolition proceedings.

Furthermore, the current informal and substandard housing conditions are also a consequence of forced population moves which affected many Slovak Roma. In the second half of the 20th Century, they were forcefully moved in several waves from Eastern Slovakia to the Czech lands in order to settle the Sudeten land following the expulsion of the Czech German minority, or to provide labour power for the newly built (mainly heavy metal) industrial complexes and mines.

In 1993, following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, an undetermined number of Roma were deported from the Czech Republic to Slovakia, while others were rendered stateless altogether. Evidence suggests that the law was drafted with the specific intent of hindering citizenship for Roma and facilitating their removal from the Czech lands. There was no welcome from the locals in the towns and villages of Eastern Slovakia for these newly displaced urban Roma from the Czech industrial cities; and they were gradually pushed to the peripheries outside the existing infrastructure. Some new Roma settlements emerged and others significantly expanded following the forced migrations in the wake of the split of Czechoslovakia.

One aspect of Socialist housing policy was to deliberately neglect the existing housing stock in the historical centres of cities as reminiscent of bourgeois times past, in favour of  (ideologically) attractive new housing blocks neighbourhoods at the peripheries of cities. One consequence of this was that the ‘asocial’ poor, including Roma, were moved into to the city centres. In 1990s however, the historical city centres regained favour and thanks to the gentrification of city centres and rocketing real estate prices, Roma were pushed out – often with inadequate or simply no alternative housing options – and were forced to seek shelter in segregated Romani settlements.

The history of many Roma neighbourhoods in Slovakia, however, goes back to the Habsburg Austrian(-Hungarian) Empire and even before, when the local landlords and well-established peasants made use of peripatetic Roma craftsmen and artisans - coppersmiths, tinkers, pottery-repairers, horse-traders, circus, performers, dancers and musicians - and invited them to reside on land adjoining their estates. Today however documents related to these agreements are very rare, although a thorough search in the land archives could shed more light on this issue.

Although the Roma craftsmen and artisans did not get official land-ownership or construction permit documents, their houses were often incorporated in the local urban planning and later allocated a registration number, and public networks like electricity, gas and water pipes were sometimes provided. It was only many years after the houses were erected with the approval or tolerance of the local authorities, when the land under them was offered for privatisation or restitution (returned to the private hands of family heirs, which had an ownership decree before the communist nationalised it).

The process of returning the nationalised land (the restitution) initiated between 1996 and 1998 has not yet been entirely accomplished. Although the ownership structure could be administratively determined and private owners raised their claims, it has proven difficult to legally determine the ownership of many often very large plots of land. In practice, Roma settlements are legally determined as one or more large plots (defined by the Slovak law as a parcel of the so-called E category) owned collectively by many otherwise unrelated individual claimants. It is solely due to the failure to resolve the complex problem to determine land ownership that large numbers of Romani neighbourhoods have not been completely demolished and all tenants evicted.

Looking ahead: Justice denied, progress deferred, hopes dashed

As I mentioned above, the existing legal framework offering protection against forced evictions is neither adequate nor comprehensive. The Slovak Building Act7 allows the municipality to order the demolition of houses that were built without a building permit.8 The process of legalisation is complicated to the point of impossible, unbearably costly for the poorer families and subject to the prejudices and whims of the Building Office.

Even though the law gives the owners of such houses the possibility to legalise them,9 they face multiple administrative difficulties, as they need to obtain numerous permits, including some from the municipality. It is the decision of the Building Office, in small municipalities represented by the mayor’s office, as to what amount of time is provided to legalise one’s property, as there is not definite statutory timeframe for this.10 Furthermore, the Building Office can also order the demolition of a building if the permits and documents show that maintaining the building would be against ‘public interests’.11

In addition to these administrative and procedural obstacles, Roma do not usually possess sufficient financial means to afford the legalisation process as the costs can rise to several thousand euros. Moreover, no moratorium prohibiting forced evictions in winter months without providing adequate alternative accommodation exists under Slovak law.

In 2014, a new Building Act was drafted and scrutinised in the Slovak Parliament. The Act was to follow a policy piloted in some municipalities willing to formalise their Roma neighbourhoods by the Roma Plenipotentiary Office. According to the draft, the Act should have created an exemption for informal Roma settlements and allow Roma to legalise their homes. The Act relied upon the mediation of local authorities, tasked to purchase the land from private owners (by offering alternative land) and subsequently sell it to Roma residents. There was a specific period until 2022 earmarked for this policy.

Unfortunately the Parliament did not adopt the new Act, leaving Roma effectively stranded in the informal status quo. Taking into account that the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Roma has only managed to support four municipalities to legalise their Roma settlements in the last 2 years12, the housing situation of vast numbers of Roma families remains precarious, hinders their lives, insults their dignity, and destroys their futures.

Endnotes:

  1. Slovak Anti-Poverty Network, Shadow Report on Poverty and Social Exclusion in Slovakia, Bratislava, 2012. p.67.
  2. Government of the Slovak Republic, Report on implementing of state housing strategy until 2015, 2012, p. 4.
  3. Slovak Anti-poverty Network, Shadow Report, p.69.
  4. Alexander Mušinka a kol.: Atlas rómskych komunít na Slovensku 2013, UNDP, 2014,  p. 16, available at: http://www.minv.sk/?atlas_2013.
  5. ERRC, Map of Incidents in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, available upon request.
  6. Government of the Slovak Republic, National Roma Integration Strategy up to 2020, (Strategy) available at: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/discrimination/files/roma_slovakia_strategy_en.pdf, p. 14. See also: UNDP, Report 2010, pp. 61-76.
  7. Act no. 50/1976 Coll.
  8. Ibid., Art. 88 (1,b)
  9. Ibid., Art. 88a and the following
  10. Ibid., Art. 88a (1)
  11. Id.
  12. Aktuality.sk, “New Construction Law: A Roma Vajda (informal leader) fears a catastrophe”, available at: http://www.aktuality.sk/clanok/276848/novy-stavebny-zakon-romsky-vajda-sa-boji-katastrofy/.

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