Fighting for Fakulteta: advocating Roma housing rights in Bulgaria

11 July 2000

Mihail Gheorgiev1

Fakulteta is a Romani neighbourhood on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria. It faces many of the housing and infrastructure problems typical of Romani quarters in Bulgaria and, indeed, throughout southeastern Europe. Roads are poorly paved, electricity is insufficient and in many areas there is no effective sewage system. Also, similar to many other Romani neighbourhoods throughout the region, Roma are themselves effectively precluded from carrying out their own improvements by the fact that a great number of the dwellings in Fakulteta are "illegal". One quick and inexpensive way authorities could assist Roma would be to grant an amnesty to all illegal buildings in Fakulteta and settlements like it and allow Roma to proceed with the business of improving Romani neighbourhoods themselves.

Housing Roma in Bulgaria

The large-scale settlement of Roma in Bulgarian lands can be traced back to the 13th and 14th centuries. There is a wealth of historical information about Roma presence in Bulgarian lands during the Ottoman Empire2. A great number of Roma came to the Balkans together with the Ottoman Turks. Some of them remained in Bulgaria as either nomads or settled Roma. The process of sedentarisation of Roma began during Ottoman times. This process continued after the communist takeover in September 1944, after which Roma became the object of purposeful, though rather inconsistent, state policy. Many Roma moved to larger cities as part of the overall processes of migration. They were forced to abandon their traditional occupations and lifestyle due to the changes of the socialist era. A decree from 1958 stated that everybody had to settle, effectively ending the nomadic life retained to that date by some of the Roma in Bulgaria.

Settlement of what is now the Fakulteta neighbourhood in Sofia began in the 1930s. In 1930, several Romani families moved to the area, buying the land on which they settled. However, the Ministry of Territorial Development did not undertake any measures to clarify the status of the area. The Ministry did not prepare any master plan for the development of the district and at that time, as in nearly all Romani settlements in Bulgaria, there was no infrastructure, sewage system or electricity.

The first development plan for the area was ratified in 1947. This envisaged a sports complex to be built on the land now known as Fakulteta. The presence of Roma was totally ignored in the new project. However, the sports complex was never built, and the idea remained on paper. According to municipal records, around this time, local authorities built a school in the vicinity of Fakulteta, and Romani children started attending the school when it opened on September 15, 1948.

In 1969, a new master plan for the area was approved. This envisaged the planting of trees in the area and giving the district a new name: "Jubilee Forest". Planting began in the southern and northern parts of Fakulteta, but work on the project soon ceased. There is no information on what the fate of the inhabitants of Fakulteta was to have been. Probably they were to have been evicted, as had been done many times previously in other areas, especially during periods in which the capital expanded; many Romani families had settled on the outskirts of Sofia, and they often did not have legal documents for land ownership, so it was easy for authorities to evict them.

In 1975, a new conception for the development of the capital was ratified. Construction of a water supply system and sewage system for Fakulteta was a component of that plan, but the scheme was not adequately prepared and was not approved by the municipality. The result was that only the water supply system was completed, while work on the sewage system ceased. Around this time some streets were partially paved, but they have never been repaired since.

In 1988, in connection with the requirements of a new master plan endorsed in 1987, a wave of evictions of Roma was authorised in the Fakulteta district. A housing site with high rise blocks was envisaged. This master plan is in force in Fakulteta to this day, but no work whatsoever has been undertaken on its realisation, and to date there have been no high rises built or Roma evicted.

 

At present, the Fakulteta district is part of the city of Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, and it has a population of 25,000-30,000 Roma. Many of them are unemployed. Out of ten thousand persons of working age, only approximately five hundred have jobs with regular contracts, while the rest survive on whatever part-time work they can find. The situation in the "Cambodia" area of Fakulteta, where a great number of families live in extreme poverty, is the worst. The people there are, for the most part, illiterate and unemployed, so it is difficult for them to maintain their families and look after their children. The children are therefore forced, from a very young age, to find a way to make a living. There is a high rate of school drop-outs in "Cambodia". Although the Roma of Fakulteta are taxpayers, the local administration has to date done little to improve the electricity supply, the water supply and other facilities. The electrical grid in Fakulteta is very old and there is a total capacity of only seven megawatts for the whole area.

The size of the population of the Fakulteta district has recently been increasing steadily because of the arrival of Roma from other parts of Sofia and Bulgaria. Roma living in other areas sell their apartments and move to districts with compact Romani populations because in the atmosphere of post-communist anti-Romani hostility, Roma feel safer surrounded by other Roma, even if the material conditions of Romani neighbourhoods may be worse than in Bulgarian neighbourhoods. Other Roma leave their homes due to evictions, and rising levels of rent and other housing-related costs.

Law as an obstacle to decent housing

The heart of the housing problem in Fakulteta is a lack of legal documents for the houses in the district. Often the only document Romani homeowners possess is a contract between the seller and the buyer. According to the Department of Illegal Constructions of the Ministry of Regional Development, there are around fifty illegal constructions in Fakulteta. According to data collected by Romani Baht, the real number of illegal structures is much higher. Some structures were built on state property or municipal plots where construction was not permitted. However, all houses built without a permit are in conflict with Article 173(3) of the Law of Territorial and Urban Development, which stipulates that illegal construction is grounds for state seizure: "In cases of illegal construction on a plot, where construction is not allowed by a person who is not permitted to build, if such buildings are not in a conflict with the regulation plans and current laws and could be used, they are to be confiscated by the state or the municipality by penal act of the mayor or on the initiative of the Directorate of National Building Control3."

The route to legalising a building which has no permit is extremely complicated and the fees demanded are very high. This results in corruption in the local administration, because people offer bribes in order to solve their housing problems.

Illegal settlements: a national problem

Romani Baht research in 1998 and 1999 in various districts of other Bulgarian towns indicates that the problems facing Romani settlements throughout Bulgaria are remarkably similar, and in many cases of greater severity than in Fakulteta. We visited the Stolipinovo neighbourhood of Plovdiv, the Romani ghetto in Kazunlak — which is quite literally surrounded by a concrete wall, the Nadezhda neighbourhood of Sliven and the Novi Put quarter in Vidin.

A large number of Roma all over Bulgaria do not own the plots on which their houses have been built because the land is municipal property; nor do they have the right to buy the land. In some cases, this has led to efforts to evict. For example, around five years ago, Mr Tomasyan, the former mayor of Plovdiv issued an ordinance to destroy the houses in Stolipinovo, and authorities would likely have carried it out, if legal organisations and Romani leaders had not protested.

Action to improve Romani settlements in Bulgaria

In the interest of challenging the status quo and resolving the problem of the illegality of Romani houses in Fakulteta, Romani Baht engaged in litigation on behalf of Roma whose houses were not legally registered. However, in light of the fact that the number of illegal constructions in Fakulteta is huge, Romani Baht soon abandoned this strategy in favour of basic lobbying activity to achieve what numerous international experts have recommended as the proper approach to "illegal" settlements: legalise them.

In June 1997, the Romani Baht Foundation together with other non-governmental organisations — the SEGA Foundation and the Inter-Ethnic Initiative for Human Rights — organised a national conference on Romani settlements. The conference, which was the first of its kind, featured Romani public figures and representatives of non-governmental organisations, as well as chief architects of municipalities from the regions of Bulgaria where the Romani population is especially large. Romani Baht also invited representatives of the state authorities such as the president of the Republic of Bulgaria, the chairman of the Committee on Local Authorities, Regional Policy and Town Planning at the National Assembly, the minister of Regional Development and Town Planning, representatives from the Local Administration and Regional Policy at the Council of Ministers, as well the mayor of Sofia and the chief architect of Sofia. At the conference, a number of recommendations were presented to the President, the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers and municipal authorities for overcoming housing problems of the Romani minority in Bulgaria, including the following:

  1. Clarify property problems on land populated by Roma and begin constituting the right of building on and buying this land by and for people in need;
  2. Work out detailed urban plans with accompanying norms and regulations; liberalise construction norms for building and legalising Romani houses;
  3. Raise money from municipalities in order to build and develop the infrastructure of Roma districts;
  4. Provide technical services for owners free of charge if they are building for urgent needs;
  5. Change tax laws in order to free from taxes materials for building homes for urgent needs and when the buildings are constructed for charity;
  6. Place Romani representatives with full mandate on commissions for urgent housing needs in local municipalities;
  7. Draft and implement regional and local programs to solve Roma problems; include in these programs housing and territorial issues.

During the conference, Mayor of Sofia Mr Stefan Sofianski promised to initiate the measures necessary to legalise Fakulteta. To date, however, this promise remains unfulfilled.

After the conference, Romani Baht continued to lobby the local municipality for improvements to Fakulteta. We again invited the mayor, representatives from the Department of Territorial Settlement and Housing Policy, the chief of the Electrical Company and representatives from the Main Municipality of Sofia. At these meetings, the invited authorities stated that there was no possibility at present for resolving the housing problems of Roma in Sofia because the country was in an economic and political crisis and these problems would have to wait until the crisis passed.

Additionally, the staff of Romani Baht and the other NGOs involved in the organisation of the conference resolved to create a separate organisation to work specifically on housing issues for Roma. This organisation will lobby in Parliament, the Council of Ministers, and at offices of administration all over Bulgaria. The organisation will also assist in establishing local offices in regions with concentrated Romani populations in order to facilitate the work of the main office of the organisation. The main objectives of the organisation will be to amend existing legislation; to push for ratification of urban plans for Fakulteta and other Romani settlements with similar legal problems; to assist in the preparation of a demographic picture of Romani quarters; to conduct a survey on the number of people living in extreme poverty; and to develop strategies for conducting better housing policy and improving the standard of living of Roma in Bulgaria. Presently, the organisation is in the process of being established and looking for financial support for the realisation of the above mentioned activities. Additionally, Romani Baht continues to attempt to convince Roma of the need to legalise their properties and houses on an individual basis, in order to help them in the event that a master plan for Fakulteta is adopted by the Sofia municipality. Families with legitimate documents of ownership will be able to receive financial compensation if the municipality adopts plans to destroy their houses.

A proposal to improve housing

  1. Roma housing should be part of the housing system of society as a whole;
  2. Advocating an integral, comprehensive solution is advocating a better apartment;
  3. Solving the housing problem should be in line with other solutions;
  4. Legalizing illegal Roma living environments should be a priority;
  5. When solving the Roma’s housing problem, the type of living environment should be kept in mind;
  6. Cooperation between the local Roma community and the dominant society is the basis of success;
  7. An individualised approach to solving Roma housing is needed and possible;
  8. Full participation of the Roma in the improvement process is required;
  9. A management group must exist for every project;
  10. The identity of the Roma should be preserved in housing to the extent they so wish;
  11. Housing standards that apply to others should apply to the Roma;
  12. The legality of the improvement process must be controlled;
  13. Housing improvement should be financed from several sources;
  14. Housing projects should be affordable;
  15. The period of carrying out a housing project is relatively long.

Conclusion

The people of Fakulteta have been waiting for action from Bulgarian authorities for more than seventy years. Four regulation plans have been worked out during this time but none of them provided adequate housing and infrastructure for the Roma of Fakulteta. Fakulteta needs significant investment to bring up to standard the electrical grid, sewer systems and road works. During the present difficult economic hard times Bulgaria faces, the full program necessary may take some time to implement. However, there is little financial obstacle to simply legalising the whole settlement and allowing the Roma living there to begin to improve their own situation. It is unclear what is keeping Bulgarian authorities from doing so.

Endnotes:

  1. Mihail Gheorgiev is director of the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Romani Baht Foundation. He is presently a student of public administration at the New Bulgarian University. He was born and lives in the Fakulteta district in Sofia.
  2. See Marushiakova, Elena and Veselin Popov, The Gypsies of Bulgaria, Frankfurter am Main: Lang, 1997.
  3. Under paragraph 4 of the same article, this should not be applied when the building is temporary and up to thirty square metres. However, on the one hand, a thirty-square-metre dwelling is barely fit for human habitation and, on the other hand, Bulgarian authorities have destroyed dwellings smaller than thirty square metres in disregard of paragraph 4.

 

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