Roma Housing Rights in Slovakia
28 May 2004
The article that follows is the second in a series of articles on Roma and the right to adequate housing in Slovakia. The article is the product of a one-year joint project of the European Roma Rights Center and the Bratislava-based Milan Ĺ imečka Foundation, with the co-operation of the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. The project, entitled, "Defending Roma Housing Rights in Slovakia" was realised thanks to funding from the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The first article in the series is available on the Internet at: Report on the Field Research into the Housing Situation of Roma in the Village of Svinia, Slovakia
I started working at the regional museum in the town of Brezno two years ago. Through my work at the museum, I found that despite the fact that there are large numbers of Roma living in the town and the region, there is no county-wide strategy to deal with the problems of the Romani community, with the exception of activities of individuals and non-governmental organisations. I found the project "Defending Roma Housing Rights in Slovakia" to be a useful opportunity to direct the attention of the relevant people and institutions to the situation of Roma in this region.
Telgárt is a village 60 kilometres from the town of Brezno, the county town of Brezno County. According to the 2001 census, there were 1539 registered inhabitants (740 males and 799 females) in Telgárt. The majority of the population declared themselves as being of Slovak nationality, while only 138 people (9%) declared themselves to be Romani. However, according to my research, about 620 people live in the two areas of the village considered to be Romani areas.
There are no Romani members of the ten-member village council, though two Roma work on commissions for the village council. It has been possible to employ Romani assistants at the local primary school; at present, two Romani assistants work there. A preparatory year has been established at the same school for Romani children. The Romani assistants are very highly valued by the director of the school. One hundred and ninety-two children attend the school, of whom 90 are Romani. There is also a special school in Telgárt, which is attended by 80 children. Only one pupil at the special school is non-Romani. Primary school teachers fear that some Romani children are sent to the special school even before the start of compulsory school attendance on the basis of just one 15-minute psychological examination, skewed by a language barrier, and on the basis of the requests of parents who are influenced by the lobbying of the special school teachers who continually fight to justify the existence of their school.
According to official statistics, there are 422 houses in Telgárt, 335 of which are permanently inhabited while 105 are uninhabited. After 1989, the management of land became extremely problematic. Following the Slovak National Uprising at the end of World War II when the village was razed to the ground, new houses were built under the socialist regime. This phase of building was carried out with no respect for former property boundaries. This has resulted in a situation whereby it is very difficult to deal with the reallocation and restitution of property, given that, in many cases, houses have existed on the property for half a century.
The average unemployment rate in the village fluctuates around the 48-55% mark, while the average unemployment rate among the Romani population is 90-95%. The majority accepts certain Romani musicians of good "stock". However, this acceptance has its limits. Not even a Romani musician in Telgárt has the opportunity to build a house in the centre. Despite the attempts by a number of musicians to change their way of life with their own resources, they too respect the existence of racial barriers in the village and do not attempt to move into the village. The situation has fallen into a stalemate: It is hard to say how the town's non-Romani population would react if a Romani person were to buy a house in the village. Local Roma do not even attempt to buy property in the centre because they are already convinced that such an attempt would be unsuccessful.
The two concentrated Romani settlements known as the "upper Roma hamlet" and the "lower Roma hamlet" are located between the village's residential areas. Not a single Romani family lives individually like the majority population of the village. Only about 60% of the buildings in the Romani hamlets have deeds for both the land and the house.
The upper Roma hamlet is an integrated part of the village. It comprises 23 houses, inhabited by 354 people. The houses are brick-built or wooden in the building style of the village. In addition to the registered houses, this area also hosts 20 shacks, inhabited by various types of family from single widows to young families with 6-8 children. These shacks are built from wooden planks, sheet metal and chipboard with no kind of thermal insulation. They look ramshackle and improvised, their total area being around 20 m2 each.
The lower Roma hamlet is located almost one kilometre away from the village. There is a bus stop nearby, serving local connections. There are 13 houses in this hamlet, of which 3 are illegally constructed. A total of 236 people live in the lower hamlet, 26 of whom did not have permanent residence in the village at the time of my research. All the houses in this area are brick-built, mostly more than one storey, with the enlargement of living space being arranged on an ad hoc basis. All houses are built along an asphalt road that leads through the settlement and runs parallel with the main road. The infrastructure in the lower hamlet copies that of the village. There is no generally accepted form of authority in the lower hamlet. Residents are generally dissatisfied with conditions in the settlement.
The basic politics of the village in relation to the Roma is not clear-cut. Pro-Romani activities are met with general aversion and strategies relating to positive discrimination have no chance of getting past the town council. The philosophy of politics in the village is to stick to the status quo, which means to act in such a way that least irritates the non-Romani population and to openly approach Roma in the same manner as the majority, which results in a disadvantaged situation for Roma. In 2001, the PHARE national fund project for the construction of infrastructure in Romani settlements selected 30 villages as eligible: Telgárt was one of these 30. The village was promised financial assistance in the building of a sewage network and water treatment units dedicated to cleaning wastewater originating from the Romani settlements. The mayor of the village, Mr Martin Mekel, informed me that he discarded the offer; for many it was incommunicable that sewage networks would be built for Roma while the rest of the village had no such system of its own. The majority generally regards the conditions in the Romani areas as being very amenable: According to mayor Mekel, "Gypsies have it all! They've even got telephone booths". The village council has also not permitted the construction of rental flats: After calculations including the unemployment rate in the Romani settlements, the high numbern claiming social benefits, living expenses etc., such a project was seen as unsustainable given the regular payment of rent that would be required of Roma.
The politics of the village are currently orientated towards the development of a tourism industry; this includes efforts to prevent the lower hamlet, which is situated by the main road, from expanding further. One non-Romani resident, with reference to the Romani hamlets, asked me, "What must the tourists think of us when they arrive here and see that?" Village leaders and some of my non-Romani respondents see the Romani presence in the village as a considerable threat from the viewpoint of the pro-tourist orientation of the village. One of my respondents questioned what tourists would think upon entering a shop and "seeing the whole place full of Gypsies?" The idea for a tourism orientation in the village is the newest concept of the regional government, which promotes the village in relation to agrotourism and the tourist industry.
In 1986, a plan for making a recreational area comprising Ĺ vermovo-Ĺ umiac-KráÄľova hoÄľa was approved, which was agreed to by the village council in 1991 and still is valid. According to this plan, it is not possible to build any more constructions on the land near the lower hamlet. Free building lots are, however, located in the upper hamlet, but many Roma from the lower hamlet refuse to live in the upper hamlet. Because Roma respect the border between the Romani and the non-Romani areas thereby not buying land or homes in the village, the only remaining options, in the case of the lower hamlet, are to build illegally or to improvise on restricted land where there is already a house through extensions, add-ons, etc.), or to possibly live in another village.
The case of Marian Harvan, a Romani activist, illustrates the problems facing Roma wishing to improve their living situation in Telgárt. The 24 members of the Harvan family live in a three-storey brick-built house in the lower hamlet. Since the third generation of the family also has had children, two families are keen to move out and build a house for themselves. One of the families is that of Mr Harvan who, in 1997, bought property from a local non-Romani resident in an effort to improve the family's housing situation. In 2000, the final transfer of ownership was completed. The property was listed as TTP, a long-term grassy area.
All attempts by Mr Harvan at construction on the property were refused. The village council appealed against the spatial plan and, in September 2002, refused to grant planning permission and proposed that Mr Harvan sell the property to the council. The village refused planning permission despite Mr Harvan having secured the requisite permission from the County Environmental Department. According to Mr Harvan, "They thought that if I built the one house, everyone would start building beside me until we spread all the way to the village". Mr Harvan solicited assistance from the Office of the Slovak Government's Plenipotentiary for Romani Communities and the non-governmental organisation League of Human Rights Advocates and immediately appealed the decision of the village council to higher authorities.
Visits to the site by higher authorities did not have any significant effect. Therefore, in 2003, Mr Harvan built a storage building on his land, which resulted in an investigative visit by the village council on June 30, 2003. According to the minutes of the visit, it was found that Mr Harvan had constructed the building without permission and that the village council had commenced proceedings for the removal of the construction.
Mr Harvan stated in the minutes, "I am not going to let the property be expropriated. The mayor stated that there is a possibility of selling the land to a businessman, who would come here with the idea of building some kind of development. […] I'm not going to give up the land just like that, so I built a shed on the land for storing tools and wood. I'm just about to put a fence around my land."
At the time of research, the dispute continued and both sides were holding firmly to their positions. Mr Harvan was resigned to the fact that there is no solution to the situation. He was determined that if he did not receive the permission of the village council, he would simply build illegally. Mr Harvan perceived the situation in the village as racism and evaluated the whole problem as the result of preconceptions. He told me, "We Roma are at the bottom of the village hierarchy. There is a high barrier here, a barrier between the Roma and the non-Roma, a proper wall." In my dealings with the village council, it did not provide me with the planned use of the land in question.
Brezno is the county town of Brezno County and has a population of 22,452 inhabitants. At the time of the 2001 census, there were 22,875 permanent residents living in the town, with about 11,700 of these being economically active (50%), while more than 65% of the inhabitants are of productive age. Slightly less than 5% of the population identified themselves as Romani (1,060 people), though the actual figure is probably around twice the official figure.
As of September 30, 2003, the level of unemployment in Brezno was almost 20%, compared to the county average of 27.79%. The level of unemployment amongst the Romani community in recent times has been around 95-99%. The town is very keen on promoting itself as a tourist destination, calling itself "the gate to the Tatras". The development of services relating to the tourist industry is, however, relatively limited.
According to statistics, Brezno comprises 1831 permanently inhabited houses (of which 1418 are family houses) and 325 uninhabited houses. Various types of Romani settlements are found in the town: Two partly segregated areas (terraced housing and a line of portacabins on the opposite side of town), integrated individual houses and detached, historical flats or family houses in the centre of town inhabited mainly by Roma, as well as some families living in courtyards of other houses. Buildings owned by the town are dealt with by the housing agency BYPOS, which, on the basis of a Statute of Brezno, is a budgetary organisation of the town. The following locations, inhabited by Roma, are considered problematic by BYPOS:
- Predné Hálny 10: A block of 13 flats inhabited solely by Roma in one of the areas of a town situated by the main road towards Horehronie, connected to the main water and sewage lines of the town. One hundred and ten people are registered here as permanent residents. The block looks run-down, and, according to records, it has been this way for almost 40 years. Romani residents refer to the block as "the mill", however, non-Roma and the media refer to it as the "house of terror". According to BYPOS, only two of the inhabitants of the block are rent-payers. There is one large-capacity waste container situated by the block. The administration of the block has not increased the rent for a long time and has no records of a repair fund. On August 5, 2003, the local newspaper Horehronie quoted the deputy mayor of Brezno, Ms Janka Mihalovičová as having stated, "When they start paying their rent, BYPOS will solve the problems with the sewage lines, and after repairing the outside of the building, they will put in benches, sandpits and swings for the children." BYPOS has recorded unpaid rent totalling 509,000 Slovak crowns (approximately 12,660 Euro).
- Kuzmányho: Located in the centre of Brezno, the building houses 86 Roma. There are eight flats in the building; one being unoccupied. A homeless, 3-member Romani family inhabits one flat and several Romani families inhabit two flats - one two-room flat houses 5 families, including 23 children. One flat, which served as a warehouse for BYPOS, houses one family. Another flat houses an old woman. One of the flats houses one family and, sporadically, their daughter-in-law and her child. Most of the inhabitants of the flats do not pay any rent and have a collective rental debt to the town totalling 270,410 Slovak crowns (approximately 6,730 Euro). Ground floor flats are in a very run-down condition; inhabitants complain of the space being too damp and mould regularly destroys and the furniture and carpets despite the evident attempts of the families to look after the place. Windows on the ground floor facing onto the street are covered with boards of various materials. Additionally, the building is frequently subject to vandalism by skinheads, according to several of the Romani residents with whom I spoke. Official data on the number of Roma registered as residents of the building was not available.
- 29 and 37 Rázusová Street: Located in the centre of town, one of the buildings holds four flats, according to BYPOS, in which 3 Romani families comprising 54 people live, of which 18 are children of up to 5 years of age. In the second registered house, there are 33 inhabitants in two flats. There is a dry-type WC in the courtyard; only part of the building is connected to the main water supply of the town, despite the fact that the building is in the centre of town and is bordered by family houses and small shops. Several small extensions have been added to the original construction. The space is narrow and restricted, and divided into three parts (kitchen, living room and entrance area). Rickety, steep, wooden stairs lead into this loft. These are extremely unsafe. They are the same kind as lead into haylofts in old country houses. Both buildings have unpaid rents amounting to 68,000 Slovak crowns (approximately 1,690 Euro).
A statement made to me by a BYPOS employee that "None of these Gypsies pay any rent" clarified the general attitude of BYPOS towards Romani residents. As a landlord, BYPOS has a rather indifferent position regarding the above-mentioned housing. Information about these flats was obtained only by chance through emergency services workers, since the town keeps check of and deals with the control of its own property. Ms Eva Kováčová of the Brezno Department of Social Affairs estimated that out of a total of 1,000 applications for flats in the town, about 1/4 were from Roma. On the last occasion that flats were allocated to new occupants in 2003, 3 of a total of 20 were allocated to Romani families. According to Ms Kováčová, this was "more than enough" to be allocated to Roma.
The Town's Solution to the "Romani Housing Problem": Segregation
A project entitled "Making the Hamlet of Hlavina Run", the main investor in which is the town of Brezno, illustrates well the problems inherent in the attempts of Slovak authorities to "solve" the Romani housing problem. The mayor of Brezno, Mr Jaroslav Demian, was quoted in the local newspaper Horehronie on February 11, 2003, as having stated, on the topic of the housing settlement known as Hlavina, currently under construction, that it will provide "flats, the rent for which will be affordable even for Roma who have very low financial means, who today are inhabiting standard rented accommodation and are not capable of paying the rent or bills […]. It is in running Hlavina that we wish to guarantee that a visitor will not come across dilapidated houses, flat and shacks, e.g. in Predné Hálny, Draksiar, Kuzmányho Street and Rázusová Street […]. When I speak of these people, I am referring to those with permanent residence in the town. It is, in the end, a commission of the village council composed of representatives and the town's citizens that decides the granting of accommodation."
During a meeting of the Brezno town council on April 28, 2003, Ms Mihalovičová was given the task of "proposing the means of dealing with the housing of socially unadjustable citizens of the town". According to the minutes of an August 26, 2003 meeting, Ms Mihalovičová submitted a report on the living conditions of Roma in the town and solutions for solving the situation based on responses to a questionnaire distributed during visits to various housing estates. The questionnaire addressed such issues as the legitimacy of inhabitants, calculation of the numbers of people living in these areas and calculation of the number of registered permanent residents. Ms Mihalovičová's visits to the Romani households were reportedly similar to raids in that town police accompanied her. In her report, Ms Mihalovičová evaluated the activity of the city council with respect to the accommodation of Roma since the issuance of a 1995 General Mandatory Order and concluded that no concrete steps had yet been taken.
The 1995 General Mandatory Order (VZN) 021 of the Town of Brezno relating to flats and the conclusion of rental agreements (as amended on May 27, 1996 and October 28, 1996) addresses the Romani housing problem, specifically with regards to binding parts of the urban plan of Brezno, which sets out the various types of housing. Areas of the town characterised as "Obytne Uzemie Specificke" (“BŠ” - specifically designated housing area) are potentially and unofficially designated as 'appropriate' for the concentration of Romani housing. BŠ areas comprise family houses and low-rise blocks of flats. The blocks should provide plots of land for growing vegetables, raising household livestock and areas for the storage of tools for craft purposes and small-scale manufacturing services. The kind of activities that are not supported in such housing are those generating noise pollution, odours, or those which result in a lowering of the aesthetic value of the area or which result in heavy traffic. The VZN contains passages suggesting that Roma not be provided with housing in the centre of town. The VZN for example states, "the (Romani) settlement of the centre of town lowers the value and attractiveness of buildings and their surroundings and generate a barrier against its further development."
The area of Hlavina falls within the category of BŠ . Hlavina is located in the part of town called Zadné Hálny where, in 2003, there was an outbreak of tuberculosis in a wooden house inhabited by 15 Roma. It falls outside the town centre and is fenced off. The whole hamlet was designed under the socialist regime in 1976 as the new "Roma" hamlet. Much of the construction was carried out in an ad hoc fashion and after the construction of seven wooden buildings, the goals of the project changed and the project was never completed. Between 1990 and 1996 the constructions served as storage space for the state archive. In 1996, the village council decided to revive the original project. In 1999, a new project began which was concluded - along with some additional projects - in 2002 and 2003.
Construction permission has been granted and the project, set to be up and running by September 2003, had as of March 2004, not yet begun. The original buildings in the area are to be used for accommodation: These wooden constructions with concrete foundations were produced as prefabricated family housing, but are now in bad condition. Therefore, the town plans to reconstruct them. The houses have metal roofs but lack sanitary equipment; there is no kitchen work surface or heating provided in any of the houses. The buildings have electrical connections. There are two unfinished family houses in the area, which may be used later, in the next phase of the project. Reconstruction works in Hlavina were intended to take place between September and December of 2003 to secure a water connection, sewage systems and wastewater treatment equipment. Two large-capacity waste containers wre also to be placed in the area and, as of the end of 2003, the houses were to be fitted with running water and showers, a doctor's office and a community centre.
The interim technical report of the project, written by Mr Peter Maršálek in April 2003, states, at page 2, "the hamlet of Hlavina provides accommodation for those socially inflexible inhabitants of Brezno, with whom council bodies have had endless problems." It also states that the project commission declared that Hlavina fulfils all the requirements for the "concentration of socially unadaptable citizens into a separate hamlet". This means the communities' return to their original hamlet. This return would take place a few years after having attempted to re-educate them in order to integrate them into the normal, everyday life in the suburbs".
In her August 26, 2003 report, Ms Mihalovičová proposed several solutions to the current situation of housing for Roma in Brezno, amongst which was a suggestion to buy off flats in a housing block in a suburban area called Mazornikovo town. In her report, she referred to the fact that inhabitants living in proximity to the planned settlement Hlavina did not agree "with the settling of Roma and non-paying tenants in Hlavina and proposed the use of barracks in the town". The spatial plan of Brezno and the statements of the deputy mayor, confirm that it is possible that Brezno will soon start dealing systematically with the Roma housing problem through segregation and transfer orders.
Thirty villages, including the county town, fall within the county of Brezno. A considerable Romani community is present in almost half of them, with many Roma dealing daily with the issues described above. There is, however, no countywide strategy to address the housing issues which Roma face. The greatest hindrance in attempting to solve the housing problems of Roma appears to be the majority population's downright refusal to involve themselves in anything helping the Romani community. The majority of the mayors in the region behave according to the will of their non-Romani voters, but then often blame the district council for not supporting pro-Romani activities. Ignoring Romani issues is evidently part of the local history. Village chronicles occasionally mention Roma, but only hinting at the negative relationship between Roma and non-Roma, for example burning of the Roma "shacks" in the interwar period.
- Zuzana Veselská is a postgraduate student at the Institute of Ethnology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava. She worked as the member of the research team on the project “Defending Roma Housing Rights in Slovakia”.