Székesfehérvár in perspective: Roma and housing in Hungary
02 April 1998
Csilla Dér and Betty Eberle
A wave of evictions of Roma is presently taking place in Hungary. The Hungarian daily Magyar Hírlap reported on December 10 that in mid. November, authorities in the 8N District of Budapest had begun evicting families illegally residing there. The 8th District of Budapest is home to a large part of Budapest’s Roma community. Similar evictions of Roma families in the 11th District of Budapest were also reported to the ERRC in November.
The Magyar Hírlap article also reported that in the northwestern Hungarian city of Győr, thirty families who have not paid rent and utility bills or who have no rent contracts were evicted in 1997. Municipal authorities in Győr reportedly plan to evict another twenty families in the near future. In the northern industrial city of Salgótarján, the municipal court ordered more than 100 evictions in 1997. There are more then 200 other cases pending before the Salgótarján court. In Balassagyarmat, northern Hungary, the local government filed 66 eviction complaints with courts in 1995 and 1996. Eighteen eviction decisions have already been handed down. The families concerned were all slated to be turned out of their accommodations by the end of 1997.
ERRC investigation in the summer of 1997 revealed a similar situation In the northeastern town of Ózd. When the town’s forge, an employer of 12,000 people, shut down, Ózd entered an economic crisis. The adviser on Minority Issues and Human Rights in Ózd, Mr Géza Kovács, estimates that there are over ten thousand disadvantaged Roma in the town, where the total population is Just over 40,000. In 1996 he found that at least 480 Romani families were in urgent need of housing aid of some sort.
Although many people facing difficult economic situations encounter housing problems, Roma are especially vulnerable to evictions, because of their disproportionate representation among those earning the lowest wages in Hungary and because of discrimination. Éva Orsós of the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities stated in the Hungarian press that approximately 70,000 Roma in Hungary live in slum-like conditions and are vulnerable to eviction.
Many Roma live in social housing — rent-subsidised apartments owned by local government. When local governments were forced to become financially responsible as a result of policy changes that followed the fall of Communism, business concerns began to take precedence over social concerns. In January 1994, local governments began selling off social apartments, as well as other non-subsidises apartments they owned. Since these apartments brought in little rent income and were expensive to maintain, local governments found it more profitable to sell them off to private buyers than to continue to offer them for rent. In some cases, the moat cost-effective strategy was to demolish the building entirely. In the 8th District of Budapest, for example, 35 municipal apartment buildings have been demolished and in the 13th District, 60 buildings are being pulled down. Neither district has plans to construct new apartment blocks. Both areas have large Romani populations.
According to Ms Márta Pánczél of the legal advocacy goup of the Romani organisation Roma Parliament, over half of her organisation’s cases concern evictions. Of those cases, over 80% involve residents who have lived for years in their apartments and have invested money improving their places of residence, but are without legal title and are now being evicted. Clients have also complained that evictions are carried out with dogs and private security guards. Other Roma report that during evictions, police cause damage to flats so that squatter families cannot move back in.
Mr András Király, local budget manager of the 13th District, told the ERRC that the district would like to sell off up to 2000 more local government-owned apartments. All squatters will have to be evicted to empty the apartments for private buyers. In Király’s district, empty apartments are now defended by security guards to prevent other homeless families from moving in. Király equated squatters with burglars and lamented that the law did not allow him to take more drastic measures against such criminals. He reported that the local government is considering challenging the national housing laws because the laws do not enable them to protect municipal property adequately. Although governments are not legally allowed to collect data on ethnicity, Király estimated that 80% of the squatters were Roma.
A public advertisement placed in the Hungarian daily, Népszabadság on February 12 1998 indicates that the 13th district Budget Management Corporation has discovered how it can get rid of squatters without evicting them and, at the same time, sell the squatted apartments. The advertisement calls for a public auction of apartments owned by the local government. It highlights with bold letters that „Participants in the auction will bid on apartments occupied by illegal residents or squatters”. Specifically: „The winning bidder will buy the occupied apartment in such a way, that s/he will take responsibility for making agreement with the previous tenants of his/her new apartment on further occupation or on them leaving the apartment. The new owner will be responsible for paying unpaid utility bills accumulated by the illegal residents”.
The addresses given in the advertisement are located in the same area where, at Ms Pánczél’s suggestion, the ERRC conducted interviews with a number of illegal tenants. It is also the same area highlighted on a map shown unofficially to the authors of this article by the local budget manager as the part of the district with the highest number of squatters in his area. It is an area known to have the highest Roma population in the district.
In the advertisement, it is written that exact addresses are available in the district mayors office, and there is a date given when possible bidders can go and look at the apartments, although families may very well still live in them. The families concerned will thus be subjected to the degrading experience of having complete strangers walking into their homes, in the knowledge that one of those strangers will have their fate in his/her hands from the moment of sale.
The contradictory role of local governments as both owners of apartments in a free market economy and, at the same time, providers of housing for the socially disadvantaged lies at the heart of the eviction problem. This double role also enables the local governments to apply discriminatory practices without actually violating the law. Indeed, courts in Hungary have issued decisions which seem to endorse the idea that local governments are free to act according to the same norms and rules that govern the marketplace. One such decision was handed down in a case brought by the Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI) and was heard in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County Court in October 1996. The case concerned a local Roma minority self-government which had proposed a program to build houses for economically disadvantaged families and applied to the local government for permission to buy plots that had long lain vacant. The local government refused their request citing the lack of building plots, though land appeared to be available. NEKI brought a lawsuit claiming that in the making of the decision to refuse the offer of purchase, administrative procedures had been violated. These violations included the local government’s failure to hold an open meeting and the failure of one of the decision makers to disclose a personal interest in the land. An administrative decision concluded that the government procedure was lawful, and the County Court upheld the decision, stating that:
the Local Government owned the plots that were going to be sold. As owners, they decided who to sell their own property to. This resolution was not an act constituting administrative relations, the Local Government exercised their rights as property owners. Relevant case law is consistent in terms of not viewing resolutions in which an administrative body is participating in its capacity as a contractor under civil law [as] administrative.
By characterising the sale of public land by public officials as an action that demands less accountability than other government actions, the court provided local authorities with justification for denying Roma land for housing. In addition to relieving the local authorities of their social obligations, the decision appears to leave open numerous possibilities for discriminatory practice in the process of selling off public property.
National legislation exists to protect Roma from discrimination and further obligates the government to take positive measures to foster this equality. Article 6 of the Basic Provisions of the Law on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities states that Hungary shall „aid the realisation of equality before the law by measures aiming the elimination of inequality of chance”. However, this protection from discrimination and guarantee of access to equal opportunity has been of little help in the area of housing.
Local governments are required by national law to provide housing support to those in need, but only „to the best of their ability”. The Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities has called for the initiation of administrative procedures in several cases in which Roma were denied housing support allegedly due to lack of funds, while later in the same fiscal period, non-Roma were provided housing support. These cases were resolved by administrative courts in favour of the Romani plaintiffs on the grounds that the first applicants were arbitrarily denied funding, but not on racial discrimination grounds.
One victory for tenants in the area of housing is the abolition of residency requirements as a prerequisite for obtaining housing. Previously, in order to apply for a local government flat, residents had to prove that they had lived in a given municipality for periods of between five and ten years, depending on the municipality. This meant that residents who wished to obtain a flat now would have had to have registered with the local government up to ten years previously. This requirement particularly affected Roma, many of whom preferred to avoid contact with the government. According to Mrs Hoche Frigyesné, head of the Local Government Housing Department of the 8th District, the local government has been informed that this requirement is not allowed and new regulations were being issued without the stipulation.
Hungary has signed international agreements that obligate the country to provide adequate housing to all and to follow approved procedures when evictions take place, such as providing alternative housing. In 1976 Hungary signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, thereby acknowledging the „right of everyone to an adequate standard of living [...] including adequate housing”. The policy of evicting families and leaving them homeless is a violation of other covenants that Hungary has signed, including the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a non-governmental organisation based in Geneva, reports that international bodies are paying increasing attention to housing issues. The European Court of Human Rights heard a case involving the rights of property owners in conflict with the government’s right to provide affordable housing. In late 1989, the court decided that rent control measures in place in Austria did not violate the rights of the owners of the property. The social nature of the rent control measures were deemed superior to the „right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions” of the property owners who initiated the complaint.
COHRE further points out that during 1990 and 1991, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declared both the Dominican Republic and Panama to be in violation of Article 11(1) of the Covenant, guaranteeing the right to adequate housing, due to the extent and manner by which forced evictions have occurred in both these countries. General comment No. 7, issued by the Committee in 1997 states:
Evictions should not result in rendering individuals homeless or vutnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be is available.
Local initiatives exist in many municipalities that attempt to alleviate the housing situation facing Roma. In Ózd, for example, a local Romani organisation has proposed a construction scheme in co-operation with the local government to provide housing for, to begin with, sixteen families in dire need. Similarly, Magyar Hírlap reported on December 10 that the Szeged local government ad hoc committee announced that the Szeged Gypsy Democratic Organisation had bought a house for families who are illegally resident or have not paid utilities. The house reportedly has space for eight families. (According to information made available to the ERRC, fifty families in the Pacsirta street Roma neighbourhood in Szeged currently face eviction.)
Like many other governments throughout the world, local governments in Hungary are faced with the sometimes conflicting obligations of being fiscally responsible and providing for the social well-being of their constituents. If under the current system, local governments’ financial difficulties are such that evictions continue, the country as a whole will pay the price. While local governments gain in the short run from the sale of apartments, the national government is left to pay the long-term costs of evictions, such as funding orphanages for homeless children. A policy that promoted co-operation between local governments and community organisations in implementing creative solutions to alleviate housing problems would be a more productive approach overall, and would assist Hungary in meeting its international commitment to provide adequate housing for all.