BUCHAREST, March 22 Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a
freezing night last month, Elena Nicolae and her family,
including her 18-month-old grandson, were given two hours to
leave their home.
Nicolae, 56, had lived in two rooms of a 19th century house
on Sfintilor street in the historic centre of Bucharest for over
20 years, paying rent to the Bucharest housing authority until
the house was deemed unsafe in 2005 and formal contracts ended.
But when a wall cracked in the dilapidated house, Bucharest
authorities evicted the eight Roma families living there
immediately with the building declared 'unfit for habitation'.
In the rush, Nicolae only packed a few clothes before the
building was sealed and the evicted families spent more than a
week sleeping on the street outside, not wanting to go into
shelters for the homeless and with no other housing available.
For Romania is facing an acute shortage of social housing,
with inner city gentrification and return of private properties
seized during Communist years squeezing out low-income tenants.
This has raised fears of creating favelas or shantytowns in
the country with Roma families seen as particularly vulnerable.
Living on the street in the cold, took its toll on Nicolae's
family and her husband was hospitalised with pneumonia.
"We worked our entire lives to fix our homes and now they
throw us out like dogs. Actually, people don't even leave dogs
out in this weather," Nicolae told the Thomson Reuters
NO SOCIAL HOUSING
Like many cities in Romania, Bucharest with 1.9 million
people does not have enough housing for low-income residents,
with only 200 units of public housing in the district where
Sfintilor is located despite hundreds of requests each year.
According to data from the district's local authority, five
of the people evacuated from Sfintilor were on a waiting list
for social housing - some for more than 20 years.
Campaigners say the allocation of housing favours people
with higher education and stable incomes who are more likely to
pay their rent rather than poor families with many children who
are more in need of cheap accommodation.
In 2001 Romanian authorities embarked on a programme to
return buildings seized and nationalised by the communist regime
that ran the country until 1989 to their original owners.
But campaigners say the programme has caused more evictions
of families assigned low cost housing previously under state
ownership which has added to the housing crisis.
Adrian Dohotaru, a housing rights activist turned
parliamentarian, said less than half of 80,000 applications to
re-privatise homes have been finalised to date so the situation
was likely to get worse without government action.
"Thousands of people are being evacuated yearly and there
will be more," he warned.
"Accessible housing must become a political priority.
Otherwise, what we see today is just the beginning of the
'favelization' of Romania."
Human rights groups including Amnesty International and the
European Roma Rights Centre say Roma people, Europe's largest
ethnic minority, are particularly vulnerable to housing
discrimination in Romania.
Romania is home to up to 2.5 million Roma in a population of
about 19 million but about 90 percent of these Roma families
live in extreme poverty and are targets of racism, according to
the World Bank.
In recent years, local media has reported many cases of
controversial evictions. In 2010, the Cluj municipality in
western Romania evacuated 20 families from the city centre to a
cluster of containers 300 metres from the main garbage dump.
The families' continuing campaign to return to the city uses
the slogan "Roma are not trash".
Two years later, the Baia Mare municipality in the north
moved 80 Roma families from the city to an old chemical factory.
Some children fell ill from contact with leftover substances.
Between 2014 and 2015, 20 Roma families set up a tent camp
outside their old home when they were evicted after a property
on Vulturilor street in central Bucharest was re-privatised.
In a report in 2015, Philip Alston, the United Nations Human
Rights Council Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human
rights, wrote that too often evictions of Roma have taken place
with little advance notice and in an "abusive fashion".
This results either in homelessness or re-location to sites
distant from jobs, schools, hospitals and other facilities and
reinforces "discriminatory residential segregation", he said.
The Bucharest municipality, which owns Nicolae's building,
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation all but one of the 43 people
- 21 adults and 22 children - living inside were "illegal".
However several families interviewed said the Romanian state
assigned them rooms in the building decades ago. The Sfintilor
address is printed on their identity documents and they paid
monthly rent to the housing authority for many years.
Before 1989, the communist state re-located Roma families
from the outskirts of Bucharest into the city, closer to
factories and schools and often placing them in older houses.
After the fall of communism, the state continued to rent
the buildings to Roma families but maintenance work stopped.
When a fire broke out in Nicolae's building 12 years ago,
the state housing authority declared the property unsafe and
refused to renew rental contracts but tolerated the families
Since the evacuation last month, the Mayor of Bucharest has
placed the building on a priority list for municipally funded
restoration but it is not known if this will be for housing or
another purpose. A property a few doors down has been renovated
and is advertised for use as a luxury business centre.
A spokesman for the municipality told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation that the buildings will be renovated but the families
were told to look for social housing elsewhere.
The evicted families, the spokesman said, are being offered
support to apply for social housing in other parts of the city.
"I notice the subtle intention of authorities to push poor
people to the peripheries of Bucharest or even beyond," said
Irina Zamfirescu of the human rights group Active Watch.
"There are no integrated social services to support these
families, they are being abandoned – literally – (pushed) into
(Reporting by Claudia Ciobanu, Editing by Paola Totaro and
Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation,
the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate
change. Visit news.trust.org)