Gender and ethnic dimension of Roma Women in housing through the practice of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, Republic of Yugoslavia and Republic of Serbia
Author: Vera Kurtić
Roma and feminist activist from Serbia
As the most vulnerable and the most deprivileged, Roma women are in a difficult position when it comes to housing. The history of persecution and discrimination against Roma affects the long-term perspective of correcting this injustice. Especially now, in the time of political and economic crises on the European continent, growing general problems and the state of the housing market, dignified housing, together with the general improvement of the position of Roma, is getting less chances of realization.
Roma women single households, single mothers and/or victims of domestic violence, have been systematically and directly exposed to violation of their right to housing, even during public and state ownership during socialism. This text deals with the cases from the period prior and through the transition from socialism to capitalism, from 1980 to the early 2000s, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Yugoslavia, as well as in the Republic of Serbia, All of them are recorded in Nis, the city in South Serbia and that fact shows there are probably many more. All cases are about the obstruction of the apartment’s ownership transference from public into private, which Roma women, had legal rights as all citizens since the 1990s. The same real estate illegally became the private property of some privileged third parties – the winners of every historical era. In addition, these cases show the transgenerational continuity suffering of discrimination, as well as the consequences for housing of the following generations.
Roma and housing after the Second World War
The dehumanizing housing situation of Roma has been partially alleviated in the socialist countries of South-eastern Europe, including the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, mainly through public policies defined by non-profit construction and public ownership of real estates. Along with industrialization and emancipatory free education, the Roma were given a chance for employment, and thus reaching adequate housing conditions. By socially responsible internal policy, especially with the construction of the so-called “apartments of solidarity”, the issue of housing for the poor and working class had been partly resolved. That is the reason why the number of Roma families who received the right to use socially owned apartments, is not negligible, either as factory workers or as social cases. This period brought progress for Roma nation, compared to the period of capitalism between the two world wars and during „wild capitalism“ in the post-socialist neoliberal era from 1989 to the present.
At the beginning of the 1990s, not only in Yugoslavia but also in other South-eastern European countries, housing funds collapsed, public property was privatized and the idea of a non-profit housing policy disappeared. The citizens of these countries were enabled to purchase the apartments they lived in with preferential prices, but the possibility of securing new housing for the working class and poor strata was drastically reduced, which particularly affected those who had not been able to get an apartment until then, as well as the new generations who had just been growing up.
As a result of the war and the violent policy led by the new state of Yugoslavia, as well as international sanctions, hyperinflation and general impoverishment, Roma people, however, in a large number of cases could not afford to buy the apartments in which they lived. A large number of Roma households that managed to buy apartments start selling them very quickly, moving to cheaper rural areas or to the Roma settlements from which they came. Those who were not allowed to buy out in that time, whether it was legally impossible due to unregulated property over the land or due to ownership by cities and municipalities, even after a decade of legal struggles it did not become possible, and they were gradually evicted.
After the fall of Milosevic’s regime in 2000, comes the intensification of investor urbanism that continues to this day, characterized by disrespect for the law, even higher level of corruption, non-transparency and crime. State and public property overnight become the property of private individuals, especially in Belgrade and other major cities in Serbia, while existing Roma settlements on public lands are demolished with the help of criminal clans. Due to the attention of a part of domestic and the international community, and the fact that the most mass displacements were carried out during the Decade of Roma, the Serbian authorities are forced to find any solution for the displaced, most often in the form of temporary accommodation by placing substandard containers, the maximum size of which is 16 meters for 6 family members, located far from the city, shops, public transport, schools and ambulant. In such conditions, the poorest Roma men and women, who until then lived from the collection of secondary raw materials, are slowly leaving the container settlements due to the lack of jobs and the abolition of any possibility to survive. Today, such settlements on the territory of Belgrade are empty, and the authorities have no information or interest in where these people have moved. Those who, on the other hand, did not have a registered residence in Belgrade at the time of eviction, are deported to the places they came from or even other places, without any help from the City of Belgrade and other local self-governments.
Only a small number of displaced Roma households managed to get a social apartment, thanks to the European Union assistance programs in solving the poverty and the large number of slums in Serbia. However, large amounts of money from these projects are not spent directly on the construction itself, but on the programs´ administration, and the number of those projects is not sufficient to solve the problem for the majority of the poor population, including Roma, nor are long-term solutions to beneficiaries. Social housing is still programmed with no possibility of redemption of apartments, and the state of insecurity is only prolonged.
The number of Roma men and women who live and work in Serbia and have the conditions to buy their own real estate is negligible.
Stealing of Roma women apartments and cancellation of their tenancy rights
Social inequalities and irregularities have always been a reality for Roma people, regardless of social order or governments. Crimes and discrimination against Roma men and women are never related only to market-oriented or non-democratic regimes, and there are notable in the policies of socialist countries, as well as in „democratic“ countries that officially advocate for the improvement in the area of housing.
One of the examples is the langsyne displacement of residents from the legal Roma settlement in Nis and the consequences that this left on future generations.
There was a big flood in 1948 the whole city center was flooded, among another Roma settlement where my father owned a house… All were displaced, but when the flood receded Roma were not allowed to return to their houses. Buildings were built on the site of the Roma settlement, but no Roma received anything. My father only got an apartment from the company after he retired, but they took that apartment away from me when he died in 1981. I didn’t even know that there was a law that children could inherit the right of tenancy, they convinced me in court that it wasn’t possible. S.K. Testimony from 1997.
The cases of gross violation of the right to housing were collected from the women themselves and show the ways in which Roma women are directed as an easy target for property stealing, especially those „unprotected“, who were alone or in women’s households, as well as single mothers.
I lived with my father-in-law, husband and four children in an apartment that my father-in-law got from the factory. In 1996, we received a decision that we had to move out. We went to the lawyer, he asked us for all the documents about the apartment, the originals. We didn’t get the dispute and we didn’t get the documents either, he never wanted to return them to us. Later, I found out that he was a friend of that woman, Mira, who worked at “City Housing” and who initiated our eviction. I don’t remember who told us to go to that particular lawyer, but everything was set up. My father-in-law and then my husband died very quickly because all that worries and stress. I was left alone with the children. After the eviction, we found one room without a bathroom in a Roma settlement. My sons have grown up and are often in prison, they don’t feel they have anything to fight for either. V.S. Testimony from 2001.
My mother married young and had a very unhappy marriage, full of violence. When she could no longer bear to be with her husband’s parents, she decided to return with me and my father to her father’s apartment, which he got as a retired factory worker. We lived there until my grandfather died. Then some neighbours, who were in some retirement association, came and said that we had to move. They filed a lawsuit. In an inexplicable way, my mother’s name disappeared from the list of apartment users, even though she was registered when they got the apartment. My parents appealed and it took many years, but in 1987 we got an eviction order. My parents were ordered to pay for the renovations, as well, and they did. Some man immediately moved into the apartment. Then we lived in the house of my second grandfather, my father’s father. Mother was not dare to divorce because she had nowhere to go. The 1990s came and my parents lost their jobs. Due to debts, my family sold the house and we had nothing left. R.K. Testimony from 2005.
As a single mother, after the divorce due to domestic violence, I looked for a housing solution for a long time and in 1996 I finally received a small house from the Urban Planning Institute. The house was without electricity, water, only bare walls and floor. I signed a contract for an indefinite period and paid rent every month. I gradually completely renovated the house, investing a lot, both financially and emotionally. I had to ask for approval from the Institute for everything because the house was protected as national monument. At the beginning of 2001, I received a decision that I should move out within 15 days. I complained to the Institute, I asked to get invested money back but they just told me: „Why did you install the telephone, as if you had someone to talk to“! The city mayor never wanted to receive me, I could barely talk to anyone in the municipality. I only have heard in the Institute, the municipality, and even from some Roma men activists, that some of the local powerful people have their eyes on that location and that they want to buy that land from the municipality. No one wanted to tell me who it was, they just told me that it was better not to know. They were waiting for „theirs“ to come to power so that it would be possible. Although that house was protected, it was immediately demolished and a commercial- residential building was constructed. I still don’t know who the owner is. A.A. Testimony from 2010.
As a social case, in 1970 my mother received from the city a 23 m2 room in a two-floor house with a total of 4 rooms and a field toilet. There were two more families of Serbian nationality, all social cases. We did not feel comfortable because somehow we were not welcome. After a while, those families left the rooms, without saying anything, just left. My mother went to the municipality and said that her children had grown and that she needed more space. It was granted to her but never received something written.. We lived there for years and over time I earned a salary, I built a bathroom, a roof and everything else. Since 1995, I had applied for the redemption of the house, part by part, but I only managed to redeem those 23m. Then the inspection came and they said I should not have renovated anything because it will bother the owner of the upper floor. Then I went to the municipality to see what it was all about and found out that the upper space was inherited by B.Z. who said he was a nephew of some old men who lived there in the 70s. That’s when the court process started. That nephew never lived in that house and I don’t know how he could inherit a social apartment, and he even bought the whole floor. He showed documents in court that he was born in that house, that even his son was born there, but that is not true. Before that, I didn’t even know he existed. The trial lasted a long time, when he received the verdict in his favour, he sued me for entering „his“ part of the house and I had to pay a large amount of compensation as well as a fine for renovating those rooms. I had to find that money because I could go to jail if I don’t pay. B.Z is an employee and works at the very place where the redemption request is submitted. In 1995, when I submitted a request to buy the upper premises, my brother died, so I did not appear for some time because I was emotionally bad, and he took advantage of that. The godfather of that man was the president of the Bar Association at that time and the court did not recognize that it was a fraud and no one took me and my sister under protection, Z.O. Testimony from 2015.
Transgenerational discrimination reaches until today:
They took my mother’s apartment, and before that, my grandfather’s as well. Up until now I have been paying rent, because I could not take a loan for an apartment because I had no other real estate as a guarantee. Now the rents have gone up a lot and will continue to rise, and I can’t afford it anymore. I had to get out of the apartment where I lived for years. I don’t know what to do. R. K. Testimony from 2022.
Discrimination against the Roma people in housing, as well as in other areas, is a historical fact, which changes forms and continuously leaves consequences on the lives of many generations. Within the deprived class who’s human and tenancy rights are violated, women, especially Roma women. It is shown that the intersection of discrimination on different grounds permanently prevents adequate housing and a dignified position for Roma women.
The judicial system in the SFR Yugoslavia, the Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia has shown weakness in the face of corruption and crime. The discrimination and violations of Roma women’s human rights in housing go undetected and unpunished. Roma women are the biggest losers of the transition from socialism to capitalism, with obvious present regression in their rights which are returning to the level before socialism.
Vera Kurtić is an activist and a sociologist from Serbia. She is one of the founders of the NGO “Women’s Space”, the first organization in Serbia dealing with the intersectionality of discrimination, as well as Roma Women Network Serbia which currently gathers 30 Roma Women organizations and initiatives. She is the author of the campaign Month of Roma Women Activism, which has been implemented annually since 2010. and the book Džuvljarke –Roma Women Lesbian existence (2014). In her theoretical work mostly deals with problems of intersecting discrimination based on gender, sex, race, class, and sexual orientation, while in her activist work supports the empowerment and self-organization of marginalized social groups.
This article does not represent a statement of opinion by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
Responsibility for the content is borne solely by the authors.