According to estimates, about 7-10% of the population of Hungary, with a total of a little under 10 million inhabitants, belong to the Roma minority. The Roma tend to live in certain geographical areas, often in segregated settlements – 30% of Roma citizens live in segregated places as opposed to 3% of the general population. Often Roma people live in substandard housing situation as well. Hungary does not recognize the right to housing, and while the Constitution states that the state shall strive to create humane housing conditions for all of its citizens, this is far from the everyday experience of those living in poverty, especially the Roma.
The following is the case of the fight between a local authority trying to get rid of social tenants, many of them Roma, by evicting them without offering rehousing. While pro bono lawyers have chosen to sue the local authority for discrimination, the right to housing and the right to a fair trial are also at stake.
Miskolc, a Hungarian settlement of 161 000 inhabitants, is the third largest settlement in Hungary, is situated in one of the poorest areas of the country. The City decided to demolish the neighborhood called “Numbered Streets”, where a large part of the inhabitants are Roma – partly to get rid of an slummy area (see Integrated Development Strategy of 2014) - though sociologists claim this neighborhood is far from being the poorest as far as housing conditions go in Miskolc, partly to erect a new football stadium, or, to be more, precise, its parking lot.
The numbered streets neighborhood originally had a population of about 770 people, of whom a large proportion are children (270), and of whom about 80% have a low level of schooling, and there is noone employed in 70% of the households. The population is not homogeneous, some would like to get employed and find better housing while some “due to the lack of motivation or social attitudes have difficulty finding employment” (p. 66). Most of the housing units are owned by the City, almost all of them are in very bad state – no foundation, walls getting wet. Half of the housing units have one single room, while the average number of inhabitants is 4 people/housing unit. 80% of the children in the local kindergarten are Roma.
As a first step, the original 10 or 5 year rental contracts have been shortened, and the newer tenants usually have been offered one-year contracts only. Some of the tenants waiting for eviction had had arrears at one point, which had given cause to the City to terminate the contract – even the arrears were of no great value, and/or had been paid since. Those whose contracts are terminated are evicted without further offer of housing, no matter what their circumstances – whether the family has children, disabled or elderly members.
In the second step, the City modified its local housing decree on May 8th, 2014, offering financial compensation (a maximum of about € 4750 - 6300/tenants) for those tenants who are willing to terminate their indefinite contract ONLY IF they buy property OUTSIDE of Miskolc which cannot be sold within 5 years. TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberty’s Union, turned to the Ombudsman in April 2014, asking for the case to be sent to the Constitutional Court, claiming the decree to be unconstitutional as it is discriminatory and limits the freedom of movement. Several settlements around Miskolc have, in response, accepted local decrees excluding newcomers from social services if they have acquired their housing with the support of another settlement.
TASZ, the National Ethnic and Minority Protection Institute (NEKI), the European Roma Rights Centre and the Chance for Children Foundation also claim that the decree is not in accordance with the Anti-discriminatory Act not the local Equal Opportunities Program. Even though the Regional Government Office asked the city to revise the decree, the City Hall voted to leave it unchanged in December 2014. The Supreme Court, however, annulled the relevant articles in its decision of April 28th, 2015. Until that day, only one family had shown interest in buying property outside of the city, but even they did not do so.
TASZ has also turned to the Ombudsman about police raids in poverty neighborhoods of Miskolc prior to the first modification of the Housing Decree – 45 raids within a period of 9 months (April 2013 – January 2014), of teams of 20-30 people (policemen, city officials), who entered private apartments and checked the ID of everyone found there, with no legal foundation for this action.
As a third step, in March 2015, Miskolc again modified its decree, removing the exclusion of those who had lived in social housing during the past two years from the eligible applicants for new social housing. However, most tenants are still excluded, as the City also asks for an employment record of at least 3 months and a certain level of income per person that most of them do not have. In April, they have raised the rent of people in the Numbered Street neighborhood with 75%, with no prior notification.
Other discriminative measures have also been put to force against people living in poverty, many of them Roma – for example overcrowded households are not eligible for housing subsidy, and applicants have to submit to an inspection about the “cleanliness” of their home, especially the bathroom and the toilet!
As of May 30th, 2015, only about 107 of the 228 housing units were still inhabited. According to the data of Gabriella Lengyel and Gábor Havas, 28 families have claimed refugee status in Canada, and several others are planning to do so. At least 9 families have moved to Lyukó-völgy, a neighborhood of deep poverty and segregation outside of Miskolc. At least 9 families have moved in with relatives in Miskolc. Only 3 families could apply for social housing as the conditions are very exclusive. 2 single people have moved to a homeless shelter, and two others to a workers’ hostel. Those with an indefinite rent contract are usually offered housing in housing estates or inner city buildings if non-Roma, and slums with no or low comfort housing units if Roma.
Péter Niedermüller, member of the EP from the Hungarian Demokratikus Koalíció, member of the Commission on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, brought the case to the attention of the EC (2015.03.19), asking if the actions of the City were in accordance with the European Framework of National Roma Strategies, targeting the improvement of housing conditions of the Roma, and the 2000/43/EK guideline about anti-discrimination.
The Ombudsman finally revealed the findings of his investigations in the Miskolc case on June 5th, 2015, calling the practice of the Municipality of Miskolc unlawful, anti-constitutional and wrong. It calls on the City to stop harassing local residents in the numbered streets, and to cooperate with social service providers in the area more closely in order to prevent evictions. It also asks the minister of the Prime Minister’s Office to make sure that similar practices all over the country are stopped. It recommends that the Ministry of Human Resources offer support to neighborhoods struggling with similar issues as the “available resources are obviously inadequate.” Even though the Ombudsman’s recommendations are non-binding, and cannot automatically lead to compensation, Hungarian courts refer to them regularly and consider these reports as evidence.
Based on the complaint of the National Ethnic and Minority Protection Institute (NEKI), the Equal Treatment Authority (ETA), also carried out a year-long investigation and made a decree in July 2015, calling on the Miskolc local government to put an end to the evictions, develop a plan of operation on how to offer housing in accordance to human dignity to those already evicted by September 30th. Although the decree cannot be appealed, it is possible to turn to the Administrative Court and ask for the decision to be revised – which the Miskolc local government actually has done. Though the Administrative Court has declared that all the decisions of ETA have to be carried out while the appeal is pending, as its execution is of public interest, and its suspension would be a violation against the dignity and human rights of many individuals, including children, not much has happened since.
While the city should have a plan of action and have offered to re-house evicted families, the local government has so far refused to cooperate with the local Roma self-government and local NGOs, and the families already evicted or waiting to be evicted have not heard of any solution. The mayor has sworn to continue the demolitions as well as the raid-like inspections.
According to reports by journalists (video in English also available), only a few families remain in the housing units of the numbered streets, and their contracts are going to expire soon. Most of those who have moved out have moved to Lyukóbánya, having bought or renting derelict housing, often without running water or electricity, no insulation, no heating opportunities. Lyukóbánya, once a thriving mining community, is now a slum outside of the border of Miskolc, heavily segregated and with bad public transport opportunities to the city. Even though housing conditions are extremely bad, rents have escalated as the demand has been growing. Several NGOs (among them Amnesty International Hungary, CFCF, the European Roma Rights Centre, the Hungarian Roma Parliament, the Miskolc Roma local government, the Civil Liberty’s Union) as well as academics and activists have also called on the city to comply.
Even if the Court rules in favor of the ETA decision, it will not be easy to relocate the former tenants, many of whom have become invisible to authorities – renting derelict housing units with no possibility of registering it as their official address. Meanwhile, Miskolc has decided to exclude tenants of social housing as well as those who live in crowded or poor housing from the housing benefit system. In the debate, members of the local assembly said that they want to put an end to low income families moving to Miskolc to “live easily from the generous benefit system”. With the growth of populism, it is questionable how much the legal fight can gain for those already evicted, but also for those social tenants who are coming up next.