On the 25th September 2012, the Mayor of Maglizh took decisive action to demolish 34 illegal shanty houses. The Mayor’s justification for the demolition of the homes was that they were built without any regard for municipal regulations and, therefore, put the lives and health of the residents at risk. The demolition seemingly failed to recognise that the building were the only homes of nearly 200 Roma, half of that number were children.
Only a few months later the Mayor and his team were forced to recognise that the demolition had created a huge problem, the instant homelessness of the shanty towns Roma residents. With the loss of their residence, these 200 Roma were not only left without roofs over their heads, they were suddenly unable to register at the social and employment service, could not receive IDs and as a result lost their social aid.
“The demolition of the Roma houses did not mean that they disappeared. These real people, children, elderly and sick, continued to live in the Maglizh Municipality and they continued needed daily help from the local government. The government was still responsible for finding accommodation and providing support to this community so that they could afford food.” Stated Mr. Gospodinov, the Mayor of Maglizh.
Recognizing that the municipality did not have sufficient resources to meet this sudden demand for social housing, the local authority began looking for support from the national government, the European Commission, non-government organisations and others. It was quickly evident that there were no appropriate funders to address the challenges now faced.
In early 2014, the municipality of Maglizh joined the Council of Europe’s ROMACT programme. Maglizh formed a Community Action Group (CAG) and began holding structured dialogs for the Roma community and the local authority (LA). These interactions offered the opportunity for the LA and Roma community to explore a variety of options to address the issue of homelessness in the community.
Participation with ROMACT allowed the LA to continue to seek solutions for the Roma community despite a lack of funding. Working together on a regular basis, the LA and Roma began to make concrete decisions which improved the Roma community’s difficult situation.
By the end of 2016, on the 20th December, the final ROMACT roundtable was held. The event was attended by a wide variety of representatives. Government officials, institutional representatives, village mayors, and Roma community members attended to celebrate the achievements of the ROMACT programme in Maglizh.
The Mayor was delighted to report on the real actions to improve the living conditions for the Roma community that had taken place over the two years; the repair of street lighting, rubbish collection stations installed, a new bus stop for school children and the cleaning and removal of areas used as dumps were among the improvements. In addition to these concrete community developments, the Mayor continued, “To solve the challenge of homelessness in the Roma community, and in spite of a lack of outside funding, in 2015 our municipal council made the decision to provide 44 plots to replace the housing of the Roma citizens whose homes were demolished. 34 of these sites have been purchased and the families will start constructing their own homes once they have the funds to build them.”
The Mayor continued with the encouraging news that in 2016 local authorities and the area community in Dabovo decided to turn a municipal building into a residential facility. They plan to renovate the building, to include fully furnishing, with municipal funds. The residential unit will accommodate 14 needy families who will be able to move in during 2017.
Getting this residential project off the ground involved initial steps to ensure that the area community supported the decisions. At the start the municipality consulted existing residents in the area and explained the need for the housing and plans for the project. In addition to gaining positive community support, officials set into place selection criteria for the residential housing. Applicants for the housing were considered using several measures and priority was given to young families with some achievement in education (to primary level) who have children of preschool and/or school age. The families will be required to pay a rent of €12/month; to work on Local Authority programmes; and to send their children to school on a regular basis. In addition, the tenancy agreements will require that the residents keep the building and grounds to a clean standard. To offset the additional living costs of electricity, the municipality also plans to install photovoltaic panels on the roof to assist residents to be able to meet the extra expense of electricity for residents.
In addition to this residential facility, the municipal council has allocated another 10 decares of municipal land for housing projects with plans to add another 7 decares for a total of 17 decares (1.7 hectares) designated for social housing projects for needy communities. The municipal council are currently working on planning designs for the area, draft architectural plans have been drawn which show low storey, low cost housing to offer 60-80 social housing units. Currently the municipality is seeking funding for the project, either in the form of a loan or grant, though comments were made that it is unlikely that a loan would be forthcoming due to the area’s small annual budget and the inability to secure a loan with capital assets.
At the close of the ROMACT programme for Maglizh, are the challenges facing the Roma community in the area solved? No, sadly, they are not. There is still much to do. The streets remain unpaved and muddy, badly in need of asphalting. There are still hundreds of Roma who live in abject poverty, in shacks built without any regulation on private lands. Unemployment in the Roma community also far outweighs those in the Roma community who are in secure employment.
However, one must not lose sight of what a positive experience ROMACT has been for Maglizh.
Through real experience we have seen that the problems of the Roma are not impossible to solve. Maglizh participation with the programme has shown all of us the crucial role that authorities and communities share in addressing the need for social inclusion of Roma communities.
The ROMACT process has offered a roadmap for communities and authorities to shape better conditions for people from tougher social realities by offering a platform for both collaboration, cooperation and shared responsibility for problem solving. ROMACT experiences have demonstrated that successful interventions depend on shared accountability between local authorities, Roma community members and the state.
The ROMACT model to address Roma community and local authority issues has certainly proven that it can work, it is my hope that the relationships that have been formed on the programme will continue to be used as building blocks to address the challenges ahead.
* Liliya Makaveeva is the ROMACT National Project Officer for Bulgaria