May 2006




Prepared by
Mr. Samuel Delépine

The opinions and information contained in this paper do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of the Council of Europe.


Housing for Roma in central and eastern Europe is a key issue in the debate on this European minority. Housing is one of the iconic themes in the whole town planning and urban policy area.

This text will take stock of the housing conditions of Roma in central and east European towns and cities, drawing on field investigations in several Romanian urban neighbourhoods. The conclusions reached on the areas investigated are applicable to most towns and cities in eastern Europe.

The general context is one of poverty. We shall be examining underprivileged population groups, describing the forms of poverty encountered and pinpointing possible solutions. Clearly, the Roma housing question is also closely bound up with the issues of culture, schooling, work, health and discrimination.

This document sets out a typology of urban areas inhabited by Roma, revealing entrenched segregation processes, explaining the causes and proposing possible solutions for improving the housing conditions of Roma populations and opening up their areas of habitation.

I. Roma: a history of coercion leading to the current segregation

Slavery and forced settlement

Despite the historical distance, the forced settlement of Roma in central and eastern Europe during the Middle Ages goes some way towards explaining their present-day distribution in various towns and cities and is, more generally, the root cause of the immense frustration experienced by Roma in their dealings with the majority societies.

In the Romanian provinces of Valachia and Moldavia, the Roma were slaves confined to restricted areas where they exercised specific crafts and trades in the service of the local boyar or bishop. This situation continued until the mid-19th century. Some Roma groups are still living in these mahalas1, the sites where Roma were first settled on the urban periphery. Now that they are shut in within a wider urban area or being pushed further and further out to the periphery, the Roma can hardly be said to be any better off than they were three or four centuries ago.

Roma in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were partially settled, kept under strict surveillance and forced to perform menial tasks for the community.

This means that the forced isolation of the Roma dates back to ancient times, and knowledge of their history reveals the causes of Roma marginalisation and the so-called “self-marginalising” lifestyle of certain families.

The various legacies of Communism: improved housing quality against a general background of Roma assimilation

The horrors of Nazism followed an inter-war period which had been fairly prosperous for the Roma people. In an overwhelmingly rural eastern Europe, their skills were in great demand against a political background of development which benefited the whole population, including the Roma.

After the second world war, the whole of eastern Europe fell under the communist yoke. Fresh constraints were placed on the Roma who had survived the Nazi era, and who now had additional reasons for suspecting and fearing non-Roma people.

Reforms were gradually and more or less furtively introduced in the individual countries, with one aim in mind, namely the assimilation of Roma and the destruction of their culture. This objective was never attained, despite the often strict implementation of the said measures.

Nevertheless, if we confine ourselves solely to housing quality, some of the collectivist measures clearly targeting a unified culture did benefit the Roma, among others.

Many Roma families were eligible for substantial allowances because their fertility rates were much higher than those of the majority populations. Many families at this time enjoyed unprecedented levels of comfort in terms of housing.

Thousands of Roma were employed in the new heavy industries and housed in impersonal blocks of flats alongside the rest of the working population. These blocks are now severely criticised for their general dilapidation, but at the time they represented a major step forward, providing Roma households with electricity and running water for the first time. However, collective apartment housing is far from the ideal for Roma, who prefer individual houses that are open to the outside world.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many Roma families, who were the main victims of the crisis in heavy industry and the resultant unemployment, had to part with their properties or stand by while their neighbourhoods gradually fell into disrepair. Many of them moved to distant peripheries on the rural/ urban border, where they met up with other Roma groups from the countryside who, fired with unrealistic hopes by the demise of communism, had come in search of fabulous wealth in the cities.

This dual movement has led to overcrowding in deprived, indeed severely impoverished peripheral areas, where Roma are now often in the majority as the non-Roma populations have moved out.

II. Current housing conditions for Roma in central and eastern Europe: an indictment

We have grouped together the different types of housing occupied by Roma in central and east European towns and cities into three major categories:

These categories of underprivileged situations are counterbalanced by groups of Roma with adequate housing conditions identical to those enjoyed by the majority populations. The families in question are usually cut off from the traditional isolated nuclear groups. They are scattered across the towns and cities in “non-Roma” areas. The Roma groups living in such areas have undergone social promotion to secure a similar lifestyle to that of the surrounding populations. The main problem they face is treading the line between integration and assimilation.

1) Peripheral housing area: small houses, ruins and shacks

Most Roma live in one-storey rural-type houses which lack amenities, many of them built with makeshift materials. Roma neighbourhoods in towns and cities are generally located along the edges of enormous estates which are in fact also somewhat gypsified”. Such deprived outskirts are monofunctionally residential. These areas have no contribution to make to local economic life and have few or no links with the key dynamic urban areas. These “neighbourhoods” break down into old settlement sites and more recent shantytowns.

The old sites: mahalas

The term mahala is used to differentiate the old Roma settlement sites from other peripheral “Roma neighbourhoods” which have grown up more recently. At first sight the two seem very similar, but there are frequently overlooked differences which are of cardinal importance to the resident populations.

The original meaning of mahala, a neighbourhood housing a specific activity under the Ottoman occupation, does not apply or no longer applies to the areas in question. These areas are a heritage of the Ottoman period, and are important because they house Roma groups that have been settled there for a very long time.

Some mahalas have been urbanised, losing their trade activities and becoming enclaves within the towns or cities. The houses have never been rehabilitated and have fallen into ruin. Squalor is everywhere, the streets are not surfaced and the slum housing lacks running water and electricity.
Conversely, those Roma communities which have kept up trading links with the rest of the urban area have just about managed to preserve decent housing quality. Apart from such adequate types of housing occupied by Roma individuals who are gainfully employed, demographic growth in situ, which is compounded by some Roma migration from the surrounding countryside, has forced inhabitants to build makeshift houses squeezed behind the original street-level housing.

This is the traditional developmental schema for an old Roma settlement site. New dwellings are often built illegally, which raises problems vis-à-vis prospective rehabilitation for such neighbourhoods because illegal buildings are used by the local authorities as an excuse for refusing to work on the sites.

Lastly, many of the old mahalas no longer occupy their original sites in the town or city. Roma were constantly pushed back by advancing urbanisation, moving to the outer urban limits and reconstructing makeshift hovels far from the beating heart of the city. These areas are always on the borderline between the urban and rural environments. This applies, for instance, to the Roma inhabitants of the Gringaşi district in Bucharest, who were moved to the Giuleşti neighbourhood at the beginning of the 20th century (the Giuleşti football club is still regarded as a Roma club to this day), before the latter itself became a pericentral area and had to be vacated by “undesirable” Roma populations, who ended up on the outskirts of the city around the tram terminus.

This is a typical example of the process whereby of the most deprived groups are gradually pushed out towards the margins of the urban area.

Recent urban outgrowths

The opening up of central and east European countries to the market economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall restored population mobility. Many Roma people were attracted by the new opportunities in the towns and cities. The shantytowns which had grown up between the two world wars and been more or less eliminated by the communist authorities began to revive.

All cities and towns of any size in Romania, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia now have at least one peripheral Roma shantytown. The Roma populations suffer from inadequate schooling and various types of discrimination, and are barred access to urban prosperity and employment. They are grouped together in isolated areas devoid of services and sanitation. Their houses are built of various flimsy, salvaged materials.

These inaccessible and little-known Roma shantytown “neighbourhoods” are gradually increasing in size. Few of them are ever involved in any rehabilitation or rehousing projects. Most of the relevant measures consist in “concealing” such areas, while basic inexpensive sanitation work never even reaches the drawing board.

2) Collective housing: increasing ghettoisation

Gradual deterioration since the fall of the Wall

After the collapse of communism, many Roma people took over whole blocks which had been deserted by workers after the decline of heavy industry.

The Roma takeover of vacated housing soon led to isolation and the withdrawal of services.

In many cases, the mere fact of a number of buildings being occupied by Roma is enough for the whole area to be called a “Roma neighbourhood”, whereas in fact these “100% Roma” areas are usually confined to a few blocks, as in the Smíchov district in Prague and the Ferentari neighbourhood in Bucharest. In these inappropriately named “Roma neighbourhoods”, there are only a small number of blocks forming Roma enclaves inside what is already an extremely poor area which comprises a wide range of different ethnic groups, in a haphazard process of lumping all the poorest population together in one place.

For example, there are two streets, Livezilor and Zabrauţi, in Ferentari, a large neighbourhood in the southern part of the Romanian capital, which have a number of extremely rundown blocks of flats. Some of them were abandoned by soldiers from a nearby barracks and others by workers from a local company, and their upper stories have been taken over by Roma families. All these Roma are unemployed, and they live in appalling slum conditions.

The staircases are in ruins and the basements awash with filthy water from the burst sewage pipes. Only the undersized flats themselves are looked after in any way by the families. Household waste is no longer collected. Refuse litters the ground and is burnt from time to time, infesting the whole area with toxic fumes.

Such collective housing ghettos are the extreme examples of poverty and exclusion on the part of Roma groups in European towns and cities.

3) Town and city centres: disregarded slums and media-hyped “palaces”

Slums and hovels in downtown areas

The concept of “Roma neighbourhood” invariably refers to peripheral zones with only very tenuous links to the rest of the urban area. However, Roma groups are also scattered throughout the town centres and suburbs.

The restructuring of town centres in eastern Europe is gradually eliminating the slums taken over by Roma families. However, the restructuring process varies in speed and efficiency depending on the town and country. While Prague and Budapest hide their Roma populations far away from the gaze of tourists, Bucharest and Sofia still have derelict buildings throughout across the urban area which are squatted in by Roma families.

Concealed behind the building facades, the interior courtyards reveal the presence of several families in the same building. Roma move into these old derelict buildings, many of which are in a dangerous state of dilapidation. They are overcrowded, with many different families living together in the same building. Unofficial connections to the municipal power lines create unsightly tangles of electric cables, but the families cannot tap into the water supplies in the same way.

When these buildings are renovated it is never for the benefit of the Roma families occupying them. They are evicted and left with no choice but to swell the population of the peripheral shantytowns.

It seems inevitable that in the medium to long term Roma families will disappear altogether from such premises as the towns and cities progress economically, although this process will obviously take longer in the less important medium-sized towns.

At all events, while it is obviously a reasonable endeavour to rehabilitate rundown housing, it is unacceptable to evict whole families without any rehousing programme.

Roma “palaces”: a cliché which raises fundamental questions

This is a very marginal phenomenon as compared with the situations we have described earlier, but wealthy Roma do have their own particular type of housing, which is interesting for our survey primarily because it shows that some Roma families refuse to give in to a collective unconscious which relegates Roma to the margins of cities and calmly accepts the conditions under which this minority is forced to live. It is worrying to note that after centuries of constraints, the majority populations still imagine that Roma families enjoy living in deprived marginal areas, which they see as their chosen lifestyle.

On the contrary, it is a lifestyle which many Roma only end up accepting under duress, with feelings of frustration and resignation, demonstrating just how difficult it will be to restore the identity and pride of most Roma.

This is why the installation in city centres of a type of housing peculiar to the cliché of slightly rich Roma families should be seen as a form of resistance rather than as a curio or even a spectacular, media-hyped feature of Roma life.

Although we might dwell on the demonstrative and sometimes provocative architectural style of these large urban and rural “pagodas”, but the main point about this phenomenon is that it challenges the representation of the place of Roma in the town and country environment.

What type of housing and what place should Roma occupy in the urban environment? This is the question raised by a small number of Roma families, who are in fact a minority within the minority.

III. Improving housing conditions for Roma in Europe: the challenge

Ignorance and indifference deleterious to the Roma population

Roma in Europe suffer from widespread ignorance of their living conditions on the part of the majority populations. The latter have relegated Roma to a situation of isolation, fear and frustration, and are fond of accusing them of preserving Gypsy “mysteries” and actually marginalising themselves. In fact, many Roma groups do now have a reclusive attitude, inherited from the past and intensified by fear of the gadjo. If Roma are ever to properly integrate, this fear must be dispelled by changing attitudes and combating the systematic rejection of this minority. Some Roma individuals must also change their outlook if their demands are to be seen as legitimate.

On top of this first type of ignorance, which affects all European Roma, there is a second kind which concerns urban life and housing, namely lack of knowledge of the areas in which Roma people live.

As stated above, for all the social levelling and widespread insecurity in the peripheral Roma neighbourhoods, there are essential differences between them which must be taken into account.

More often than not, the general public, but especially the municipal authorities, are ignorant of the internal divisions in what they call the “Roma part of town”. Any urban development initiative in such areas must take account, for instance, of the huge differences in housing quality between an old mahala and a new peripheral ghetto built ten or so years ago. Similarly, the ghetto inhabitants will have little real attachment to their area, whereas the population of a mahala, as an historically settled Roma group, will have very strong ties. Such attachment is sometimes surprising, reinforcing the prejudiced view that Roma are quite happy in their neighbourhoods.

The first solution is therefore to show real interest in the Roma population and the area in which they live, rather than a type of interest that is hamstrung by governmental or European requirements; otherwise it will be difficult to instigate appropriate action on a little-known environment.

Complying with recommendations: from paper to reality

Minimum housing quality must be guaranteed in accordance with the UN Habitat II Programme, which stipulates that “Adequate shelter (must comprise) … adequate space, (…) adequate lighting, heating and ventilation; (and) adequate basic infrastructure, such as water-supply, sanitation and waste-management facilities (…)”. Such recommendations are still being completely ignored at the local level.

The fact that the problems are being disregarded in this way at the local level is forcing the main European authorities to press for improvements in the living conditions of Roma populations.

The problem is greatly intensified and complicated by the fact that there are so many different kinds of insecure Roma areas. We are not talking about just a few large districts in major capitals: it is a case of identifying the huge number of extremely poor slum-ridden “Roma areas” unknown to the international authorities, which are therefore in no position to exert sufficient pressure on the relevant local authorities. The principle of “housing for all” is clearly more honoured in the breach than the observance.

A change of attitude is needed because there is still a great deal of anti-Roma feeling in Europe. The first step in countering the spatial exclusion of the Roma is to secure social progress in this field.

Reinforcing local public policies, promoting access to house ownership and considering the public sector as an ally rather than an antagonist

Local public policies have a vital role to play in improving quality of life for the Roma populations. However, local authorities in central and eastern Europe are taking very little action to help these populations.

Local authorities must recruit specially trained staff to work in the social field and the various town planning sectors. This necessitates substantial resources for the departments employing them and a new approach to the distribution of powers and activities, given that the systems are often antiquated, although there are major variations from one State to another.

Access by Roma to house ownership in very deprived areas is a major issue in improving their housing conditions. Leaving dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individuals to their own devices in lawless areas is damaging to the local populations on two counts: not only does such a situation deter the authorities from implementing lawful action in the area, but also, and above all, the local population is exposed to the risk of blanket evictions at the first hint of a major private project likely to have enticing financial repercussions. With the current opening up of markets, the authorities will always prefer installing a major company or a large commercial venture in a Roma residential area to rehabilitating the site.

The international authorities and local associations are energetically lobbying for Roma access to house ownership in such areas. The growing role of Roma NGOs in central and eastern Europe is a sure sign that the Roma are now taking charge of their own problems. However, despite the pressure, many municipalities are turning a deaf ear because they can use the illegality of Roma occupancy of a given area as an excuse not to redevelop it.

This vicious circle must be broken by means of new public policies, and also by taking advantage of private investment funds with a view to judicious urbanisation.

In most central and east European countries, a spatial development policy is needed in addition to the relevant recommendations, concentrating on the housing conditions and locations of the most deprived populations.

Remedying the absence of town planning strategies for Roma neighbourhoods and promoting the implementation of genuine spatial planning policies

In most central and east European countries, a spatial development policy is needed in addition to the various recommendations, concentrating on the housing conditions and locations of the most deprived populations.

We might just summarise the reasons for the authorities’ failure to improve housing for Roma populations:

First of all, there is the preconception solidly anchored in people’s minds that the Roma are quite happy with their living environments and that “that is just the way they live”. This idea is due to the historical marginalisation of the Roma population vis-à-vis the majority populations.

Secondly, we should remember that squatting deters the authorities from conducting rehabilitation work. Over time, such illegal situations have become a cast-iron excuse for abandoning whole urban areas to Roma populations.

Lastly, priority is currently being given to investment by private companies which are granted generous official subsidies, usurping municipal urban development plans which are deemed too expensive. These private companies can thus change the urban environment as they wish, with scant regard for local social concerns.

The stark fact is that nothing will change unless the authorities act to earmark special funds for improving housing in the Roma areas.

A debate is required on the redevelopment of Roma areas in cities in order to improve the living conditions of Roma at the local level. Town planning and development do not necessarily involve demolition and total transformation. The local people’s living environment and lifestyle must be analysed before any action is decided on.

In the light of the disastrous situation in many towns and cities, priority should be given to such operations as road surfacing, installing water supplies, introducing road safety measures and constructing playgrounds and parks. But there is such opposition to change that these development operations must be incorporated into specific national development programmes. Technicians and developers should be trained and recruited to liaise between the authorities and the contractors. This intermediate professional level is desperately lacking in central European countries.

It is also certain that social insecurity will continue until Roma persons are given access to some form of social advancement. This is why such major issues as schooling, employment and housing are of the essence in this field.

Social housing: a possible rather than a compulsory solution

Social housing policy is still inchoate in some east Europe countries. After the collapse of communism, the local authorities inherited a huge social housing stock, the management of which they rapidly assigned to private promoters. In Romania, for instance, only under 2% of the housing stock is currently in public ownership. Such insecure groups as young people, the unemployed and the Roma communities have no access to housing. The older generations have preserved the rights which they acquired under communism, but only the minority that has managed to integrate into the capitalist system now has access to sales mechanisms to renew their property.

The question of housing for all is of the essence here, drawing primarily on the UN Resolution. While access to ownership is the main priority for the Roma community, social housing might well prove an alternative solution in eastern Europe.

The conditions for implementing such a social housing policy still need to be defined, because if underprivileged Roma populations express interest in such housing, special regulations should be introducing governing their access to it.

Similarly, regard must once again be had to these people’s living environments and lifestyles. Social housing cannot be considered “the” solution. Local realities must be taken into account. Attempts to rehouse residents of an old mahala in a collective housing estate will be pointless, even if housing conditions are much better there.

Not all Roma households are necessarily against this kind of housing, and it would appear that if a social housing policy is introduced it should be applicable to the whole population, without discrimination or special arrangements for Roma.

The need for a specific policy for Roma living environments respecting their lifestyle would seem more urgent, and such a policy would probably be more effective, provided there is an express determination to implement it.

There is a huge amount of work still awaiting us in the area of improving Roma housing conditions. Progress is very slow in all fields, and the overall situation of Roma in Europe can scarcely be said to be improving. This makes the need for real action to ensure the implementation and harmonisation of national policies, including those for housing, even more imperative. Let’s be able to look back in ten years’ time at concrete achievements and be satisfied with the significant progress made in housing and all areas concerning Roma.

Main bibliography

Agenda 2000, Views and evaluations of the situation of Roma, European Commission

DELEPINE, S. (2003), Espaces Tsiganes et villes roumaines, PhD Thesis, Angers

MG-S-ROM (99) 1, MACURA, M., “Housing, urban planning and poverty: problems faced by Roma communities with particular reference to central and eastern Europe”, Council of Europe

MG-S-ROM (2000) 3, “Memorandum on problems facing Roma in the field of housing”, Council of Europe

REYNIERS, A., (1998), Tsigane, heureux si tu es libre!, Paris, UNESCO.

1 Mahala is a word of Turkish origin designating areas of towns housing specific activities, mainly of a craft or commercial nature. In eastern Europe the word mahala is used for areas where Roma used to be confined to exercise specific crafts or trades.