Since 2019, the Romanian municipality of Re?i?a has been adopting a new approach to housing its Roma community, moving them away from run-down neighbourhoods and ensuring public housing responds to their needs.
Roma represent the largest ethnic minority in Europe and often live in precarious housing conditions. According to the European Roma Grassroots Organisations (ERGO) Network, 78% of European Roma live in overcrowded households, while 32% live in housing with a leaking roof or damp walls.
To address the issue, many European cities have implemented housing programmes for Roma mainly aimed at reducing anti-Roma sentiments and lowering the prices for land and housing. For instance, in Raslavice, Slovakia, public land is sold at very cheap prices to make it more accessible to Roma families, who are also entitled to legalise the houses where they live if they lack legal ownership.
The municipality of Re?i?a, in Western Romania, has adopted a different strategy, in an effort to address the general housing problem while also looking at each family’s individual needs.
Some 150 Roma families from the 60,000-strong population have been relocated from precarious conditions in the Mociur neighbourhood to apartments across the city, taking into account their extended family composition, jobs, and other needs.
“We started to analyse every family to understand how they live, what their job is, their relations with neighbours, how many children they have and we made a profile,” explained Lidia Cosmina Rosian, social worker and manager of the city’s social department in Re?i?a.
Many of the 1,000 Roma people residing in Re?i?a were living in a block that badly needed renovations and could not continue to host all the families. As such, the municipality made the decision to spread them in public housing across the city.
Apart from the family composition, the municipality also verified if the families owned furniture and basic items, such as towels, before relocating them to new public houses, and provided them with these items if they did not.
“We discussed with the families, trying to find what was the best for them,” Rosian told EURACTIV, adding that community involvement was central to the city’s housing programme.
One in two Roma people live in a household that struggles to cover expenses, such as adequate heating, rent and utility bills, according to a 2021 Fundamental Rights Agency survey of Romania and nine other European countries.
Of the 150 families included in the scheme, only five now struggle with paying the bills, which, according to the Roma advocacy NGO Nevo Parudimos, is a very good result.
“At the beginning, people didn’t trust us, but we constantly had meetings [to build a relationship],” Rosian said, pointing at trust-building as a key element of the strategy.
Local NGOs were crucial in building trust between the community and city administration, according to the social worker.
“We have good partners,” Rosian said, pointing at the local NGOs working on the ground. “They work in the area, they know people from the area, and they were there and tried to convince them that we had good intentions.”
One of these organisations, Nevo Parudimos, founded a social enterprise involved in construction and renovation. The enterprise managed to both improve the conditions of public houses for Roma and give a job to some of the community members who needed to be employed to access social housing.
“We managed to develop a partnership [with the municipality] which is not just about projects and activities, it’s about the community itself,” the NGO’s project manager, Daniel Grebeldinger, told EURACTIV, defining the relationship with the municipality as “fair”.
“Even if we don’t agree, we continue to support each other,” he said, adding that this partnership created an “ecosystem” in the city where everybody is helping out if needed.
At the same time, he said that political will is vital, as civil society organisations cannot create meaningful impact alone.
“It’s the state’s duty to ensure quality life for the people in the city,” he said.
Work in progress
In his view, the lack of political commitment can compromise well-funded housing programmes in many local governments. Similarly, the lack of community involvement can undermine efforts to integrate Roma families into these programmes.
According to Grebeldinger, Re?i?a’s housing strategy is one of the best examples in Europe as it not only offers a house but also helps maintain it.
“Paying the utilities, that’s the struggle,” he explained, pointing at the need for stable income for the families.
The municipality also continues to monitor the families and their needs, providing support and flexibility to those struggling with payments.
“We are always in contact, it’s a continuous work. And if they lose their job, they know they find a partner in us,” Rosian said.
Meanwhile, the municipality is currently renovating one of the buildings in the neighbourhood where the families used to live. The aim is to provide apartments for those Roma families who agreed to move back there once the works are completed and temporarily relocated elsewhere.
The housing strategy in Re?i?a is also attracting other Romanian authorities to the city in an effort to understand and eventually replicate the model.
[Edited by Alice Taylor/Nathalie Weatherald]
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