Where days are numbered

I had the unique opportunity to take part in a field visit for Amnesty International Hungary when they visited the ‘Numbered Streets’, a so-called slum in Miskolc. Miskolc is a large city in northeastern Hungary housing approximately 170,000 residents. The city was particularly influential in the Soviet era, when many factories and mines were located in its vicinity. Tens of thousands of industrial workers once lived there, many of Roma origin. Since then, however, the place appears to have been forgotten, abandoned during the great restructuring of Eastern European political economies 25 years ago. As economic crisis and the collapse of the Soviet regime struck Hungary, the majority of workplaces disappeared, leaving thousands of people unemployed and in poverty.

The ‘Numbered Streets’ was a typical working-class neighborhood. The social housing provided in the area was bounded by factories, cooperatives and a stadium. Now the boundaries remain, but only the stadium functions. The current Hungarian government is planning to modernize the stadium as a part of an ambitious, country-wide building programme. Moreover, the stadium is set to expand with plans for the construction of a spacious parking lot – just where the ‘Numbered Streets’ are located.

Now, here comes the riddle. How do you clear a neighborhood that continues to house more than 1000 people?

The municipality has a very detailed plan which includes the elimination of all legal obligations for the city and a marketing campaign intended to convince the residents of Miskolc to outlaw the ‘Numbered Streets’.

In May, the municipality introduced an amendment to a decree, allowing for the forced eviction of people in certain circumstances. They developed a plan to pay insignificant compensation (up to a maximum of £3,800) to residents of the ‘Numbered Streets’ who have valid tenancy agreements if, and only if, they move outside the boundaries of Miskolc.

So far it only seems illegal, but not entirely scandalous. However, there is another condition of the neighborhood that the municipality is aware of and exploits. There are three types of tenants in the ‘Numbered Streets’. Out of approximately 200 families, 60-70 do not have any legal documents for their tenancy, despite paying rent every month; the tenancy agreements of 60-70 families will terminate in the near future; and only 60-70 families have indefinite or longer-term tenancy agreements, which the municipality is now trying to end. The long-term contracts of some families can be terminated due to debt problems, so only a few families remain out of 200 who are eligible for compensation in the event of eviction.

The municipality has also started a campaign to discredit the residents of the ‘Numbered Streets’. Presenting the slum as a hub of criminal activity and unhygienic living, they have collected signatures in the form of a petition that asks the weighted question “do you want to deconstruct the slums or not?”. 35,000 people, around one fifth of the residents of the city, have signed the petition, a figure which is used by the municipality to demonstrate widespread support for clearing of the ‘Numbered Streets’.

I do think that there were people who signed the petition because they believed in the destruction of the “Gypsy slum”. In the ‘Numbered Streets’ the majority of the families are of Roma origin. In general in Hungary, and especially in Miskolc, where work opportunities are limited, and unemployment and extreme poverty are high, there exists visible tension between Roma and non-Roma Hungarians. Discrimination is a proven reality; it is much harder to find a job or enjoy the opportunities provided in the country if one has the dark complexion of a Roma.

Fear is normal. Everyone is afraid of the “Other”, especially if the media and cruel rumors propagate unrealistic and false images. I myself was a little scared to go to the so-called “gypsy slum”. I considered whether or not to bring my expensive camera. I was not sure if I was ready to experience the “kind of poverty” that exists in the environment. I was training myself for days to remain open and accept everything I would see, convinced that I should not lose my tolerance.

I could not have been more wrong. The “slum” is really just a modest, and at times, poor neighborhood. The houses are often old, but they are colorful. Running water is available for some families; others bring it from water pumps at the end of their streets. The sewage system is not fully developed, but there are modern parts of the capital city in which this remains an issue. There is no garbage on the streets, and there are satellite dishes on nearly every house. The gardens are somewhat modest in size, but many of them are properly cultivated.

There are kids, teenagers and women chatting, walking, playing and riding bicycles. Together, as friends and family, in a big community. Roma and non-Roma people together. I did not perceive the slightest bit of violence or filth. The pictures speak for themselves.

Is this the “slum” which must be destroyed?

Forced evictions have already begun. Among the first was a mother with small children and a disabled woman. The next one was an unemployed man and his family. He could not pay the rent because he had to pay for the funeral of his wife.

Evictions are most likely to stop now for some time, since municipal elections are held in October, and there is a moratorium on evictions during the colder months. But as lawyers of the residents have suggested, the full force of mass evictions is likely to continue in spring.

Of course many people and organizations continue to fight the evictions. Locals, opposition parties, leading Hungarian NGOs such as Amnesty International Hungary or the HCLU (Human Civil Liberties Union) have raised their voices against this form of social injustice, however so far their efforts have not proven fruitful.

Social housing does not only mean that the landlord is the municipality. Social housing is provided for people who are underprivileged and need help in providing acceptable accommodation for themselves and their families.

People have the fundamental human right to adequate housing. The municipality should think about integration rather than discrimination. This is not just a law, but a moral obligation.

Also featured on the Amnesty International Hungary website (Hungarian only)

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