Housing Policy in Serbia – From Privatization to Eviction

Photo: Matija Jovanović

Evictions are an increasing threat to indebted citizens of Serbia. Thus they are marking the final phase of the transformation strategy which led to the privatization of Serbian housing fund.

Evictions are becoming ever more frequent in Serbia. Desperate people are taken away from their homes by the police, screaming.

From the state’s perspective, evictions are justified, since they represent the rule of law. However, this formal view obscures the fact that the law itself had previously been formulated at the expense of society’s most vulnerable members.

Evictions are, in fact, the final consequence of the transformation of the law and practice in the field of housing which has been ongoing in Serbia for a few decades. We can trace it from the 1992 Law on Housing to the newest Law on Housing, Building Maintenance and Social Housing, enacted at the end of 2016. While the former led to the privatization of almost the entire housing fund in Serbia, the latter made evictions practically the primary means in resolving different legal real estate issues.

In the beginning of the nineties, similar to other post-socialist states, Serbia adopted the strategy of transformation of legislation and ownership structure, based on the model implemented a decade earlier in one of the cradles of neoliberalism, Great Britain.1 Skepticism of social sciences and economists, knowledgeable about the countries of real socialism, as well as early empirical evidence on social and economic shortcomings of the chosen course, was overshadowed by the demands from the World Bank, IMF and numerous agencies to reject all forms of socialism and adopt capitalism “wrought in the image of Reagan and Thatcher, Hayek and Friedman”.2

Proponents of the open market approach to housing claimed that it would help resolve the housing problem of social groups thus far ignored by the inflexible and massive bureaucratic machinery of the redistributive socialist system. However, this approach brought large financial losses for the state in Great Britain itself, while causing socio-spatial stratification and segregation.3 In Serbia it also caused worsening of the housing situation. After two long successive recessions (nineties’ and current), deindustrialization, rise of unemployment, drastic impoverishment and destruction of the social state, a large percentage of the population became vulnerable with regard to housing – and potentially prone to prosecution.

EUROSTAT concluded that the residents of Serbia, along with Bulgarian, Macedonian and Romanian, are most burdened with housing costs in Europe. Around 17% of the population is affected by severe housing deprivation, while 40-50% live in overcrowded households (60-70% of the extremely poor). The number of single family households has halved, while multifamilies’ has doubled, when compared to early seventies. This fact reveals the underlying deprivation which forces multiple families to combine resources and live jointly.4 Along with emigration, this survival strategy of relying on familial “safety networks” hides the number of citizens who would be homeless if they were on their own.

The severe housing crisis has been accompanied by evictions for years. Numerous workers who have been using temporary housing for decades without realizing the right to housing fell into the gap between socialist and capitalist legislation. The privatization of their companies placed them in direct threat of evictions. For example, around a hundred of workers’ families from company “Trudbenik” are fearing their destiny in such a situation.

According to the report from the European action coalition for the right to housing and to the city, around 3,000 Roma were evicted from informal settlements in Serbia between 2009 and 2013, mainly for the purpose of “urban regeneration”.

Simultaneously, „at least a hundred families living in Belgrade social housing are facing forced eviction due to arrears of rent and utility bills, while there is a newly introduced tax on social housing and housing provided for refugees and internally displaced persons“, which made the life of these people unbearable.5 Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council warned in earlier reports about the too frequent forcible evictions, and the fact that evictions are not followed by legal assistance, compensation or alternative accommodations.6

The new Law on Housing, Building Maintenance and Social Housing only made the situation worse. When it was recently enacted in December of 2016, the media focused on the part related to building maintenance which (rightly) unsettled the largest affected group – homeowners. What escaped public attention was the fact that this law is more harmful for vulnerable groups – those at risk of eviction, and those in need of social housing. As the Special Rapporteur warned, the new law almost advocates evictions skipping any compromises that could be made prior to taking draconian measures.

This contentious law is thus very similar to the laws already imposed by the Troika on other high-debt economies, such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Such a setting globally fits the interests of “predatory” companies like Blackstone, Goldman Sachs and MIPIM, “large players” which profit from buying and reselling real estate after evictions, and whose greed provoked activists to designate a World day of the struggle against Blackstone and MIPIM.7

In the local context, beside the banks’ interest it is clear that private executors profit from it. Although the Law on Execution and Security was changed in 2015 so that its deficiencies could be addressed, executors and political structures in public companies still have plenty of space for different machinations.

The IMF and similar institutions are completing the task begun in the eighties by the privatization of housing through extorting complete liberalization of the real estate market and intensifying eviction measures from highly indebted states for the profit of international predators. According to many experts’ opinion, the destruction of public and social housing funds, as an alternative to credit indebtedness for purchases, contributed to creating conditions for limitless speculations in national housing markets, which “detonated the global financial crisis of 2008”, as Hodkinson writes, and which eventually led the population into poverty and the risk of losing the roof over their heads. The pressure from international financial institutions, along with the collaboration of national comprador political elites, is recognized as unjust and monstrous in the ever-increasing number of countries facing the issue of forcible evictions.

Movements which resist evictions, laws and application of economic instruments which lead to them are growing in an increasing number of countries. The most visible movement is the Spanish PAH, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages. “PAH has stopped more than 2,045 evictions, housed over 2,500 families” and positively affected legal modifications.8 We need to keep this example from Spain on our mind here in Serbia, as well as other horizontal linking between similar organizations internationally, since with more evictions we can also expect the growth of the anti-eviction movement.

We need to be aware that the people who are at risk of evictions are neither irresponsible subversive elements nor social waste. Transformation of the state and labor market made them helpless, they are pushed into the “gap” of systemic transitional changes or they lost step with the inhumanely increasing housing mortgages. What we see as hopeful in the country where the majority (aside from a very small minority of financial elites) can only be described as vulnerable and more vulnerable, is that at least a number of vulnerable ones recognized the need for solidarity with those directly endangered, clearly differentiating between law and justice at the time of a capitalist crisis.

Translation from Serbian: Nenad Porobić

 

  1. Lux, Martin (2016) „Public Housing in the Post-Socialist States of Central and Eastern Europe: Decline and an Open Future“, Conference proceedings ETH Forum Wohnungsbau
  2. As Michael Harloe wrote in 1996, in one of the most influential studies of the urban transformation in transition: Andrusz, Gregory; Harloe, Michael; Szelenyi, Ivan (eds.) (1996) Cities after Socialism, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 5
  3. Vesić, Darko; Baković Jadžić, Miloš; Vukša, Tanja; Simović, Vladimir (2012) In the struggle for the commons: analysis, strategies and perspectives, Beograd: Center for Politics of Emancipation.
  4. Milić, Anđelka (2004) „Transformation of family and households – Stoppage and Strategies of Survival”, in: Social strategy and transformation of social groups, ed. Milić, Anđelka, Belgrade: ISIFF, p. 324
  5. European action coalition for the right to housing and to the city (2013) Resisting evictions across Europe, p. 50.
  6. Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context on her mission to Serbia and Kosovo*** (2015), Human Rights Council, Thirty-first session, Agenda item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.
  7. International real estate exhibition where large investors obtain information on locations good for investment.
  8. Europe action coalition for the right to housing and to the city (2013) Resisting evictions across Europe, p.73
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