Bulgaria needs a real housing policy 

A snapshot of the state of the housing problem in Bulgaria – with statistics, data on European projects, social housing, social services for the homeless and civil society organizations supporting the homeless – was made by the association “Doctors of the World” with the report “Home for Everyone: Mission (Im)Possible?”

Social inequalities in Bulgaria are at the highest levels in the EU (source: Pixabay, CC0)

A snapshot of the state of the housing problem in Bulgaria – with statistics, data on European projects, social housing, social services for the homeless and civil society organizations supporting the homeless – was made by the association “Doctors of the World” with the report “Home for Everyone: Mission (Im)Possible?”

Vladimir Mitev

This article was published on 26 March 2022 at the Bulgarian section of the site ”The Barricade”.

Bulgaria is the only country in the EU that does not have a right to housing and right to town movement. However, this does not mean that the housing problem of Bulgarians is solved. At least 2.5 million Bulgarian citizens live in poor housing conditions and overcrowding. Among them are representatives of all ethnic groups in Bulgaria: 65% of all Roma, 45% of all Turks and 30% of all Bulgarians – living in dwellings with less than 15 square meters per occupant. These are part of the data in the report “Home for everyone: mission (im)possible?”, which was presented at a press conference in BTA on Friday, March 25.

The report is a publication of the Médecins du Monde association, funded by the Fondation Abbé Pierre. It is remarkable for its in-depth factual presentation of the main ‘housing policies’ (or rather the lack of them) over the last 30 years, its knowledge of the civil society organisations dealing with housing issues and the drama of underprivileged people who have dropped out of the public race after losing their housing. 

There is a housing problem

The authors of the report, Stefan Krastev and Rositsa Kratunkova, first review basic statistics on housing in Bulgaria. They state that the housing problem in Bulgaria is widespread – it affects all ethnic groups and is not limited to Roma housing. In 2019, 41.1% of Bulgarian citizens lived in overcrowded housing – one of the highest rates in the EU. 32.1% of Bulgarians were at risk of social exclusion in 2020 (22% EU average). 44.8% of Bulgarians living in rented accommodation are burdened by excessive housing costs, while for homeowners, whether they have a mortgage or not, this percentage is 25.3%. In 2019, 30.1% of Bulgarians had problems heating their home, against an EU average of 6.9%. 

These are just some of the many parameters revealing the housing problem in Bulgaria.  In many Western European countries, social housing is an important element of housing and social policy, but in Bulgaria the trend is the opposite, the report points out:

“As of 2015, there were only 92,560 council dwellings (2.4%), of which 83,429 were concentrated almost entirely in large cities. More than half of these dwellings serve municipal employees or are state-owned and do not serve a social function. Moreover, the amount of this stock is steadily decreasing (in 2001 there were 109 853 such dwellings) and there is no guaranteed source of funding for new construction. The Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works does not have data on the total number of municipal housing in Bulgaria. According to data cited in a World Bank report, 33% of Bulgarian municipalities (i.e. 87 out of 256) do not maintain municipal housing.”

State policy

As part of the EU, Bulgaria can use EU funds to develop social policy. The country has announced similar intentions, for example with regard to the Europe 2020 programme, which also has social indicators. However, the results of a number of programmes have been unsatisfactory. The report finds that the national housing strategy (2004-2017) ‘shifts the active role in housing policy to municipalities and differentiates between the needs of Roma and non-Roma populations, thereby ethnicising the housing issue and further stigmatising Roma’. Regarding the National Programme for the Improvement of Housing Conditions of Roma in the Republic of Bulgaria (2005-2015), the report notes that “the implementation of the programme came to an abrupt halt in 2009, when the government set new housing policies, not so much to address the problems identified so far, but to respond to EU priorities”.

Since EU accession, the country has relied heavily on EU funds to finance housing policy, primarily for the construction of social housing. The funds allocated are not only insufficient, but also not a priority for the local authorities responsible for implementing the projects. 

Stigma over the poor and ethnicisation of the housing problem

Other problems are also emerging. The report recalls that in Burgas attempts to build housing for socially deprived citizens led to resistance from nationalist organisations that ‘Roma ghettos’ were being built with ‘European money’. So the activity in Burgas is dropped, but when the municipality of Varna is invited to replace Burgas, the same thing happens there.

It is worth drawing parallels with the Romanian right to the city movement, which does not shy away from defending the rights of Roma. In Cluj Napoca, for example, the movement took shape after a forced eviction that sent Roma families to live next to the town’s landfill. Local activists already have considerable experience in protests, petitions, lawsuits, and using the opportunities provided by the city council. They are also involved in writing documents about housing policy in Romania that end up on the websites of UN organizations or Western foundations. 

In cities such as Cluj Napoca and Timisoara, rents have been high for years, leading to a demand that seems fantastic in Bulgarian terms – for rent control and a price cap. The report “A home for all: mission (im)possible?” also deals with rents and raises the issue of property prices and excessive housing costs. However, the main problem in Bulgaria is the lack of data. 

Housing policy

The study paints a picture of the housing policy mechanisms in Bulgaria, namely the situation with council housing and temporary accommodation centres. Both levers are managed by the municipalities, for whom this is more of a cost than a concern for people’s needs. The municipal housing inherited from socialism is declining sharply as it is sold rather than renovated. The state does not support local authorities financially in any way. In turn, the lack of housing is turning temporary accommodation centres into long-stay centres, where people stay far beyond the 3 months originally envisaged. There are only 13 such centres in the whole country and there is no accurate data on people on the streets or in housing need. 

The report finds:

“Reality shows that municipalities often lack the capacity and financial resources to comprehensively study the needs of their populations and to collect information and data on which to base their policies. In most cases, municipalities have taken a passive role and, as a result, have made few requests for new services over the past few years. Between 2004 and 2021, only one new temporary accommodation centre was opened in the country.”

Housing policy should include mechanisms not only to help the homeless but also those renting or buying property on the open market. Since 2015, the price of housing in Bulgaria has risen by a staggering 50%, turning it into a luxury commodity rather than a necessity. Even in one of Sofia’s cheapest areas like Lyulin, residents are forced to set aside over 60% of their income for housing needs, well above the 40% threshold at which Eurostat says a household experiences excessive housing costs. 

At the same time, the number of council housing in the capital is falling sharply: from 120,000 in 1993 to less than 9,000 in 2021. There are over 10,287 people on council housing waiting lists for whom there are no available flats. 

There are, however, several civil society organisations in Bulgaria that show commitment to the problems of vulnerable people: the Pink House Day Care Centre, Habitat Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Caritas Mobile Care for the Homeless, Food Not War, ATD Fourth World – Together for a Life of Dignity.

Here is what the Pink House has to share:

“One of the beneficiaries is a boy who lives in a car. He contracted HIV from a dirty needle and is on methadone treatment. He suffers from depression and needs very serious psychiatric care. An acquaintance gives him the key to his abandoned car and lets him live in it. He has nowhere else to go. 

Some of the Pink House beneficiaries even commit petty crimes to get into jail and have a safe place to stay during the winter. 

“Nobody wants to go to jail, for sure. Yet I know people who commit crimes to get them in. I know 2-3 people who do it in an organized way. It’s easy: you break a window or steal a car radio, get arrested for theft, then make a quick plea deal with the prosecutor. They spend 6 months in jail and then get out. It’s some hell.”

The situation in the other case examined in the report, that of Sliven, is similar. In the last 10 years, the municipality has sold over 168 dwellings and built only 9. Only 92 people have been registered due to the complicated procedure and the lack of available housing. Over 85% of the housing in the city was built before 1990. There is also no temporary accommodation centre, and one will eventually open in 2023. There is also no supervised housing for the over 18s in the family-type centres. The Directorate of Social Assistance says that a boy was offered accommodation in a home in Bratsigovo, 176 km from Sliven, which he refused and started sleeping in the entrances to the town. 

What to do?

The report concludes with a call for a new national housing strategy that: 

  • put the right to housing and adequate urban development at the centre of public policies, with special attention to physical and mental health; 
  • create a national housing fund to finance councils to build social housing, and to help homeowners renovate their homes and make them energy efficient; 
  • ensure an increasing percentage of council housing is used for social purposes only and cannot be sold; 
  • ensure that the right to use council housing for an unlimited period of time is a strategic objective in the development of council housing policies (research clearly shows that, contrary to the claims of the current regulations, setting restrictive time limits does not lead to greater motivation for users to ‘take matters into their own hands’, but exposes them to even greater insecurity); 
  • ensure that the social housing system is open to all people in need within the municipality and does not discriminate on the basis of address or origin; 
  • create a monitoring institution collecting and analysing data on the state of housing assets and needs.

Vasil’s story

Vasil, 48, has been homeless for five years after his father fell victim to property fraud by relatives. Vasil has no income, but before that he has always worked as a construction worker and even in the cinema as an extra. Since 2019 he has psoriasis and a hernia, which is now very painful. He has no health insurance and cannot have surgery. He has not applied for council housing because he has a lot of paperwork to put together, has no income and cannot afford to pay the bills, especially if it is central heating. 

“I started sleeping in entrances, in basements, on construction sites, on benches. And the winter was a horror. 2016 was -20 degrees. I slept in a 24-hour establishment. People there felt sorry for me, they gave me 2-3 BGN. And what to do, I’ll get alcohol and something to eat. For two years I ate only sausages and bread, I did not know what soup was cooked, not to mention vegetables, fruits. I didn’t even have salt. 

I don’t drink now, I used to get very drunk. When you drink, at least you don’t feel yourself freezing. You think you’re getting warm, but you’re actually freezing. I use chemical public toilets, and I used to go to a friend’s for a shower once a week for the first year. 

I asked social services for some support. Something tragic had to happen for them to give me the one-off. 2019 they finally gave me 200 lv. 

I haven’t spent much time in crisis or respite centres. The people there are like slaves, some get beaten up, they steal your belongings. Power decides. Once they stole my shoes and tried to sell them for 20 lv. They stole a lot of my phones. I must have lost about 40-50 of them. I fell asleep on the tram and someone groped me. In winter, to keep from freezing, you walk all night and when you see the first bus, you get on and fall asleep. And at the last stop, the driver yells, “Last stop, come on, get up, hotel’s over!” 

Most nights you just walk without direction. Do you know what directionless is? Last year when the first closure happened because of COVID-19, they stopped handing out food. I hadn’t eaten in 20 days, it was just water and sugar. There were no people on the streets, no one everywhere you looked. I went to a church, they were giving food, somebody a lev. They made the connection with Food Not War. 

At that time I was sleeping on some stairs to a basement out in the cold. Since January 13, 2021, I have been living in this unofficial shelter. I have to leave it in April. I have an ID card, this is my sixth, they just steal them. My current one was broken by a policeman on the tram when there was scrutiny. I didn’t have any money and he said, “Come on, get out of here and get that card fixed.” 

I want to be able to make it easier. Not to be given handouts, but to be told that if I take 100 steps I’ll get something better, that I’ll have the opportunity to develop, to move on. But without housing, where are you?”

Homeless and precarious people are easy prey. The thugs paid Vasil 200 BGN to register a company in his name to commit VAT fraud for thousands of BGN. Vasil tried to hide in a monastery to avoid creating an electronic signature that would have allowed the thugs to do much more. They eventually found him and kidnapped him for a few days. Today, the National Revenue Agency is looking to collect its claims and is hunting down Vasil, who believes the thugs want to kill him and cover all leads.

Photo: A lot of the housing in the country in Bulgaria was constructed before 1990 (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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