The Right to Housing: A Roma Settlement Will Carry On

The story of the fight to preserve a spontaneously-built Roma settlement in the city of Chudovo, Novgorod Region, has continued for more than a year. But now, at last, it seems that the light at the end of the tunnel has finally appeared: in the beginning of December 2008, a public hearing was held in Chudovo on the project for the planning of the territory on which Roma live. The local authorities had long threatened to destroy the Roma settlement, and several homes were already demolished last year, but now, it seems, the Chudovo authorities are ready to compromise with the Roma, and they are even promising to preserve most of the homes.

The following parties took part in the hearing, which was held in the assembly hall of the Administration of Chudovo: the deputy head of the Chudovo city settlement, S. M. Shutkin; the head of the department for the management of municipal land in the Chudovo area, L. V. Sakharova; the head of the department of architecture and city construction of the Chudovo city settlement, E. V. Kovaleva; the head of the department for city services of the Chudovo city settlement, S. A. Egorova; the head architect for the project run by the public company “Insitute Novgorodgrazhdanproekt,” M. V. Varlamova. Representatives of the Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” came from St. Petersburg: the head of the program, Stephania Kulaeva; the lawyers Marina Nosova and Marina Arefieva; as well as the lawyer Aleksey Tsarev, who helps the Roma settlement defend its interests. And the most important participants of the hearing were, of course, Roma themselves from the settlement.

The hearing strictly followed a pre-determined protocol. First, representatives of the Chudovo administration gave a report on the work that had already been completed, after which E. V. Kovaleva discussed how the local administration has, for many years, been working out a system of steps to maintain order in the areas where Roma compact settlements are located and has also frequently warned members of the Roma community of the unacceptability of any unauthorized building.

Ms. Kovaleva’s statement took only a few minutes, but behind this brief, dry account stands the Roma settlement’s years of struggle for its right to exist. ADC “Memorial’s” numerous attempts to help the Roma of Chudovo over the years imply the utter refusal of the local administration to allow the very existence of Roma on this territory. And all of the requests to legalize any construction in the Roma settlement made by either the Roma themselves or by the lawyers who have been helping them have been met with categorical rejection. Now, the administration explains all of this by saying that, first of all, rules for building and for land use in Chudovo have never been passed. Secondly, according to the bureaucrats, the Roma are themselves to blame for their not having been able to attain the legal right to live in Chudovo. In the words of the administration, many of the homes were built directly on top of underground city water pipes or on top of the city’s electricity network, without taking into consideration fire safety regulations.

But the bureaucrats have forgotten to mention that in all of the years of the existence of the settlement, they have done practically nothing to help the Roma become full-fledged citizens of Chudovo. The conflict between the residents of the settlement and the administration has gone on for many years, and only in the end of 2008 did the Chudovo authorities change their attitude toward the Roma: they entered into a constructive dialogue with them and decided to develop a new project on the planning of the settlement. The new project was developed by the institute “Novgorodgrazhdanproekt.” Its authors tried to preserve as many of the homes as possible, allotting 400 to 600 square meters for each plot of land. Nevertheless, there were approximately 50 homes which, according to the specialists, blatantly violate fire safety regulations, and which will have to be demolished. In place of these homes, the local authorities have promised to give the Roma an additional 20 plots of land for residential construction. However, these plots of land will be offered in an auction in which all interested parties will be allowed to participate, and it is not certain that the land will end up with the Roma.

And it was this question which, naturally, resulted in the strongest reaction on the part of the Roma who had gathered in the hall. After all, many large families with children live in those 50 homes which will be demolished, and almost none of the families have the means to begin new construction. “People live there!” indignantly cried those gathered, “Go back through the settlement and make some changes to the plan. 5 or 10 homes might be reasonable, but 50? Where will the people go? We have spent so much money and time getting this swampy land to be in a livable condition, and in the end, we will still end up homeless,” they emotionally exclaimed.

This outcry was supported by the lawyer Aleskey Tsarev. He suggested that the architects make changes which would help to save more of the homes set for demolition: firstly, a passage could be constructed on the edge of the settlement, and, secondly, in two instances large houses have been marked for demolition on the plan, when in reality only small, temporary structures are located on those plots. In other instances, it would be sufficient to merely eliminate a terrace or some other small extension in order to save an entire house. And Boris Grigorievich Janosh, one of the leaders of the local Roma community, asked the administration and architects to carry out additional work in devising the plan so as to demolish as few homes as possible, “Of course, we have an interest in preserving the structures. But we hope that the administration shares this interest. We would be willing to pay for such work.” The deputy head of the administration S. M. Shutkin promised that none of the residents of the settlement would end up on the street, and he assured there is currently no discussion on the demolition of homes.

It is significant that the hearing took place on the day the whole world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights which, among other things, protects the rights of vulnerable populations, such as the Chudovo Roma. According to Stephania Kulaeva, on the whole, the legal proceedings in Novgorodskaja Oblast’ have finally been steered in a positive direction. And now it is very important that the Chudovo bureaucrats do not turn off this path. “Memorial,” for its part, is ready to cooperate with the administration on all legal problems.

Natalia Shkurenok


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