Infamous housing estate in Slovakia is finally turning around
"Living with the label of coming from Luník IX isn't easy - it's not an advantage, or a sign of heroism. It's a branding that is stigmatizing, it creates a lot of barriers and segregation," says Jarmila Vaňová, a field social worker and journalist who considers working at Slovakia's most-condemned ghetto to be one of the best things that has ever happened to her.
"There is progress being made here now, though, a belief in improvement, hope of a better place to live," she told Romano vod'i magazine. This is the first in a series of articles offering an unusual "close-up" on this housing estate in Košice, from its inception to its present.
Hope for Luník IX: Part One
Luník IX is frequently depicted by the media as a dangerous ghetto full of crime and "inadaptable" Roma. Most of us have only ever seen it as it is shown through photographs of its prefabricated apartment buildings full of devastated units with no glass left in the windows, surrounded by piles of garbage.
Very often such images were captured several years before the reportage in question was published. Most of the units on the estate, however, are still without any electricity, heating, or running water.
The omnipresent dinginess and poverty there does not make a pleasant impression. However, if we want to look beneath the surface and comprehend the lives of the local residents there (who are frequently considered inferior), then it is not enough to just show up with a camera or a mobile phone to film the curious children there and let others admire your bravery and heroism for daring to go there.
It's not enough spend a few minutes there, not even a few hours. It's necessary to be with the people there from morning to night, to know who made something to eat when and whether they even had something to cook at all.
You have to know who has managed to make a few euro, who is arguing with whom, who had something to celebrate yesterday and who had something to weep over. It's necessary to get to know these people and mainly, not to condemn them for the forms of survival they have discovered for themselves, for their perspective on life, for the fact that they are living just to survive each day - despite which, they don't lose their sense of humor.
These people manage to enjoy the little they have, and they even consider death differently, in their own way. Everything there is different.
To an outsider, some things there are frequently all but incomprehensible, but if, for a certain time, you become part of the whole, if most of the people there accept you and begin to trust you, then you will learn things about them that remain hidden from the rest of the world. That's how it was in my case.
As a journalist I began frequently visiting the housing estate over the course of many years. I got to know the inhabitants, the legislators representing the area, and the mayors.
People there would greet me and I never had a problem getting them to speak on camera. It all worked well.
My real awareness, however, didn't develop until I began to go there as a social worker. Slowly but surely, a world was revealed to me that was full of contradictions and very sensitive considerations about whether, and into which affairs, one can or should intervene - or not.
Today I am convinced that the best thing that ever could have happened to me in life was to begin working there, because I am able to aid people in the place where it is most necessary - my experience in Slovakia's most-condemned ghetto has been incalculably valuable. In order to comprehend how the housing estate was built, what has happened there and why it is the way it is today, we must first take a look at recent history.
Army, Security, Gypsies
Luník IX originally came into being as a housing estate intended for soldiers, police officers, and Romani people, what was once called the "ABC" type (Armáda - Army, Bezpečnost - Security, Cigáni - Gypsies). In the beginning, both non-Roma and Roma lived in its prefabricated apartment complexes.
Over the course of the next few years, all of the non-Romani inhabitants moved away. In 1981, the city of Košice adopted a "Concept for Solving the Questions of Gypsy Inhabitants for 1981-1985".
The aim of the concept was not just to destroy the shacks in the Roma camp in Košice and to empty the historical core of the city of residents so it could be reconstructed, but also to acquire what were often potentially lucrative buildings in the city center while solving the housing problem of the "Gypsy" families. However, when evaluating its own resolution, the city council also stated that it would not be possible to resolve that problem until 1990, in keeping with the original policy principle that the Romani population must be dispersed in terms of where they lived.
For that reason, 220 flats at Luník IX were set aside for Romani tenants. A preschool, a medical clinic, a library, a cultural center, a detached office of the Commission Secretariat of the National Council for Roma Citizens was established there, and spaces for the National Security Corps and the Municipal Public Inspectorate were established to create conditions for "impacting the education and re-education of inhabitants of Gypsy origin", as the documents of the time described it.
Between 1981 and 1989, the housing estate was characterized by a high concentration of Roma. Of the approximately 2,000 inhabitants, Roma accounted for about half.
In 1995, almost all Roma from the center of Košice started to relocate to Luník IX on the basis of the "Housing Concept for Rent Defaulters, Homeless People and Inadaptable Citizens" that was adopted by the city council. The resolution was signed by then-mayor Rudolf Schuster, who later became the Slovak President.
Košice's Luník IX Municipal Department then began to write its infamous history. Problems accumulated there that until quite recently were never solved.
The Romani residents of the housing estate were never a homogeneous group or a natural community - they were an artificially-created community without mutual ties, without shared interests or values, and with varying degrees of integration into the prefabricated housing itself and the larger urban environment. If we then factor in both the benevolence and the incompetence of local self-government and the city authorities, it was only a matter of time before the problems became unbearable.
Tenants failed to pay rent, with no consequences. They failed to pay their water bills, but life carried on.
Even if tenants did pay their bills, the money never made it to the intended creditors. The tenants' debts grew.
A world was created in which everything was allowed and everybody set their own rules. However, the apparent feeling that they were somehow actually "resolving" the problems with the Romani tenants was reflected back at Košice through negative media coverage pointing to different kinds of sensational events there, various pathological phenomena, and the devastation of both the local environment and the residential buildings.
The experiment failed - or, to put it mildly, no one cared how certain decisions would turn out and what consequences they might have. The housing estate was being devastated, slowly but surely, and the amount of money owed for back rent and unpaid garbage collection and utility bills was enormous, in the millions of crowns.
In 2008, the remediation of the first two apartment buildings on the housing estate was carried out. The reason in both cases was structural damage.
When the tenants evicted from buildings slated for demolition did not have valid lease agreements, or when whole families were simply thrown onto the street without new contracts being concluded with them for substitute housing, they addressed their situations by building illegal dwellings in a locality called Mašličkovo. Today about 250 people live there, more than half of whom are children.
People live there today without electricity or water in makeshift conditions that are hidden from view by bushes and dense stands of trees. The inhabitants of Košice wrote a petition against the families living there a year ago and collected more than 1,000 signatures on it, but the identity of all the owners of the land there is unknown, and for that reason the situation has not been addressed further.
Mayor from the housing estate
Luník IX has seen several mayors come and go. The municipality was not able to solve its problems from the beginning.
The first reason the municipal department couldn't solve problems was that all the competences and ownership relations were in the hands of the city and its institutions, not in the hands of the municipal department itself; secondly, the municipal department was headed by ignorant, uneducated people. For many years, the city's will to deal seriously with these problems, to find solutions to stop the accumulation of debt among housing estate residents and to improve their housing conditions and their solvency was lacking.
Sanctions were gradually adopted, and the entire housing estate began to pay for the errors and irresponsibility of some of the tenants. There is still no heating in the apartments because the central heating systems are broken and radiators are missing from the units.
Illegal electricity consumption caused that utility to be shut off for many years. Water service was rationed - tenants could access drinking water just twice a day, in the morning and two hours after lunch.
Tenants who could not stay home at those times could not access water in their units. Even today, water service is still rationed in some parts of the housing estate.
The elevators do not work in any of the eight-story buildings. The common areas inside them are in very poor condition, with destroyed interior walls and window panes missing on the mezzanines.
Every time an apartment building on the estate was demolished, even tenants with children were turned out onto the street. Many families decided to leave not just the housing estate, but also Slovakia itself.
Today large communities of Romani people who were Luník IX tenants now live in Ghent, Belgium, or in England. It's fair to say that those who emigrated were the more capable ones, or those whose close relatives living abroad were able to aid them.
Poverty persists at Luník IX, however, because most inhabitants have no chance to escape the ghetto. Several different mayors have been elected to lead the municipal department during the modern history of the estate.
The very first mayor was not Romani, but all of the rest have been. Their impact could be summed up as follows: They often worked without the basic knowledge of how self-government functions, without a vision for development of the municipal department, and they never found solutions for the so-called "insoluble problem" that Luník IX began to consider itself to be.
Society was convinced that the only option was to demolish the entire housing estate, but the question of where all its residents would relocate remained unanswered. The only thing growing on the estate were the sanctions levied against rent defaulters.
Most tenants did not care anymore, and none of the sanctions could have been of an educational character in that case: these people do not own anything, they do not have jobs. The overwhelming majority of them are subject to collections proceedings.
After many years, the bad situation overall was also reflected in the behavior of the population, including children and youth. When culture and positive role models are lacking, even natural matters will be unnaturally distorted.
Indeed, the devastation there did not just happen to the real estate and its surroundings, but also to the people - which is much harder to correct. It is, however, necessary to correct this reality.
Mayor of Luník IX Marcel Šaňa is now in his second term - he is the son of Ladislav Šana, a previous mayor. When Marcel became mayor he was working at US Steel, a large steel company in Košice.
He had a fairly good job there with good career prospects. He started to study at university as one of the few Roma from Luník IX ever to do so.
As a result of circumstances and making the right decisions, and especially in response to requests from his own community, he finally decided to run for mayor. He was successful, gaining the support of most voters.
He corrected the weaknesses of the self-government during the first half of his first term and dealt with the municipal department's debts because they were hindering the development of the housing estate and their ability to apply for subsidies for projects. At the same time he also developed the one apartment building still managed by the municipal department on the estate - all the others were managed by the city of Košice.
Šaňa knew from the beginning that the work would not be easy, but slowly he became a trustworthy partner for the city and other important institutions. He knew what he wanted, had his own ideas and plans, dismissed employees who were not beneficial to the municipal department, and drew just a minimum salary himself.
Hope for a better place to live
The Luník IX Municipal Department has no debts today. It can therefore apply for subsidies for projects.
After 15 years of neglect, Šaňa managed to rebuild street lighting on the estate. He rebuilt ping-pong facilities for young people and established a gym.
A gym subscription there is € 5 and young people go to the local authority to pay for it. There is a shower and toilet available there.
The municipal department pays for young footballers from the estate to train at the Košice club, buying the necessary things for them. Two modern playgrounds have been built there for young children.
There is an outdoor recreation area there now for public use, a park with benches and space for summer cultural and social events. The mayor added benches and trash cans to the bus stop.
In cooperation with the city, the mayor got rid of the illegal waste dump on Podjavorinská Street. As part of labor market activation work the housing estate is being cleaned up, Monday through Friday.
Garbage is now regularly removed. A camera system has been put in place to monitor safety and vandalism.
Thanks to this, things are not being destroyed, but left intact. The security of residents and visitors to the housing estate, whether for business or personal reasons, is paramount to the mayor.
At the same time, the mayor is striving to begin new housing construction there and to establish a social work system for tenants. The aim is to close the illegal settlement of Mašličkovo and return its inhabitants to Luník IX.
Towards the end of his first term, the municipal department assumed the administration of other apartment buildings on the estate. On Krčméry Street there are two buildings where the roof has now been completely renovated.
The next step will be to ensure the continuous supply of drinking water, the reconstruction of riser pipes, and the introduction of new water meters - people will pay just for the amount of water they use, in the form of prepaid credit. This will prevent the tenants from accruing debt.
The apartment buildings nicknamed the "corncob" on Podjavorinská Street are also administered by Luník IX now. The self-government engages in labor office programs and employs people.
Much reconstruction has been carried out by the inhabitants themselves, as there is no money for large investments. The housing estate is slowly but surely becoming positively visible and is actively involved in city events, thus making it known to the general public.
Šaňa not only defended his position as mayor of the municipal department during the next election, he became a member of the Košice City Council. The support of the people for him was clear and unambiguous, because besides the fact that things are being slowly but surely addressed to the satisfaction of the inhabitants of the housing estate and the town, Šaňa also remains one of them.
He grew up at Luník IX, it's his home. He is raising his own children there and he knows everybody.
The mayor knows when to help people and is not indifferent to their fates, even though he admits it is a very demanding, difficult job that requires enormous amounts of energy. He has enough of that, though.
According to the employees of the Košice housing company, there are very few rent defaulters at Luník IX today. People pay rent now because if they prove they can do it for half a year, they will be given a proper lease for their unit.
They are also repaying their other debts in small installments - it can be said that rent default has been resolved at Luník IX. People have understood that they have to pay.
Today the housing company no longer throws people out onto the street. Today there are no more demolitions, even though there is still one apartment house there that is basically all but uninhabited, and it must be decided whether to condemn it for demolition or not.
The self-government is not in favor of demolition. If there has been no structural damage to it, the mayor is interested in reconstructing it with more and smaller units and using it for housing that will include a social services program because there are still too few apartments on the estate, and the situation of many families in the area is still quite bad.
First published in Romano voďi
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