Housing advocacy at work in Hungary and Bulgaria
Changes in housing policies and regulations can improve living conditions for thousands of citizens, without the need to build new homes. Habitat’s recent work in Hungary and Bulgaria illustrates how this can work. In times of economic austerity, governments can offer affordable housing to those who are in need of it, if there is political will and cooperation with the third sector.
When the 2008 financial crisis hit Hungary, the government introduced strict fiscal measures and cut all existing benefits. As a result, a lot of homeowners could not pay their mortgages. At the same time, the banks and the state ended up managing a lot of property and dealing with low income families, experience they had hardly had until then.
For two years, Habitat for Humanity Hungary has been pushing for changes through the National Asset Management Company (NET), a government organization set up to bail out 25,000 families by buying their homes, settling bank debt and allowing them to live in the homes as tenants.
However, the system had a few problems. The strict criteria on need meant that many of the clients did not have the ability to pay their rents and utilities. The original law regulating the NET made it obligatory to cancel the lease and evict those who failed to pay rent or utilities in three consecutive months. At the same time, families who ended up in the program often had disproportionately big homes, with poor energy efficiency, and could afford to cover their expenses.
Two years of consultations with the NET by Habitat for Humanity have brought changes to the operation of the program. The government has introduced new rules on how clients are treated when they cannot pay, switching to fixed-term leases instead of eviction. Another change allows clients to move into smaller homes or apply for empty apartments, rather than stay in large homes that they don’t need and cannot afford to heat. These improvements potentially affect 25,000 people, giving them security of tenure, social services to fix finances and flexibility to find affordable homes.
In January 2014, a coalition of organizations was established to fight poor housing conditions in Bulgaria. This initiative was led by Habitat for Humanity Bulgaria. It currently has 18 members.
The project aims to increase the role of civil society organizations in the decision-making process on national housing policies and their ability to advocate for changes in regulations on the local level.
Previously, Habitat Bulgaria has lobbied successfully to include a social housing construction program into the regional development strategy, currently under development. More than 6,000 people could benefit from the change – the number of tenants living in social housing in the areas included into the Bulgaria’s program of regional development for 2014-2018.