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Housing poverty and (missing) housing policies in Hungary (part 1)

'Our fridge is Swedish, the coffee machine is German. Why not have an American kitchen_ 10 different home mortgage options'
‘Our fridge is Swedish, the coffee machine is German. Why not have an American kitchen_ 10 different home mortgage options’

Housing has recently become a hot topic in Hungarian public discourse. This increase in attention was caused by the alarming hardships caused by the steep increase in the interest on foreign currency (in which most mortgages taken in the 2000’s were taken) and the increasingly harsh, systematic, and overt criminalization of homeless people in the country. Nevertheless, in spite of the ever-growing pressure coming from local as well as international civil society, the government has not taken appropriate steps towards the viable solution of these pressing problems. The neoliberal capitalist regime in contemporary Hungary, based on accumulation by dispossession coupled with an overt criminalization of poverty has resulted in the systemic reproduction of housing poverty in the country through stratifying and exclusionary policies backed by political discourses of law and order and individual deservedness.

The institutional structure of Hungarian socio-economic policies is clearly inadequate from an egalitarian-social justice point of view and therefore, unable to alleviate (let alone to eliminate) poverty and housing poverty is no exception. The lack of strategic planning that would prioritize poverty-reduction and equity is characteristic of Hungarian housing policies and this is an eminent source of its deficiencies. The government does not have a comprehensive housing strategy that would define its goals along the lines of social justice and the instruments it would necessitate in a consistent manner and redistribute resources accordingly. No one in the current administration is responsible for this particular field with adequate mandate and resources at their disposal, resulting – among other things – in the fact that decisions concerning homelessness are partly made in the ministry of the interior. In addition, regulation and the system of existing instruments are chaotic. Hence, instead of systemic solutions, only separate measures are adopted and small-scale, often merely experimental programs are implemented that may be able to manage crisis situations but can by no means alone alleviate housing related problems even if they prove successful on their respective levels.

It is also a fundamental structural deficiency of Hungarian housing policies that the existing legislation does not set such basic state and municipality responsibilities that would guarantee appropriate housing for citizens. The Fundamental Law* merely declares that the state is striving to provide for housing that protects human dignity and shelter for homeless people. Neither do lower level laws define concrete responsibilities with regard to housing. There is no threshold set for the minimal adequate proportion of social housing, nor are there rules regarding the bases on which existing social housing should be distributed.

Most housing related public services are required to be provided in larger municipalities only, and even for them only minimal responsibilities are designated by the law. One such responsibility is shelter provision, yet even this duty is only required to be fulfilled only in the case of the applicant’s life or bodily integrity being threatened. Another one is the debt-management service that is to be provided only in municipalities with more than 40.000 inhabitants, despite the fact that a large number of the poorest citizens live in smaller towns and villages in Hungary. Nevertheless, not even the adequate provision of these services is clearly defined in the law.

It is pretty clear from the above that Hungarian housing policies are not sufficient to guarantee the right to housing. The existing structure of housing policies and instruments is inept: instead of preventing housing poverty, it merely manages crisis situations. In fact, through excessive mortgage support for new constructions and gated community projects masked as “urban rehabilitation” it mainly supports the middle classes and not those experiencing housing poverty. As a result of fast privatization of the housing stock right after the regime change and such biased housing policies, 89% of the Hungarian housing stock is occupied by the owner, the rental sector constitutes a mere 6% – 3% private and 3% public rental. This ownership structure reinforces social inequalities and prevents the alleviation of housing poverty. Nevertheless, the Hungarian state fails to introduce policies that would reverse this set-up. In 2012, 11% of the entire Hungarian housing stock was vacant. The majority of these apartments are private property that suggests private speculation on the expense of low and no income people. These apartments could serve as the basis of support for those presently facing acute housing problems and of preventing absolute impoverishment. Hungarian governments, however, have not taken adequate steps to make appropriate use of these resources. Instead, they kept on selling out publicly owned housing and let the condition of the remaining stock to severely deteriorate.

All this results in housing poverty affecting 1/3 of the Hungarian population. In 2012, 300.000 apartments were rated as substandard. According to international housing standards 160.000 apartments were rated as overpopulated. 70% of the total housing stock was considered obsolete in terms of energy efficiency. Indebtedness in relation to housing-related expenses has reached an alarming level: in 2012, 110.000 households had fallen behind with their mortgage payment for more than 90 days and 600.000 households were arrears with their utility bills. Housing costs are not in line with household incomes, leading to severe hardship on the part of low- and middle-income families to sustain their housing. The average proportion of housing-related expenses within total household expenditures was 27% in 2012 that demonstrates serious affordability problems. These indicators fare even worse if we look at low-income households, due to both lower household revenues and the worse quality and energy efficiency of their apartments[1].

Hence, it is no surprise that the housing situation of an ever broadening social stratum becomes insecure and the risk of homelessness threatens an increasing part of the population. Thousands of people are sleeping rough in Hungary. According to the 2011 census, 17.000 people live on the street or in buildings not meant for human habitation, and another 11.000 people live in homeless shelters. Due to the lack of viable solutions (e.g. affordable public housing, accessible rent support and “housing first” programs for those already experiencing homelessness), homeless people have no alternative options but mass shelters, and, as a result of the latest criminalizing legislation, risk punishment if they cannot carefully hide from the authorities.

The so-called help from the government, with its current redistribution patterns, does not level housing inequalities but in fact further widens them. In 2012, 81% of the state’s total housing-related spending supported the upper-middle classes, whereas a mere 19% supported the housing of the bottom income quintile through the biased support system highlighted above. This is in addition to the fact that in the past few years the government adopted a number of other measures that further widen social inequalities, such as the introduction of a flat-rate income tax, and the contraction of social and unemployment benefits along with tightening of their conditions. As a result, the volume of housing-related expenses in the total household budget of low-income families have further increased.

Certain social groups are particularly vulnerable to housing poverty. Women face particular, gendered forms of oppression and disadvantage in relation to housing, too. The gender wage gap is still around 16% in Hungary. Thus, autonomously sustaining housing is more difficult for women than it is for men in general. The housing situation of battered women is especially worrying: although, according to the estimates of the Council of Europe, a country the size of Hungary would need about 10.000 shelter places for survivors of gendered base violence. Although this is a very crude, overgeneralizing estimate not sensitive at all to socio-economic contexts, it is helpful to understand how insufficient Hungarian state provision is in this respect (too): the actual number of such places in Hungary is 92. And what is more, none of these meets international standards. Hence, a lot of women become homeless as a result of exiting from an abusive relationship, and even more women remain in such relationships due to the lack of any exit options and thus, continue experiencing violence in their home.

The number of shelter places available for adults with children is around 4.000 in Hungary, therefore, it is difficult to access these institutions – waiting lists are way too long. The law does not provide any form of special protection for women with children. Thus, if their housing is jeopardized, this means the threat of their children taken into state “care”, even if the legislation forbids taking children away from their families for merely financial reasons. Clearly, in such situations the social and child care systems are not capable of preventing extreme repercussions. And if a woman eventually becomes homeless, she becomes extremely vulnerable: she will be prone to all forms of violence in public spaces, but shelters offer only very few only-women places (there are only 3 all-women shelters in Budapest, offering a mere 193 beds). The security of Hungarian women’s housing would require a gender sensitive institutional structure, the introduction of extra protections for women and dedicated preventive measures, adequate implementation of existing legislation, and an effective coordination of all these elements on top of all what has been suggested above.

Roma people in Hungary also experience much worse housing conditions than the general population. 8% of Roma citizens live in extremely dilapidated housing, 52% are in arrears of some sort. Roma households are more prone to be overpopulated, 1/3 of them lack running water and 1/3 are not connected to sewage system. A large part of the Hungarian Roma population live in one of the country’s approximately 750 segregated settlements, often far away from public institutions and services as well as employment opportunities, in unacceptable housing conditions. Hungarian governments have launched small-scale projects, at most, that create an appearance of state engagement, but in fact not capable of improving the inhabitants’ housing conditions. Instead of such display projects, real political will, strategic planning and earmarked material resources are urgently needed to eliminate the ethnic concentration of housing poverty.

Indeed, the existing structure of Hungarian housing policies is seen inadequate only if we consider social justice. It is very apt from a neoliberal perspective, as criminalization, mass shelters, gender ignorance and ethnic segregation serve the logic of accumulation by dispossession highly effectively. Thus, what we need is not merely new policies but also a different ideological environment in which these policies are to be functioning. What we need is a socio-political setting that recognizes that housing is a fundamental human need, and therefore a right rather than yet another form of capital, and policies that make this imperative a reality.


* The current Fidesz-KDNP government revoked the Constitution and introduced the so-called Fundamental Law instead, that lacks legitimacy due to the non-transparent and authoritative process of its development and adoption.

[1] All data in this section have been cited from the 2012 Annual Report of Habitat for Humanity on Housing Poverty in Hungary.

photo_mariannMariann Dósa is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Oxford. She is also an activist, and active member of The City is for All grassroots organization. As an independent analyst, Mariann has been investigating social marginalization and gender-based discrimination in Hungary in a number of research projects in both the academic and the policy worlds. She has been active in actual policy development with domestic as well as international think tanks and political parties.

By Mariann Dosa

Mariann Dósa is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Oxford. She is also an activist, and active member of The City is for All grassroots organization. As an independent analyst, Mariann has been investigating social marginalization and gender-based discrimination in Hungary in a number of research projects in both the academic and the policy worlds. She has been active in actual policy development with domestic as well as international think tanks and political parties.

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