Haliti has been living with her husband and his two sons, his first wife, and his stepmother in a house given to him by the municipality, for the past three years. As the minibus pulls up beside her, she asks us to take a picture of the sick boy before he goes to school. Then, she invites us in.
Selvie Haliti and her sons wait for the bus to school in the Field of Reconciliation, one of two neighborhoods in Prishtina providing social housing to families like Haliti’s.
“My husband has lived here for around five years, since the flats were first built. These are his children and I look after them, and after my husband’s stepmother too. She is ill but my husband’s first wife doesn’t look after her, so I have to. Since she raised my husband, I have to love her too,” Haliti tells us as we climb the stairs to the fifth floor and enter the small flat.
She shows us into a room that serves as a living room, dining room, and bedroom, and introduces us to her mother-in-law, a very old woman who isn’t able to speak. Haliti serves us a glass of bright orange, fizzy energy drink and explains that she receives a social welfare benefit, but nothing else, and the clothes she wears were donations. “My husband doesn’t have a job but he stands out in the street and offers to chop wood for people. Sometimes he gets no work at all but on some days he makes maybe 5 euros,” she says.
Haliti has no employment income. She looks after a family of six, including her husband’s stepmother, who is ill, cannot speak and is in need of medical care.
Under the Law on Housing Financing Specific Programs, municipalities in Kosovo are obliged to provide accommodation for those in need of it, identified based on criteria such as housing status, income, health condition, disability, and family structure. Haliti’s husband, who was injured as a soldier during the 1999 war and doesn’t own any property, was given his flat when applications for social housing were first opened to the public in 2010.
The NGO Social Housing and Property Rights in Kosovo (SHPRK) assists individuals in need of social housing and provides legal assistance regarding the issues of social housing and property rights. Agron Beka, Executive Director of SHPRK, previously led the eviction department of the Kosovo Property Agency. In this role, he was often forced to evict illegal occupants from private property. Many people were left with no option but to live on the street.
“Seeing these people with nowhere to go left me wondering why there didn’t exist a social policy to ensure people in this situation were aided by the state,” says Beka. Researching the law on this issue, he found that municipalities have an obligation to secure a budget paying rent for those in need of it. “According to the UN Pinheiro Principles, everybody must have a roof over his or her head,” he says, referring to Principle 2, which states, “All refugees and displaced persons have the right to have restored to them any housing, land or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived.”
SHPRK was founded in 2009 based on this principle. It was and still is the only organisation that works to promote social housing and property rights in Kosovo.
Legal loopholes and weak implementation
Adequate housing and social protection is a human right. According to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), everyone is entitled to live in “security, peace and dignity… irrespective of income or access to economic resources.” Furthermore, to exercise economic, social and cultural rights, adequate housing is crucial.
Haliti shows us her son’s medical records, explaining repeatedly that he has a heart condition but the family cannot afford treatment.
Investment in affordable housing also has social and economic impacts. A Frontier Economics report finds that employability, crime prevention, health, wellbeing and community cohesion are some of the key benefits associated with social housing.
“If we provide shelter for a family and help them to overcome their financial crisis as soon as possible, this means we have indirectly had a positive impact on economic growth,” says Beka. “We have taken an unemployed family that needed social housing and have enabled them to enter society and working life and have freed up a house for another family in need. This is the economic benefit to society and to the family that has left social housing.”
However, in Kosovo, social housing policies have yet to show such results; much more needs to be done to ensure proper implementation of the laws.
A 2013 report by OSCE finds that government institutions have made some progress, such as the development of a legal framework that firmly establishes that the provision of social housing is a municipal-level responsibility, and the implementation of several social housing projects. However, it also finds there is often little compliance with this framework.
For example, there is a lack of public notification of housing projects and non-adherence to linguistic requirements for such notifications, which must be made in Albanian and Serbian, as well as other languages spoken in the local community. This can leave people uninformed of the opportunity to apply for housing. The report also found that some municipalities continue to operate based on out-dated guidelines on social housing, published prior to the current law on housing. These guidelines specify different selection criteria and a different composition for the selection commissions from those prescribed by the current law.
The aim of SHPRK is to ensure that the existing law on social housing are actually applied and the correct procedures followed in the municipalities. Beka emphasises that his focus is on “expanding and improving so that social housing is not seen as a concern for the poor but a temporary concern for people who have nowhere to go.” In Beka’s opinion, “social housing should not to be seen as a gift or even as a help, but as a legal obligation of institutions.”
However, he points out that, until recently, municipalities continued to operate based on old guidelines on social housing specified by the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning in 2007. These guidelines stated that you have a right to social housing if you are in need of it, but the moment you become employed, you are obliged to give up your house. This didn’t necessarily create an incentive to seek employment.
“If someone who has benefited from social housing is obliged to return the house as soon as he enters employment, of course he will not sign an employment contract by any means — it does not make sense financially for him to return the house in exchange for a 200 euro salary,” says Beka. The current law doesn’t require people to vacate the flat upon employment. However, Beka says that it still needs to be improved so social housing is understood by all to be temporary accommodation only. As such, the law should foresee better mechanisms to help with both housing and reintegration into society.
Nazim Cakolli, Director of Health and Social Welfare for Prishtina Municipality, has set out to address such loopholes through a three-year strategic plan on social housing in Kosovo. This is still in its very early stages, however, Cakolli says that he is making efforts to brainstorm ideas and form contacts. One of his first contacts, he says, is Beka himself.
“The families that apply for social housing and receive it may be in extreme poverty with none of their own property,” says Cakolli. “For example, single mothers with several children to support, civilian victims or veterans of war and disabled people may be prioritised to receive social housing.”
Stronger commitment from municipalities
There is currently no record of how many people actually apply for social housing. According to Cakolli, in 2010 the number recorded was around 500, and now it might be closer to 1,000. These figures make it clear that social housing in Kosovo is seriously lacking — the families in need hugely outnumber the accommodation available, as there are approximately only 200 flats in Prishtina.
Asked whether there is a budget planned for the construction of more social houses, Cakolli says, “I have not yet worked towards securing a budget to build more social housing. We must analyse where we are at the moment, and determine how much work there is to be done. Financially, we need to know how much this will cost us, we must secure donations, and work out the allocation of any funding available.”
Beka believes part of the problem is that there is no dedicated department in the municipalities dealing only with social housing. SHPRK insists that there should be a special department to keep record of who has been accepted and where they will live, and who has not, in order to make the selection process more transparent.
The lack of a dedicated department also means that the municipalities are unable to monitor whether social housing has a measurable positive impact on the health or employment prospects of families. Beka adds that there should be a “due process and transparency, so we can see whether the municipality has dealt with applications as required by law.”
Based on Cakolli’s upcoming plans, when new flats are made available and applications come in, they will be reviewed by a panel of five members and will be observed by members of civil society. “The selection process will be completely transparent,” he says. His priority is to ensure that the selection of families to be placed in social housing proceeds in the fairest way possible, without bias or favouritism.
Haliti’s flat is comprised of a multifunctional living room, one bedroom and one bathroom. Those that work with social housing policies say that these flats should be considered only as temporary solutions for families in need.
One of the key changes he hopes to make is to enforce the system by which points are awarded to potential beneficiaries across a number of categories, including housing status, income and health condition. This points system has been established by the law on housing but Cakolli says that “the past has taught us that social housing was given to people with lower scores, even when there were those in greater need of it.” He insists that this will not happen anymore, and from now on, “the final decision will be based on the mathematics.”
However, for the moment, the municipality has no official application process for social housing. Generally, requests made were based on documentation offered. Cakolli intends to change this, as according to him, allowing documentation to form the only evidence for an application leaves room for subjectivity. He aims to put together a team of people who will be able to confirm with precision all information presented in the documentation.
“From now on, the officials who deal with applications must go on visits to the families that apply in order to verify that their circumstances qualify them for social housing,” he says.
Cakolli is determined that there will be improvements in terms of the fairness and transparency of the selection process, the rigor with which the criteria of applicants are checked, and the provision of social housing in Kosovo.
However, for the Haliti family and their neighbors, it will take more than this to enable them to integrate themselves within society and lift themselves out of crisis — in the absence of a scheme providing incentive for them to find employment and stability, it is likely that they will remain stagnant, stuck in social housing and unable to move forward.K
Photos by Atdhe Mulla.