The absence of the state

By Ilko Yordanov

A classification developed by World Bank researchers notes six key characteristics of informal housing areas: (a) lack of access to basic public services; (b) hazards to residents related to pollution and disaster risks; (c) lack of public infrastructure, remoteness, and limited connectivity; (d) housing that does not meet building and health requirements; (e) spatial segregation; and (f) insecurity of land and building tenure and associated eviction risks. (Gatti et al., 2016).

The draft National Housing Strategy of Bulgaria notes that over 200 thousand dwellings in the country are “without legal status (mostly Roma)” and illegal construction is defined as a “massive phenomenon”. (Ministry of Regional Development, 2017).

For vulnerable groups, poor housing conditions are part of a vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing vulnerabilities. Poor housing negatively affects health status, which in turn determines the significantly lower life expectancy of Roma. Deficits in services such as regular water supply, for example, also increase the risk of epidemic outbreaks. Remoteness from educational institutions is a barrier to access to education, and inadequate housing conditions hinder further educational training at home. Low educational attainment in turn hinders access to the labour market and increases the risk of poverty, which in turn is a barrier to improved housing conditions.

The absence of the state is a common denominator of the listed characteristics of informal housing. Absence has multiple manifestations. In addition to the six characteristics listed above, one can add the lack of sufficient information about the extent of the problem and the variety of factors that lead to informal housing solutions. The absence of such up-to-date information hinders the development of adequate management solutions. Furthermore, prejudice, stigma and their manifestations in hate speech and acts (Ivanova, 2018) remain among the important factors that have deep roots and are transmitted across generations. Mirroring the response to prejudice is the distrust of public institutions by a significant proportion of vulnerable communities (Grekova et al., 2020).

In turn, the phenomenon of segregation can be seen as an objective expression of these mutual attitudes of distrust and scepticism. Segregation is not just a term denoting territorial separateness – it has its metastases in a number of key development areas, e.g. education, employment, even health care.

Last but not least, it should be noted that some of the manifestations of the absent state are the mimicry of housing policies (e.g. – the almost complete non-implementation of the measures in the National Programme for the Improvement of the Housing Conditions of Roma in Bulgaria 2005-2015), policies to reduce the public housing stock (state and municipal housing) as a potential buffer in the removal of illegally built housing, as well as party-political abuses (mainly in election campaigns) with the problem of illegal housing.

The return of the state

In addition to the well-known construction and maintenance of social housing stock, public policies in different countries in Europe and around the world are experimenting with a variety of models to address the housing problems of vulnerable groups, including: housing cooperatives, purchase of apartments for social housing, rent subsidies for municipal housing and on the open rental market, change of use of buildings for housing purposes, microcredit for housing improvements, and many others.

In Bulgaria, emigration, regional inequalities and the demographic crisis have led to a significant increase in uninhabited dwellings (including in cities), which were 1.2 million in the 2011 Population and Housing Census (NSI, 2012) and have probably increased further to date. Effective policies to mobilise part of this housing stock for social purposes could contribute to solving the housing problem of tens of thousands of vulnerable households.

In Bulgaria, in practice, the driver of partial local initiatives in the field of housing policies in the last two decades has been the so-called “external pressure” to prevent evictions from single dwellings by human rights institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the minimal compared to the needs projects for the construction of municipal housing with EU taxpayers’ funds.

These pilot solutions in the area of housing are testing and creating models, which, however, are difficult to translate into national policies for improved housing conditions for vulnerable groups. Housing policies are not subject to EU-wide but national policies in individual member states. And in the poorest countries of the European Union (EU) like Bulgaria, social housing and public housing policy resources are among the most limited.

On the other hand, the challenges and needs in the new EU member states in the area of housing for vulnerable groups are among the most acute – especially when it comes to informal housing, the number of which has increased during the transition to democracy. Despite the high levels of poverty in informal neighbourhoods and slums, there are strong attitudes among residents to allocate financial resources for major home renovation and regularisation. For example, data from a recent Habitat Bulgaria survey (Habitat Bulgaria, 2022) shows that in the “Nadezhda” district in Sliven, more than 3 out of 4 households would try to raise money to legalize their building, and 40 percent would legalize their homes, even if it required large expenditures.

Promoting and translating these attitudes into improved living conditions requires strong political support.

A key condition for the return of the state as a guarantor of equality and equity for every citizen is clear and strong political leadership, which must also take unpopular decisions, especially regarding the regularisation of informal housing. During the transition to democracy in Bulgaria, such leadership was absent, and the situation of informal housing was not only not really placed on the agenda of political priorities and decisions, but continued to be compounded.

The New Urban Agenda, adopted in 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, at the Third United Nations Global Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), explicitly recognizes the right to live in dignity for every person, whether living in formal or informal housing, and prioritizes the renewal, upgrading and modernization of informal settlements and their housing stock among housing policies (UNHSP, 2017).

The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing (2014-2020), Leilani Farha, also defends the principles of informal housing upgrading, stressing the priority to preserve local communities and advocating for their full and equal participation in the regularization process (Farha, 2019).

One of the best examples of innovative solutions in the field of regularization of informal housing are the latest legislative changes in our northern neighbour – Romania, presented at a conference on “Policies to improve the housing conditions of vulnerable groups at municipal and national level”, organized by Habitat Bulgaria in April 2022 with the support of Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the EEA Financial Mechanism and the Norwegian Financial Mechanism in Bulgaria 2014 – 2021г.

The 2019 legislative change in Romania complements the local territory planning law with a definition of informal settlements – a group of at least 3 units intended for residential occupation, spontaneously built, occupied by persons or families who are part of vulnerable groups defined under the social assistance law, who have no rights to the real estate they occupy.

The law and the developed by-laws provide for: identifying the areas of the administrative territory occupied by informal settlements, defining their boundaries through measurements and creating the cadastral documentation in electronic format; creating and updating the database on the occupants and the real estate occupied by them and on the typology of informal settlements; informing the occupants of informal settlements about the provisions of the law and initiating a participatory consultation and planning process to identify solutions for intervention, adapted to the specificities of the informal settlement and the needs of the community; initiate and coordinate the necessary measures to identify the legal and economic regime of the occupied areas of informal settlements and their regulation; in the event that the provisions provide for the partial or total removal of the informal settlements in question, provide for the resettlement of their inhabitants, under the following conditions: offering alternative housing solutions, by providing special housing, or by assisting in the reconstruction of housing in areas with available communal infrastructure, identified and made available by the local public administration authorities, in accordance with the law; informing and advising the inhabitants in advance, in cases of resettlement, regarding possible alternatives and obtaining their consent; initiating and coordinating the necessary actions to curb the expansion of informal settlements by identifying available areas for future residential zones or alternative housing solutions and informing informal settlement residents about the latter; initiating and coordinating the necessary actions to secure utility infrastructure in informal settlement areas subject to urban renewal or restructuring.

The similar situation in Bulgaria with informal housing makes the Romanian experience in the development and implementation of the law extremely valuable in the search for similar solutions adapted to the Bulgarian context and can be seen as a good starting point for the return of the state in housing policies for the most vulnerable groups.

Informal constructions in the capital’s quarter. “Hristo Botev”, photos Roma Policy Lab


Grekova, M., Zahariev, B., Tarnev, I., Yordanov, I. (2020). COVID-19 in Roma neighborhoods in Bulgaria. Open Society Institute – Sofia. ISBN 978-954-2933-66-3.

Dobrudjalieva, A., Pamporov, A. (2022). Habitat Bulgaria, Housing conditions in neighbourhoods with concentrations of poverty and policies for their improvement. Project report, Research and arguments for new housing policies for the benefit of the whole society, March 2022.

Ivanova, I. (2018). Public attitudes towards hate speech in Bulgaria in 2018, Open Society Institute – Sofia, 2018 ISBN 978-954-2933-48-9.

Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, National Centre for Territorial Development EAD, Draft National Housing Strategy. Annex 1: Part Analysis. Sofia, 2017.

National Statistical Institute (NSI). (2012) Population and Housing Census 2011 in the Republic of Bulgaria, Volume 2. Housing stock/Book 2. Housing, 2012.

Farha, L. (2019). Guidelines for the Implementation of the Right to Adequate Housing – Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 15/8 and 34/9, December 2019.

Gatti, R., Karacsony, S., Anan, K., Ferré, C., & Nieves, C. de P. (2016). Being Fair, Faring Better. World Bank Group, 235.

UNHSP. (2017). New Urban Agenda: With subject index. United Nations Human Settlements Programme & UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat III) (2016: Quito). Secretariat. UN, HABITAT III.

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