A Quarter of Ethnic Exclusion
The case of Cejl neighbourhood in Brno
Adam Fialík, 2016
Complex community-based renovation concerning 110 housing units in two buildings, and the creation of job opportunities, as well as small-scale community-based reconstruction of housing in the beginning of the 2000s. The program aimed at empowering the Roma population and was managed by two associations. The participative renovation of the buildings led to different results.
Often referred to by the somewhat unflattering nickname of the Bronx, the Cejl neighbourhood is a socially excluded area next to downtown Brno. The name Bronx is widely used by the inhabitants of Brno as a way to allude to the high concentration of Roma inhabitants in this quarter lying north from the city centre. According to the National Agency for Social Inclusion, there are approximately nine thousand ethnic Roma inhabitants living in Brno, with seven thousand of them being socially excluded. The vast majority of this minority group lives in Bronx and the surrounding streets, an area that is also characterised by various negative effects such as high crime rates, drug trafficking, prostitution and so on. This part of the town is considered as the ‘dangerous neighbourhood’ of Brno.
The borders of Bronx aren’t sharp and also have changed over time. Two streets considered as the core of the area are Cejl street and the parallel Bratislavská street. Other streets, such as Francouzská, Vlhká and Plynárenská are also part of the area, although in Plynarenská street, local inhabitants do not consider themselves as belonging to the Bronx neighbourhood. This proves that the perspective of the ordinary citizen sometimes lacks objectivity – or is at least quite divergent from the picture provided by the official data. Because of these different perceptions of what is and what isn’t part of the socially excluded quarter, the following paper will mostly deal with the two streets constituting the core of the area.
Connection with the City
Cejl and Bratislavská streets are part of two official city quarters, Brno – střed (centre) and Brno – sever (north). Cejl is directly connected to the downtown by a tram line which goes from Malinovského square, a square with important buildings such as the National Theatre and the House of Arts. This square is only 300 metres from Náměstí Svobody, Liberty Square, the representative main square of the city. The frequency of these trams is also high because of two other lines that later go in other directions.
The fact that this neighbourhood is only one tram stop from the very centre and that there is no visible physical barrier between the two areas generated several debates on whether it should be officially considered an excluded urban area at all. While it is true that this part of the city has really good public transportation connections to the rest of the city, it is unfortunately not enough to prevent social exclusion.
German houses for Slovak Roma
This part of the town is mostly constituted by three- to seven-story bourgeois houses, the majority of them built by Germans living in Brno in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The former owners were expulsed from the country after WW2. As a consequence of these forced delocalisations and the nationalisation of the properties, the state suddenly became the owner of many flats for workers, who were employed in nearby factories such as Vlněna (fabric production) and Zbrojovka (armament production). In the socialist era, large numbers of Roma people moved to this part of Brno.
After the 1989 Velvet revolution, Czechoslovak society went through a series of deep transformations. Communist state planning was replaced by the market-based economy, the legal system of housing also changed and families reacquired many buildings from the state in the process of restitution. Restitutions in Cejl and Bratislavská streets were not as numerous as in other parts of the town or in other cities, as in these streets housing had mostly been confiscated after WW2 but prior to the Communist Party’s takeover in 1948. That is why former owners did not return here after the adoption, in 1989, of the law undoing the harms of communism.
Another major change brought about by post-1989 developments was privatization. When the state started selling its property, it also disposed of large industrial complexes including Zbrojovka and Vlněna to private owners. Their production diminished due to high costs, and later the factories closed down. These complexes served as living and working spaces for many people, and their closure decreased the demand for low-qualified workers in the area. However, privatisation affected not only industrial production, but the housing stock as well. In the Czech Republic (as in many other post-communist countries) in 1993 all state-owned housing units had been transferred to local municipalities as a step towards decentralisation of power and decision-making. This process provoked significant chaos, as city governments were not prepared for such a change in terms of financial and administrative measures. As a consequence of the housing stock’s bad state of repair and the lack of financial resources for reconstruction, the city started selling apartments to their tenants. Even though prices were relatively low (in some cases fractions of the market price), they were still not affordable for many poor inhabitants of Cejl and Bratislavská. The purchase of the flat was also subject to other conditions, such as a valid tenancy contract or the proof that there were no arrears on the side of the tenant. As a result, most local Roma still live in public housing or private sublets.
Role of NGOs
Numerous NGOs started to provide different services for the disadvantaged inhabitants in Brno Bronx. The neighbourhood is exceptional because of its strong cultural function. Many locals live in social and economic deprivation, but projects run by NGOs support identity through culture, consciousness and Roma cultural pride. Several key institutions fulfill this function: DROM Roma Community Center, ROMO-Drom, Sdružení Romů na Moravě (Moravian Roma Association), IQ Roma Servis and Ghettofest. Muzeum Romské Kultury (Museum of Romani Culture) is unique in Central Europe because in addition to the traditional exhibits it also has a library addressing Roma history and culture. The editorial office of Romano Hangos, a Roma monthly newspaper is also located there, and a large number of social service providers assisting the Roma have their offices in the Bronx.
The Brno Bronx area is currently facing gentrification. In the past, the city sold several houses that were later demolished, with new structures erected in their place. Naturally, housing costs increased in these new buildings, and are now beyond the means of current residents. However, this economical pressure is not the only difficulty local Roma people are facing. Their strong concentration in Bronx can also be explained by the fact that it is almost impossible for them to get housing outside Bronx. It is not exceptional that the owners of apartments in other parts of the city refuse potential tenants because of their ethnicity. Before, this was not a problem inside the area of Bronx, but social workers helping Roma confirm that there is a changing trend of discriminating Roma even in the housing market of Bronx. This might be the consequence of gentrification processes too.
Bratislavská and Cejl Community Housing Projects
DROM and IQ Roma Servis are Roma-focused associations working in the Brno Bronx neighbourhood. In cooperation with the local government of Brno-Centre they have launched an ambitious plan to improve housing conditions of Roma inhabitants in the area. The two NGOs played a major role in the preparation of the project, as they mediated between the city government and the Roma community. The implementation phase of the project was planned for 1999 and at that time it was a really unique project for several reasons.
Firstly, the size of the renewal was unprecedented. Reconstruction took place in two large apartment houses, at Bratislavská 41 and Cejl 49, and concerned a total of 110 housing units. Secondly, the project was part of the city government’s more general strategic plan for housing development and inter-ethnic conflict resolution. Another reason for its originality was its overall objective to create community housing to be self-managed by the local inhabitants. As a result, 60 jobs were created for members of the community. Further, it applied a unique bottom-up approach and participation of the tenants in the processes of planning and reconstruction. The project aimed to strengthen Roma empowerment, to involve local Roma in community life and create a stronger sense of bond to the renovated houses themselves. DROM and IQ Roma Servis were to have their social work centres seated in the buildings.
Part of the negotiation between the tenants and the city government was aimed at settling the legal situation of tenants with arrears due to unpaid rents, or without a valid tenant contract. The city was open to the ‘legalisation’ process of these tenants, and allowed the illegal tenants participating in the reconstruction to sign a one-year fixed term tenancy agreement with the possibility of extending it, and the tenants in debt got a chance to work for the project in order to pay off the debt. 1
The city government changed its approach regarding the area. Before the Community project, social and housing problems in the area had been considered the problems of individuals, but in the context of the project, the beneficiary of services became the community.
Several problems that occurred during reconstruction changed the original expectations about the implementation. One of the most crucial problems was the underestimated project budget, as at the end of the project the originally calculated budget had been increased from CZK 65 million (circa EUR 2.4 million) to more than CZK 80 million (approx. EUR 3 million). The reason for the underestimation was the poor state of repair of the buildings. The second problem was that despite the plans, it wasn’t possible to live in the building at Cejl 49 during the reconstruction. Temporary accommodation for the tenants generated some extra expenditure. Further, this temporary displacement made it impossible to involve the tenants in the reconstruction.
In 2002 and 2003 both reconstructions were finished, but with very different results. The biggest difference between the two houses was in the composition of the tenant community. At Bratislavská 41 the tenants could stay and live in the building during the reconstruction and they participated in the operations, while in Cejl 49 they were displaced. In the latter, tenants moving in after the reconstruction were mostly new families, not those who had lived there before and who had participated in the preparatory phase of the reconstruction: of the original 32 families only 4 returned. The city offered several apartments to municipal police officers and the rest mostly to young families with children. The Mayor of Brno-Centre attributed this change to the fact that families were not able to pay the rents of their temporary accommodation during the reconstruction, and as a result their tenancy agreements were not extended. However, no difference was initially visible, and both houses ran smoothly. Later several families from Cejl 49 left their rentals for different reasons; problems from before the reconstruction, such as drug-related crime, or problems with paying the rent, came back. At Bratislavská 41, the tenant structure stayed roughly stable, and the criminality rate is lower.
The future of similar community-based housing projects will depend on the abilities of local governments to tell what variables have impact on the final success or failure of projects. Systematic research of the Brno Bronx projects might shed some light on the reasons for success in the specific cases, but international comparison might also be fruitful.
1 This raised ethical dilemmas on two levels simultaneously. Firstly, this step could be seen as rewarding illegal activities over legal ones, and secondly it could be seen as taking advantage of the work of people in a disadvantaged situation.
Andrea Baršová (2013) Etnická segregace v bydlení, Clovekvtisni.c
Irena Kašparová, Ph.D., Mgr. Štěpán Ripka, Kateřina Sidiropulu Janků, Ph.D. (eds.) (2008) Dlouhodobý Monitoring Situace Romských Komunit V České Republic Moravské Lokality. Brno