SWM 2015: Hungary - How the redevelopment of Józsefváros is pushing out Budapest’s minorities

Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)

Case study by Linda Szabó

In recent years Budapest’s most stigmatized neighbourhood, Józsefváros, has been undergoing significant change. ‘Józsefváros is being rebuilt,’ goes the municipality’s slogan – the only question is for whom. While Józsefváros has long been one of the city’s most diverse areas, with the highest concentration of Roma and migrant populations, the local municipality’s plans for the area threaten to displace its most underprivileged groups, including poor minorities.

Józsefváros has always been attractive for newcomers and migrating traders, though, beginning with the arrival in the late 19th century of Jewish merchants and then Roma musicians, who moved here to play at local restaurants. But while Józsefváros – with the exception of the Palace Quarter – was never considered an affluent part of town, the appearance of slums in the area only became obvious in the 1960s as plans to refurbish public housing stock were not implemented. At that time, due to the serious shortage of residential housing in Budapest, multiple familes were forced to share apartments and the local council did not allocate sufficient funds for the maintenance of its buildings.

Subsequently, from the mid-1970s, a construction boom allowed the most affluent tenants to flee the overcrowded and deteriorating tenement houses. At the same time, a state-led programme which dismantled the impoverished Roma colonies on the outskirts forced many families to move into inner city neighbourhoods such as Józsefváros. By the 1980s, the area had become highly stigmatized due to its bad housing stock, the relatively high number of poor Roma and the concentration of criminal activities such as prostitution in certain neighbourhoods.

The country’s reintegration into the global market economy has only worsened the situation of those living in the district. Although most apartments were quickly privatized over the 1990s, the highest number of social houses remained in District 8. The local municipality could not sell its property, either because it was not allowed to by law due to the poor housing conditions or because the tenants could not afford to buy their residences. The efficiency of social regeneration projects based on the accessibility of EU funds has been very limited so far. At the same time, more and more migrants became interested in certain disused areas following the collapse of state socialism; for instance, the underutilized land around Józsefváros railway station was occupied by Chinese and other migrant traders.

Yet despite the fact that these migrant-run businesses have provided poorer residents with lively and inexpensive retail areas, their contribution has never been recognized. On the contrary, their operation is often presented negatively in public media. Though the local municipality has not launched a directly xenophobic or racist campaign, in 2013 it decided to close down the 23-year-old Chinese market, reportedly to construct a local sports facility, and closure took place in June 2014.

Presumably, the municipality expects further growth in the number of upwardly mobile or upper middle-class residents in the district – most of whom at present are concentrated in a part of the district that already underwent significant redevelopment in the early 2000s. This first major renewal project of the district was carried out in public–private partnership as old social housing blocks were demolished to accommodate private developments, raising property prices in the area to the highest in the district – in the process making housing for the original tenants unaffordable. A significant number of the more than 1,000 households evicted from the neighbourhood were Roma. Some of them were able to stay in the district, but others had to leave, including many who decided to take cash compensation instead of another apartment.

It is very likely that, in the coming years, other housing blocks will be demolished, and the original tenants as well as retailers catering to the current local communities will have to move. The district mayor has publicly promised to transform the area from a ‘ghetto full of criminals’ to a ‘university town’, yet it is unclear to what extent minorities and other marginalized groups will be able to share in this vision. This form of urban regeneration is supported by the national government, too, which recently designated a campus area for a newly established university in the district. The new reconstruction project, as opposed to the previous one, is being carried out mainly from public funding and will affect around 2,200 households until the end of 2017. The redevelopment includes plans to replace social housing with university buildings, again threatening the living space of Roma families concentrated in the area. Unless the local housing movement is able to successfully stand up for the rights of the tenants concerned by both the continuing public–private partnership development and the national government-led project, a number of the current inhabitants may be pushed out to the margins of Budapest or even outside the city altogether – a situation that will leave them even more invisible than before.

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.

Photo: A derelict building in Józsefváros, Budapest, 2014.

Credit: Neményi Márton


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Date: 17/06/2015



State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015
Culture and Tradition
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