The Marxist ideology and socialism were in theory supposed to eradicate social classes and put everyone on equal footing. That was certainly not the outcome and housing, more specifically the distribution of dwellings, can account for that. Described by academic works (again, Brigitte Le Normand’s book Designing Tito’s Capital: Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in Belgrade is a Bible), bribery (ties with the Party could help), bypassing (long, reportedly up to years!) waiting list and tinkering of all sorts (faking divorce, for example) allowed for some lucky citizens to get better apartments, or to get them faster. Army officials and Party members had better housing conditions. On the opposite, people with low-salary, or unable to work, were regrouped in poorly built apartments financed by public funds. An empathetic gesture in appearance, a blessing in disguise given the conditions of the blocks. There could be three generations living in one single flat not necessarily salubrious.
The cramped living conditions are still experienced today. This article explores the life in a flat of a Ukrainian family that, as many others, inherited this situation from the socialist period.
After the fall of socialism, apartments were privatized (most of them were state-owned before). This only made the gap between the social classes that emerged bigger, as people have different financial means. In Romania’s Bucharest, the distinction in classes matches neighborhoods (see the research Urban Geographies of Hesitant Transition: Tracing Socioeconomic Segregation in Post‐Ceauşescu Bucharest).
Beyond the segregation caused by corruption of the system and income, is a segregation of minority groups. Balkan countries are known for their melting-pot of ethnicities that was tolerated during the Ottoman rule, less so when the new states were defining their concept of nationality. To draw on Ceausescu’s example, ethnic minorities were specifically targeted in the destroying of villages. Hungarians inhabiting Transylvania for generations were pressured to leave their villages, which resulted in growing tensions between Hungary and Romania. Turns out that national identity was deemed more important than equality.
A lingering problem that can be seen today in Balkan cities are the marginalized minorities living in precarious conditions on the outskirts of the urban territory. The first that comes to mind is the Roma population. Numerous especially in Romania and Bulgaria, Roma’s neighborhoods are easily identified, not by the people, but mostly by the decaying state of the apartment blocks.
A focus on Bucharest’s infamous neighborhood Ferentari shows how these sectors are the forgotten margins of the Balkan cities. The persecutions of the Roma minority, in particular, that peeked during the Second World War, is lingering today in the form of abuses in housing. Ferentari is a neighborhood inhabited mostly by low-income Romas. The apartment blocks are insalubrious, cramped, and the abuse problems of the residents and other signs of poverty and lack of care from Bucharest are showing in the streets. Leases and rents are such that people are accumulating debts and are stuck there, unable to make their financial status better. Please see this article and this article to learn more and visualize the situation.
Programs exists and measures are taken, like the Decade of Roma Inclusion, to improve the quality of life and bring back the inhabitants of this post-socialist ghetto into Bucharest. But the road is long, and it is valuable to realize how socialist housing conditions are the roots of some of the segregation problems seen today in Balkan cities.