Illustration by Andreea Dumuță
Uncitizenship through Evictions
Two years, seven evictions, almost 300 people for whom the only prospect of housing after eviction was the street. The structural violence in Bucharest is as subtle in its manifestations as it is obvious when we look at the city’s evictions. For the evictees, the waiting lists for social housing provide the dramatic dimension of their lack of agency to claim their right to the city. For two years I have been among some of Bucharest’s evictees to understand the mechanisms and the powerlessness of poverty, the state’s stubborn retreat into savage neo-liberal housing policies, and the criminalisation of poverty to the extent that, for urban poor, the very right to a family is challenged.
Irina Zamfirescu is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Social Work of the University of Bucharest. She has been a human rights activist for fifteen years, and for the last ten years she has been opposing evictions and advocating for the right to proper housing for homeless people and people living in squats.
Andreea Moise is an illustrator and graphic designer, but she believes that “visual explorer” describes her better. She keeps her eyes wide open, collects fragments of reality and her inner world, distills them and transforms them into something new. Her work is primarily conceptual, but she also experiments with textures, colors and composition. Common themes in her illustrations include the unconscious, identity, and self-discovery. You can view her work on Instagram and at andreeamoise.com.
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
About five years ago, a mother of two sought support at the doors of Sector 5 town hall, hoping to avoid eviction. Instead, she found racism and violent rejection, reflex actions for the Bucharest administration. In a timid voice she asked me to accompany her through her ordeal: “You are white, maybe they would want to talk to us.” The woman came from a community of about eighty people who had lived in makeshift shacks on the outskirts of Ferentari neighbourhood for over twenty years. Interactions between evictees and public authorities are always brutal, a display of physical and bureaucratic force from which evictees can only ever emerge defeated.Two years, seven evictions, and almost 300 people for whom the only prospect after eviction was the street. The structural violence in Bucharest is as subtle in its manifestations as it is obvious when we look at the city’s evictions. For the evictees, the waiting lists for social housing provide the dramatic dimension of their lack of agency to claim their right to the city. For two years I have been among some of Bucharest’s evictees (evictions in Vulturilor, Sfintilor, Anton Pann, Gazelei, Regina Maria streets) to understand the mechanisms and the powerlessness of poverty, the state’s stubborn retreat into savage neo-liberal housing policies, and the criminalisation of poverty to the extent that, for Bucharest’s poor, the very right to a family is challenged.
These evictees are workers who receive minimum wage, day labourers, pensioners, or carers of disabled children. They all felt that an entire system was blaming them for not being able to pay rent on the free market, despite their efforts to secure an income. Most were former tenants of the municipality themselves, and people had been legally renting the buildings from which they were being evicted for decades. Their relationship with their homes was not a typical tenant-building one. They felt much more closely connected to the spatiality and materiality of these places and, given that they had lived there for decades, they found it natural to invest in these buildings. Furious, a family evicted from Sfinților Street told me about the loan they had taken out for house improvement: “I worked for this house, I did the plastering, I took out a loan to make it better.” The families evicted from Gazelei Street had an even more intimate relationship with the space, with twelve of the extended family members born there. While just a formality for the law enforcement agencies, for the families the evictions were, in fact, an abrupt uprooting from what they considered to be their homes.
In December 2010, almost 1000 people were evicted from the Buzești–Berzei area to make way for a construction site that the mayor at the time claimed to be a triumph of civilization over what he called a “slum” area. That was the first time I saw an eviction taking place. I tried to document the journey of these people, how they came to be removed by the gendarmerie from what they considered to be their homes.
The interviews I took at that time with some employees of the mayor’s office and local decision-makers amounted to nothing. All of their statements revolved around the lack of social housing, seen as an unfortunate fact. Unofficially, after I turned off the tape recorder, some explained to me that evictees applying for social housing were in this situation because of their own fault. Evictees were described as lazy, always expecting something from the state, not doing anything to “overcome their condition.”
I then tried to understand the other version of the story, the evictees’, by spending as much time as possible in these communities. Engaged anthropology was the only form of research that gave me a modicum of moral comfort in researching this topic. Throughout the years, I have tried to help the communities I studied to navigate the bureaucratic maze. I have even tried to amplify their messages of reclaiming the city, to make their voices heard. Kirsch argues for this type of research precisely because it can produce effects beyond the written text. Engaged anthropology allows you to look at poverty from angles that statistics cannot capture and to see the big picture of the mechanisms that public authorities use to exercise structural violence against the poorest.
The process of eviction, from the repossession of housing to the temporary shelters people end up in, is one of extensive domicide. Domicide translates into the destruction of the meaning of a home, the alienation of a family from the place they call home. From complicated bureaucratic processes built for the benefit of the most powerful to turning an eviction into an act of justice in a city that aspires to be a cultural hub or business centre, these are as many ways to delay providing housing alternatives for evictees.
Pre-evacuation: “He took advantage of us, because we are small and they are big”
In October 2016, there were 23,000 applications for social housing officially registered in Bucharest. To these we have to add several thousands more from families who have either given up struggling with the paperwork, after having done so for years with no results, or do not have the money and information to submit these applications. At the end of the huge queue of applications, only two social housing units were provided.
Almost all of the communities I have documented have tried to submit these applications. But in the absence of legal constraints on the maximum waiting period for receiving a housing solution or on expanding the stock of social housing, local authorities developed the reflex to perpetually postpone offering housing solutions for people who were to be evicted. It has always been obvious to the authorities that they are not responsible for identifying a housing solution for their former tenants. For people, the obligation to repeat the bureaucratic gesture of submitting an application for social housing year after year was an act of injustice that they did not accept. Resisting in the buildings from which they knew they were to be evicted was, for most, an act of reclaiming the city.
Despite the imminence of eviction, the communities were never assisted other than within the narrow limits of bureaucratic approaches. None of the six communities received institutional support before being evicted. And this is strange since social housing is managed by a dedicated housing department in each of Bucharest’s sector town halls, i.e., those departments that work as housing agencies for publicly owned buildings. Without having the mandate or training to identify solutions for the people to be evacuated, the public authorities involved in the pre-evacuation phase were rather quick to announce that there were no housing solutions.
Evacuation: “I’d rather just die” (Evictee from Sfinților Street)
Starting with the 1990s, a discourse promoting private property has been strongly supported in Romania. Then, after 2008, the economic crisis fuelled a discourse that promoted the restriction of social rights in the name of making public spending more efficient, culminating with the current discourse about social benefits recipients as unproductive for society. All this has contributed to generating the notion that eviction is the response to a crime in the first place, that it is an act of justice made in the name of a civilized city. This is why it has become commonplace for evictions, a traumatic process for victims, to be carried out by the gendarmerie and the local police. An action with irreversible social effects is handed over to law enforcement officers. This happened in all of the evictions depicted here, except for one, when the eviction was handled by social assistance representatives.
In all cases, people were given a deadline to get their belongings out of their homes. For the community evicted from Regina Maria Street, this deadline was five minutes. For the one in Sfinților Street, two hours. The housing clearance involved a process of prioritizing the goods they were going to rescue from their homes. For Regina Maria evictees, for example, it was their identification papers and blankets, because they knew they were going to be sleeping in front of the house. That’s all they managed to get out. For the others, appliances and furniture, which they also stacked in front of the building. The evacuation from the Sfinților Street took place in February, before a heavy snow official warning. Because of the snow, cold and wet, people lost almost all their valuable possessions.
The evicted community in Vulturilor Street had to give up a lot of their belongings. They lost them to the garbage collection company of Sector 3. People’s belongings were treated as piles of rubbish to be removed from the public space. For the people of Anton Pann Street the deadline to empty their homes was longer, but the cost of transport and storage was a considerable financial strain for them.
Only the family in Gazelei Street managed to calmly remove all of their belongings and lay them on the sidewalk in front of their home. They even tried to rebuild their familiar domestic world, replicating the former layout of their furniture inside the house.
The eviction is usually followed by the sealing of the building whereby evicted families are banned from the physical space of the buildings that they used to call their homes. It is also the moment when they realize that whatever is left in the house is irretrievable. For evictees, the haste and lack of understanding of the gendarmes and local police is incomprehensible: “But if things can stay in the house, why don’t you let us stay too?” (Regina Maria evictee).
Post-eviction: “Will they evict us from the street too?” (Evictee from Gazelei Street)
Despite the dire situation the evicted communities found themselves in, their reflex was one of revolt and protest. All of the evicted communities I met remained on the sidewalks in front of the homes from which they had been evicted and went through processes of community organizing (some extensive, as in the case of Vulturilor Street people who held out for two years, others shorter, as in the case of Regina Maria Street people who held out for only two days). There was never a shortage of law enforcement representatives constantly surveilling them.
In communities that held out longer, people developed makeshift survival systems (water from neighbours, electricity hook-ups for light bulbs or fridges). They had the hardest time with hygiene, the threat of rodents, and the cold.
Social workers came and their message to the community was that the only available solution was to separate families: women and children to a shelter for women victims of domestic violence, men to the homeless shelter. No family accepted this. They were functional families, and they had no intention to allow to be separated. In all of the cases, the argument used by social workers (sometimes bluntly, other times only hinted at) in order to convince people to clear the sidewalk was the threat of taking children from families. For people the presence of social workers had always been more of a source of anxiety: “You come here and tell us that you’re taking our children! You shouldn’t be taking things, you should be giving us—something, anything. Any help!” (evictee from Sfinților Street).
Some of the evictees left the city, others were taken into the homeless shelter where they still live today, six years later. There were also families temporarily housed in the shelter for women victims of domestic violence, while others decided to re-enter the houses from which they had been evicted. Of all these people, only a few families received social housing.
Uncitizenship as a social policy
What the authorities in Bucharest do not seem to understand is that housing is a right, not a pretext for excluding the poorest among us from the city and from social and economic life.
While documenting these eviction cases, I have often come across arguments such as “sanitation,” “eradicating drug trafficking and prostitution,” or “social benefits recipients who only know how to make babies and beg for things from the state.” In Bucharest today, the public authorities use progress and the fight against crime to legitimize their brutal interventions and lack of a social agenda.
Without the tools of engaged anthropology, I would not have become a witness to structural racism. Official meetings, during which I attempted to interview representatives of public authorities or local elected officials, were always carefully managed, and I failed to obtain more than references to legal texts or Council resolutions. However, during direct confrontations with the evictees, public authorities can no longer control their messages as strictly and provide information that can help the researcher to identify, in part, the causes of persistent poverty. Moreover, engaged anthropology can also be the moral solution for researchers who believe strongly in human rights. Part of the urban poor’s vulnerability comes precisely from limited resources to claim (politically) the right to the city.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 Stuart Kirsch. Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).
 Douglas J. Porteous and Sandra E. Smith. “Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home.” Housing Studies 18.2 (2003): 269–272.
 Source: Bucharest Municipality, Social Housing Monthly Report for all six Bucharest sectors, October 31, 2017.