By Claudia Ciobanu
BUCHAREST, March 22 Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a freezing night last month, Elena Nicolae and her family, including her 18-month-old grandson, were given two hours to leave their home.
Nicolae, 56, had lived in two rooms of a 19th century house on Sfintilor street in the historic centre of Bucharest for over 20 years, paying rent to the Bucharest housing authority until the house was deemed unsafe in 2005 and formal contracts ended.
But when a wall cracked in the dilapidated house, Bucharest authorities evicted the eight Roma families living there immediately with the building declared 'unfit for habitation'.
In the rush, Nicolae only packed a few clothes before the building was sealed and the evicted families spent more than a week sleeping on the street outside, not wanting to go into shelters for the homeless and with no other housing available.
For Romania is facing an acute shortage of social housing, with inner city gentrification and return of private properties seized during Communist years squeezing out low-income tenants.
This has raised fears of creating favelas or shantytowns in the country with Roma families seen as particularly vulnerable.
Living on the street in the cold, took its toll on Nicolae's family and her husband was hospitalised with pneumonia.
"We worked our entire lives to fix our homes and now they throw us out like dogs. Actually, people don't even leave dogs out in this weather," Nicolae told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
NO SOCIAL HOUSING
Like many cities in Romania, Bucharest with 1.9 million people does not have enough housing for low-income residents, with only 200 units of public housing in the district where Sfintilor is located despite hundreds of requests each year.
According to data from the district's local authority, five of the people evacuated from Sfintilor were on a waiting list for social housing - some for more than 20 years.
Campaigners say the allocation of housing favours people with higher education and stable incomes who are more likely to pay their rent rather than poor families with many children who are more in need of cheap accommodation.
In 2001 Romanian authorities embarked on a programme to return buildings seized and nationalised by the communist regime that ran the country until 1989 to their original owners.
But campaigners say the programme has caused more evictions of families assigned low cost housing previously under state ownership which has added to the housing crisis.
Adrian Dohotaru, a housing rights activist turned parliamentarian, said less than half of 80,000 applications to re-privatise homes have been finalised to date so the situation was likely to get worse without government action.
"Thousands of people are being evacuated yearly and there will be more," he warned.
"Accessible housing must become a political priority. Otherwise, what we see today is just the beginning of the 'favelization' of Romania."
Human rights groups including Amnesty International and the European Roma Rights Centre say Roma people, Europe's largest ethnic minority, are particularly vulnerable to housing discrimination in Romania.
Romania is home to up to 2.5 million Roma in a population of about 19 million but about 90 percent of these Roma families live in extreme poverty and are targets of racism, according to the World Bank.
In recent years, local media has reported many cases of controversial evictions. In 2010, the Cluj municipality in western Romania evacuated 20 families from the city centre to a cluster of containers 300 metres from the main garbage dump.
The families' continuing campaign to return to the city uses the slogan "Roma are not trash".
Two years later, the Baia Mare municipality in the north moved 80 Roma families from the city to an old chemical factory. Some children fell ill from contact with leftover substances.
Between 2014 and 2015, 20 Roma families set up a tent camp outside their old home when they were evicted after a property on Vulturilor street in central Bucharest was re-privatised.
In a report in 2015, Philip Alston, the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote that too often evictions of Roma have taken place with little advance notice and in an "abusive fashion".
This results either in homelessness or re-location to sites distant from jobs, schools, hospitals and other facilities and reinforces "discriminatory residential segregation", he said.
The Bucharest municipality, which owns Nicolae's building, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation all but one of the 43 people - 21 adults and 22 children - living inside were "illegal".
However several families interviewed said the Romanian state assigned them rooms in the building decades ago. The Sfintilor address is printed on their identity documents and they paid monthly rent to the housing authority for many years.
Before 1989, the communist state re-located Roma families from the outskirts of Bucharest into the city, closer to factories and schools and often placing them in older houses.
After the fall of communism, the state continued to rent the buildings to Roma families but maintenance work stopped.
When a fire broke out in Nicolae's building 12 years ago, the state housing authority declared the property unsafe and refused to renew rental contracts but tolerated the families staying there.
Since the evacuation last month, the Mayor of Bucharest has placed the building on a priority list for municipally funded restoration but it is not known if this will be for housing or another purpose. A property a few doors down has been renovated and is advertised for use as a luxury business centre.
A spokesman for the municipality told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the buildings will be renovated but the families were told to look for social housing elsewhere.
The evicted families, the spokesman said, are being offered support to apply for social housing in other parts of the city.
"I notice the subtle intention of authorities to push poor people to the peripheries of Bucharest or even beyond," said Irina Zamfirescu of the human rights group Active Watch.
"There are no integrated social services to support these families, they are being abandoned – literally – (pushed) into the streets."