Fires reveal housing crunch

In Paris, 48 immigrants have died in fires that ripped through substandard buildings.

Anzumana Karamoko sits in the dim, dank entryway to the tenement where he lives, and gestures angrily at the peeling walls, the collapsing ceiling, and the fetid lake of waste-water that has pooled in the courtyard.

"This is a dangerous place, but we are obliged to live here because it is better than the street," says Mr. Karamoko, an immigrant from Ivory Coast who has shared this squalid squat outside Paris with 70 other families for the past four years. "What I want is a decent place for my family to live."

In the past four months, 48 men, women, and children like Karamoko - African immigrants living in substandard Paris buildings - have been killed in three separate fires. Echoing the heat wave that killed 15,000 elderly people two years ago, the tragedies have raised questions about French society's indifference to the plight of its more vulnerable members, and pointed up racist discrimination against immigrants seeking apartments.

The government estimates that 200,000 people in the Paris region are homeless, sleep wherever they can find a bed, or live in temporary shelter.

"This is an enormous phenomenon, and the housing shortage is getting worse," says Jean-Marc Gilonne, who heads a charity providing beds for the homeless.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, moving to address the crisis, announced Thursday that the government was ready to hand over land that had been set aside for Paris's failed 2012 Olympic Games bid if it was used for low-cost housing.

The problem, though, is much larger, say housing experts. As private rents have shot up in recent years, more and more Parisians have come to rely on a limited stock of government- subsidized public housing.

Last year, according to City Hall, 102,000 families were chasing 12,000 subsidized apartments.

That means scandalously long waits for hundreds of thousands of people, and the darker your skin, the longer the wait: Nearly 30 percent of immigrant applications had been pending for more than three years in 2000, a government study found, twice the overall average.

Some of the 17 people killed last week by the fire that destroyed a building providing "provisional" housing had lived there for 13 years.

When provisional housing runs out, the authorities put people in run-down budget hotels, like the one that burned down last April, killing 24 people.

Other families take matters into their own hands, and squat in empty and abandoned buildings, many of which have makeshift electricity connections and no running water, like the one that caught fire last Monday night, killing seven people.

Nearly 1,000 buildings in Paris have been classified by the city housing department as unsafe and unfit for human habitation. The tenement that burned on Monday was one of them.

Salamata Sy, mother to a 3-year-old boy, doesn't have to worry about her home burning, but that's about the only thing she doesn't have to worry about.

Expelled three months ago from the squat where she had lived for a year with her husband and son, she is now camping out on the streets of Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb, along with a hundred or so of her neighbors.

Sleeping in a tent her family shares with her husband's cousin and her two kids, Ms. Sy cooks on a small charcoal grill, fetches water from the mains pipe in the street nearby, and uses the toilets at a public market 500 yards away.

She says she did everything to find a normal home. "We went to five real- estate agents and paid their fees each time, we answered small ads, I looked on the Internet, and we got nowhere," Sy says. "Everything was already rented.

"My husband earns a decent wage as a cleaner," she adds. "I think it was because we are of African origin." Sy's parents moved to France from Senegal, and she was born in this country.

Karamoko, who works as a delivery man, says he doesn't want to get into allegations of racism when he wonders why he couldn't find an apartment he could afford. "I'll leave that to your imagination," he laughs. "But I have residence papers, I have pay slips, I have enough money to pay a rent. What's missing?"

What is missing, says Edwige Le Net, an activist with "Housing Rights," a nongovernmental organization helping the Aubervilliers homeless, is housing units. "We need a massive building program," she says, "and the authorities should stop demolishing subsidized housing blocks just because they are ugly, and stop selling off their housing stock to make money."

At the same time, says Mr. Gilonne, "just enforcing existing laws, like the one that obliges mayors to devote 20 percent of their housing programs to subsidized units, would be a good start."

Ms. Sy's dramatic gesture, living under canvas for three months, has paid off. The Aubervilliers authorities have promised to rehouse 16 of the 20 families which have legal immigrant papers, and her family is among them.

No end is in sight yet for Karamoko. But he shares the hopes of some activists in the housing field that the recent spate of fires may do some good.

"I hope that this will make the general public take notice and understand that there is a real problem," says Ms. Le Net. "We cannot make people live worse than dogs."

"This has to be resolved now," insists Karamoko. "It cannot be left to be forgotten when the drama [of the fires] is over."

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