Migration to cities, land reforms and massive reallocation of state and private assets in the past several decades caused construction chaos that is now being seriously addressed.
By Katica Djurovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 11/09/12
The Kaludjerica suburb in the outskirts of Belgrade is one of Europe's biggest settlements for illegal housing. [Katica Djurovic/SETimes]
Governments in the region are promoting new urban planning laws and simpler, inexpensive and less time-consuming procedures to legalise dwellings, thus giving inhabitants of illegally-built houses another chance to legalise their homes.
Experts argue that illegal housing is a persistent problem; nearly 780,000 structures await legalisation in Serbia, 1 million in Greece, 200,000 in both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and 100,000 in Montenegro.
"The roots of illegal building date from the earlier period of inadequate housing and land policy, demographic pressures as well as economic migrations to cities which started in the 1970s and are still going on," Dragoslav Sumarac, director of the Serbian Chamber of Engineers, told SETimes.
Over the last 20 years, the regional countries undertook dramatic land reforms and massive reallocation of state and private assets, causing construction chaos.
Five successive attempts at mass legalisation in the past decade in Serbia have produced scant results; in Belgrade alone, there are 243,000 legalisation requests pending.
According to Sumarac, Serbia's 2003 law on planning and construction was the first attempt to address the issue.
While the law was amended several times, the problem remained, prompting the Serbian ministry for construction and urban planning to begin offering new, easy and inexpensive legalisation procedures.
"The emphasis now is on the people and their finances. They pay only minimal costs for administration in several monthly instalments. The legalisation cost will be between 200 and 300 euros, depending on the property size," Aleksandra Damjanovic, deputy minister for construction and urban planning, told SETimes.
Legal teams of experts will be helping municipalities, since most of them lack professional staff.
Belgrade's Kaludjerica suburb is among Europe's largest illegally built settlements; nearly 80 percent of the 15,000 houses have been built without permission. The ground is considered as arable agricultural land but has for decades been covered by construction.
Residents of Kaludjerica said they built out of necessity.
"We started construction in the mid-1980s when we realised waiting for the state to give us an apartment was hopeless. We built our house over a 10-year period and invested in everything, including water [infrastructure], electricity and the roads," Dragan Vujic, a Kaludjerica resident, told SETimes.
Vujic said it took him more than 10 years to legalise his house due to excessive costly procedures and bureaucracy.
"It is in the people's interest to have legal ways to build a house. Without a construction permit, building materials are more expensive. We spent 30 percent more on our house than someone with a permit," Vujic added.
The Croatian government is trying to close the legalisation issue prior to joining the EU in July 2013. After numerous attempts, it recently passed the Law on Handling of Illegally Constructed Buildings.
Legalisation in Croatia now costs between 70 and 3,000 euros, depending on the size and type of the property and the type of payment.
In Montenegro, the government is also giving legalisation a chance, but owners will have to pay retroactive taxes and utility costs.
"All the money collected will be invested in equipping and modernising the settlements in Montenegro so they can get a new look and increase the value of the land," Predrag Sekulic, minister of sustainable development and tourism, told the Podgorica daily Pobjeda.
Nearly 40,000 buildings, which occupy 3.6 million square meters, were built without a permit.
Macedonia passed a new law early last year in a serious attempt to legalise the 300,000 structures, for 1 euro per square meter to be paid in 12 instalments.
"Finally, I will legalise my house under the new law which my father began building, but I finished without proper documentation because the municipality had not formulated an urban development plan then," Petar Stankovski, 54, a construction worker from Kumanovo, told SETimes.
Stankovski said that virtually the entire suburb of Igo Trickovic where he lives was built illegally; but most citizens have obtained the necessary documentation, and are waiting for the municipal authorities to legalise their houses.
"But in some parts in and around of Kumanovo -- the villages of Lipkovo, Matejche, Otlja, Cherkeze –illegal housing continues as arrivals from Kosovo finance houses and big business buildings, and the municipality seems powerless to stop it," Stankovski added.
BiH has arranged for legalisation to be done at the cantonal level.
Locals said the price of construction permits -- 150 euros per square meter -- is the main reason many opt to build illegally.
The numbers are high -- up to 86,000 structures in Republika Srpska alone, or 3.5 houses per square kilometer on average.
In Greece, the government is attempting to add to the public budget by charging a fee of up to 6,000 euros to temporarily legalise illegal dwellings or, if the owners do not comply, a fine nearly double that amount.
Efforts in Greece, however, have proven futile over the years. Of the 7 million homes, an estimated quarter has been built without a permit.