Informal housing in Central and Eastern Europe has specificities that directly link to the political, economic and social system changes that define this area. Thus, it is partly different from the manifestations of this phenomenon in developing countries in the Global South.
In the states of the Global South, informal settlements are referred to as “slums” or “squatter areas”, designating areas at the outskirts of large cities where the poor population migrating from the countryside has improvised barracks and shelters, thus relocating with the family closer to the city and the opportunities it offers. Thus, in the literature referring to the Global South, informal settlements are associated with a very poor population, for whom the only way to satisfy their need for shelter is to illegally occupy a plot of land and build a home with their own means.
In 2003, the UN estimated that, globally, nearly one billion people can be considered “squatters”, a term used to denote people living without holding legal documents on land/ housing they occupy; the estimation relies mainly on studies and analyses targeting the Global South.
By comparison, informal dwelling in the Central and Eastern Europe area has advanced in the context of a steep shift from planned economies to market economies, which has created a legislative vacuum and a discrediting of “planning” itself as a process of organizing life in communities. Informal settlements in the Central and Eastern Europe area vary as income levels of the target persons, quality of construction and reason or determinants of informality.
The withdrawal of the state from the role of the main provider of housing after the fall of communism was not accompanied by programs and measures to support access to housing by all income categories, which affected in particular the low-income categories that were in the position to find alternatives (informal economy, self-building, non-legal forms).
Numerous informal settlements were de facto formed in the 1950s, when the communist authorities forced the communities of nomadic Roma to settle down , most often on non-fertile lands (pastures, garbage areas, river banks etc.) located outside of villages; the initial households gradually developed beyond the sphere of interest (control) and organizational support of the communist public authorities.
At the same time, the post-revolutionary power vacuum resulted in the fact that a big part of the economic activity in the whole region, Romania included, slipped into the informal sector. With the revision of the constitution and the whole set of laws, a large scale process in all surrounding states, some areas remained uncovered by institutions with clear and well defined mandates.
Meanwhile, many communities in the region have expanded, both as a spatial footprint and as expansion and modernization of the buildings themselves, a process unaccompanied by clearly defined and applied authorization procedures, in a unitary and equitable manner. It is estimated that for urban areas with sustained growth in the Central and Eastern Europe region, for example capital cities, a quarter to half of residents live informally.
The legislative gap, the lack of action of the public authorities and the uncertainties about land ownership have also generated cases where informality is not necessarily generated by extreme poverty and lack of alternatives, as a form of self-organization, land ownership and construction.
Thus, informal housing in the Central and Eastern Europe region is a phenomenon that includes very different income categories, and the typology of homes in this situation can range from improvised barracks to luxury villas. However, it is important to underline that informality itself has the most negative impact on the most vulnerable categories.