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Pristina Housing Racket

The buying and selling of Serb-owned properties is proving big business for Kosovars who illegally squatted in them after the 1999 war.
By Lindita Camaj

Asllan, a Kosovo Albanian, spent the past decade in Germany but now wants to return home. He paid 63,000 German marks for a two-bedroom apartment in central Pristina recently. The legal owner, a Serb, got most of it. The balance went to the illegal tenant to get him to leave.


"I had to do this," said Asslan, "to avoid worrying about the future." Had he relied on the authorities to enforce an eviction, the squatter would have likely extract his revenge later. With the money paid, the 'debt' is considered settled once and for all.


Though Asslan is convinced he still got a good deal, property lawyers say the illegal occupation of homes abandoned by Serbs during and after the Kosovo war is fast turning into a lucrative business. Some squatters ask for payment out of genuine need, but there are others who are turning it into a sort of protection racket.


Avni Gjakova, one of the first lawyers in Kosovo to specialise in real estate, said squatters demand payment because their own houses were destroyed in the war - or because they have worked as unpaid 'caretakers' of the apartments they were living in.


On average, squatters demand fees of 10-12,000 marks, but Gjakova said there had been cases in Pristina when they refuse to move out for less than eight times that amount.


The Kosovo war led to the destruction of some 120,000 homes across the province - nearly one third of Kosovo's entire housing stock - triggering an influx of rural-dwellers into the towns like Pristina. Meanwhile, many of the province's Serbs abandoned their properties and fled to Serbia proper. In the capital alone, the community fell from 40,000 to 300. Albanians newcomers simply moved into vacant Serb homes.


In 1999, UNMIK charged the UN Centre for Human Settlements, Habitat, with responsibility for resolving ownership disputes. It, in turn, set up the Housing and Property Body, HPB, to do the job.


Habitat's legal officer Ericka Chambers said the HPB had received more than 3,000 enquiries to date, of which two-thirds concerned illegal ownership. But she said she was unaware of cases where squatters had demanded money before vacating properties.


"I didn't go to Habitat," said Gani, who handed 15,000 marks to a family living in the house that he had recently bought in central Pristina. "What would they do to help me?"


Most Kosovar house-buyers share Gani's attitude, according to one local estate agent..


"People don't want any problems," he said. "They prefer to pay 10-15,000 marks on top of the price."


Prospective buyers are often threatened by the illegal tenants they wish to remove while their applications are processed by Habitat. "I know it is difficult," admitted Ericka Chambers." It's a long process and few people believe in it." But she mentioned three recent cases where Habitat's successfully intervened to free houses from illegal owners, two of them in Fushe Kosova, the third in Pristina.


But the squatters know that they have the whip hand in the property market, particularly since the Kosovo capital is in the grip of a foreign investment boom. "This is the third house I've bought in Pristina," said Asllan who returned from Germany to raise his children in Kosovo.


Pristina estate agents admit that most of their buyers are Kosovars living abroad who've come back to invest their savings. "Businessmen are one of the factors driving the trade," said agent.


But another factor in this growing "business", he conceded, was fear. "I'd sooner give away one of my sons than part with this house for nothing," said the illegal occupant of a house in the Breg i Diellit district of the city.


Lindita Camaj is an IWPR contributor.


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