Nearly one million Hungarians at risk of freezing in their homes

February 9, 2017

“During the latest cold spell we slept in four pairs of trousers, four pullovers, and two pairs of socks under a blanket . . . I always have a change of underwear and a towel on me, and when an acquaintance allows, I seize the opportunity (to bathe)”  – Andrea

“It’s a shame that we live like this is the 21st century.” – Bettina

Translation of “There’s no point to having a flat if your hand freezes to the handle” appearing in on February 9th, 2017.

One million people live in cold or completely unheated flats in Hungary.  They are less visible than the homeless people freezing in the streets, but the lasting cold poses just as great a threat to them.  Often it is not only the poorest but former members of the middle classes who freeze in their homes.  Andrea’s family was ruined by the economic crisis. Today they sleep in hats. Bettina’s family had a falling out with their landlord, as a result of which they use the oven to heat and bathe in a washtub.

On January 9th a caller informed the Cegléd police that no smoke was coming from a chimney.  The 37-year-old woman living there with four children told the police that they had run out of small pieces of wood and she was not able to chop up the larger pieces.  In the end, the police did it for her.

A few days later in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county a similar thing happened: police arrived at a house to discover that the temperature inside was below freezing.  The aged tenant told them that the stove was broken and she was trying to stay warm by wrapping herself in a down blanket.  The police took her to a day shelter and her partner to the hospital.

One family in Székesfehérvár was not as fortunate — an 11-year-old boy froze to death in his own bed sitting in the lap of his mother.  The boy, who suffered from diabetes, lived with his mother who often did not have money for food despite being employed as a bookkeeper.  Often neighbors helped with food and firewood.  The woman was in shock and was taken to hospital.

On several occasions over the past month temperatures have dropped to below minus ten for days on end.  Aid workers have been patrolling streets in an effort to prevent homeless people from freezing to death.  The tooth-rattling cold threatens not only the homeless but often people who are living in flats but have no money for heat or electricity.  We looked into how many people were affected by the problem, and how many people live in unheated homes in Budapest and the countryside.

One million people are freezing

The Hungarian chapter of Habitat for Humanity compiles annual data on energy poverty.  According to the latest 2015 data, the proportion of those who cannot afford to heat their homes has fallen somewhat, but still amounts to 9.6 percent of the total population, that is, 946,000 people.  The difference between those living above and below the poverty level is dramatic.  One quarter of those living below the poverty line are affected, whereas only 7 percent of those living above the poverty line are.

As of the end of December 2015, nearly 100,000 households had been disconnected from public utilities.  Another 400,000 households were threatened with having their electricity turned off due to utility arrears.  In the case of natural gas and district heating, this number of threatened households is 194,000 and 126,000, respectively.  Moreover, at the end of 2014, 140,000 households were more than 90 days behind in paying their mortgages.

It is life-threatening to live in an unheated flat, says From Street to Flat Association (“Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület”) employee Vera Kovács.  The persistent cold constitutes a continuous burden on our bodies.  In order for someone to freeze, it is not necessary for the temperature to fall below freezing.  It’s enough if somebody is not adequately dressed.  The association’s employees service many clients who are not listed as homeless because they live within four walls, but who go to day shelters to stay warm because they have no money for heating.

“The income relations are inadequate,” says Kovács.  Despite government-mandated decreases in household utility costs, the cost of public utilities remains high.  Those living in rental units must pay rent.  In winter the price of firewood goes up.  Kovács says the termination of the uniform flat maintenance support is a serious problem because it has resulted in a huge disparity in the amount of firewood local governments can give to the needy.  Among those living in bad conditions are those who, for fear of sanctions, dare not turn to the social support system because they are afraid that if the parents cannot adequately heat the flat, the child protection authorities will take their children into state custody.  If, on the other hand, they bring wood from a nearby forest, they can be fined.

Kovács says those unable to adequately heat their homes varies.  One group of needy people have lived in poverty for generations.  In other cases, an unexpected development, such as divorce, was all it took for them to fall out of the middle class.

Bathing at acquaintances’

Andrea lives in a single family house with four others in a small settlement near Budapest.  Her son is a carpenter, her mother is a pensioner, and her daughter and her friend also live with them.  They work in three shifts.  The economic crisis completely wiped them out.  They had a loan.  Their public utility arrears mounted.  For this reason, when their furnace broke down eight years ago, they could not replace it.   They lost their credit rating and do not have the one and a half million forints necessary to replace it.  All they could do was buy a stove for the living room.  “I am also the inhabitant of a hovel, just one that I happen to own,” says Andrea.  The stove heats the living room but not the sleeping areas.  In this way the temperature inside the house is 13-14 degrees, which is enough so that the water doesn’t freeze but it often happens that large icicles form on the windowsills and the door handles are freezing to the touch.  All of this complicates their lives.

  • Every evening after work she has to cut wood with her son.
  • They are dependent on the price of firewood and the cold (because of the extreme cold in January they burnt 1000 kilograms of wood in under two weeks).
  • If the wood runs out, then Andrea, under the guise of walking the dog, goes to a nearby forest and collects twigs, and is continuously afraid of being arrested for stealing wood.

But the stove is incapable of heating the entire house.

“Often it happens that we sleep in hats,” says Andrea. “During the latest cold spell we slept in four pairs of trousers, four pullovers, and two pairs of socks under a blanket.  And when it became too cold to bear, we all crowded into the living room.”

Despite the working stove, it also happens that the water freezes for days on end, and for this reason they always store water in plastic bottles.  They are in the habit of bathing in a washbasin or at acquaintances’.  “I always have a change of underwear and a towel on me, and when an acquaintance allows, I seize the opportunity,” says Andrea.

However, all of this causes her to feel tired all the time.  Her mother, who does not work and spends the entire day freezing at home, takes sedatives in order to spend as little time as possible awake.

The gas heater hasn’t worked for ten years

Evelin, a pensioner, lives in the middle of Budapest in a council flat next to the Blaha Lujza square.  Since she moved there in the 1990s the condition of the flat has gradually deteriorated.  The previous tenant did not take care of the flat.  There were a few years when someone else lived there instead of Evelin, during which time the flat became moldy.  The gas furnace was turned off more then ten years ago because the chimney is not lined and anyway the neighbor’s plant has grown into it, which has not been taken care of.

Evelin heats using her own portable radiator and hotplate. On the one hand, this is very expensive.  On the other, it overloads the electrical system.  She cannot use the radiator and the hotplate at the same time.  And the water heater doesn’t work either.  For this reason the older woman goes to a day shelter to bathe.

Using Christmas candles to light

25-year-old Bettina has lived with her partner in a sublet for the past four years just a few minutes walk from the recently renovated MTK stadium.  It is around 12 degrees in their one-bedroom flat thanks to the oven and the fact that their neighbor heats his flat. Bettina wraps herself in a dressing gown.  There is no electricity.  They light the flat using small LED lights and electric Christmas lights.  “It’s not a pleasant home,” she says.

The flat was not always like this.  There used to be heating and electricity too.  However, they learned in 2015 that the landlord had no right to rent them the flat as it did not belong to him:  he was renting it from the Hungarian Railroad Company (MÁV).  Since then ownership has transferred to the local government. Bettina claims that even though they paid the monthly utility bill, the landlord never remitted this to the utility companies.  For this reason, they accumulated arrears of HUF 900,000 (USD 3100).

They are afraid to use the utilities that still work for fear of increasing their arrears.  “We would like to pay for what we consumed but we don’t get a bill,” she explains.  The utility companies only send bills directly to them if they agree with the owner.  The local government, however, does not know they are living there.  They would need to be registered as the official occupants.  For this, they would need to agree with the landlord, as they are paying him.  He, on the other hand, wants to see them in the street.

“The problem is that we cannot move.  We don’t earn enough to be able to afford to sublet an apartment,” says Bettina.  They cannot afford to spend HUF 100,000 (USD 345) a month on a sublet, even though she works as a shift leader and her partner has a job as a cleaner.  However, the two of them earn too much to qualify for social support.  And so they make do as best they can.  They continue to pay the checks that arrive, including rent. They are trying to arrange for the flat to be registered in their name.

Until then, they will light the flat using batteries and candles.  They don’t heat at all.  They either bathe in a washbasin or at an acquaintance’s.  “It’s a shame that we live like this is the 21st century,” says Bettina.