A certain percentage of the population in Belgrade opted to deal with the housing crisis by building illegally on the periphery of the city. The majority were workers between the ages of twenty-five and forty-six, migrants who had ar-rived in Belgrade from elsewhere in Serbia after the Second World War.17 Ei-ther they had a legal claim to using the land but built without obtaining a per-mit or contravened the building regulations, or else they built on a lot to which they had no claim. They relied on their own building skills, as well as on those of friends and family. Workers in the construction sector may also have taken advantage of privileged access to construction materials. Such informal hous-ing construction had a long history in Belgrade, and municipal authorities had already identified it as a major problem in the interwar period. However, post-war socialist authorities believed this problem to be a symptom of capitalism and expected it to disappear in the new political and economic order.
However, by 1956, municipal authorities were remarking that “illegal construction” had taken on wider proportions in the preceding years and, moreover, that the state organs responsible for dealing with this problem had done nothing about it. 18 By 1964, Beogradska Nedelja estimated that there were seven thousand illegally erected houses and that their inhabitants numbered “no less than six or seven times that number.”19 Estimates by officials were equally alarming. In 1964, Stevan Jovanovic, the president of the district of Zvezdara, estimated that there were six thousand illegal housing constructions, probably sheltering some twenty-four thousand inhabitants.20 Branko Pesic estimated in 1965 that there were ten thousand illegal homes, housing some fifty thousand people.21 Newspapers frequently reported on the plight of those living in entire settlements of illegally built homes.22
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Belgrade suffered from the worst case of a problem that afflicted many other larger cities across Yugoslavia. In 1963, Belgrade only had 2,428 in-stances of private construction, compared to Zagreb’s 4,674 cases, but of that total number, Belgrade had 1,497 cases of rogue construction, whereas Za-greb only had 1,065. In comparison, the city with the next highest number of cases was Osijek, with 540.23 Yugoslavia, however, was not unique in Europe. During the same period, numerous European cities, including Paris, Madrid, and Rome, contended with their own rogue construction problems. In Paris, informal settlements tended to be populated by immigrants, a symptom of their broader exclusion from French society. An article in Beogradska nedelja on squatter settlements containing some sixty thousand inhabitants on the pe-riphery of the French capital expressed shock that “Paris and London suffer from the same problems as Belgrade!”24 In Southern European cities, informal settlements testified to the inability of private and social housing construction to keep up with the tide of migration from the countryside into the cities. In Rome and in Greek cities, increased rural-to-urban migration in the 1960s and the exorbitant price of land combined to encourage illegal construction on private and public land.25
The extent of illegal construction in the Eastern Bloc after postwar reconstruction is not known, and few cases have appeared in the scholarly literature, but this does not mean that it was nonexistent. Anecdotally, J. A. A. Sillince has noted that the Soviet city of Sumgait, which had a population of 250,000 in the late 1980s, had a “shanty-town” of 20,000 people.26 Informal settlements are also likely to have existed in Eastern European states with significant Roma populations.
Remarkably, in interviews conducted in 2005 and 2006, urban planners who worked in Belgrade during this period revealed no recollection of illegal construction at the time. They stated that no one would have dared to break the law, because the state would have responded unmercifully. Their response was tinged with the ambivalence that is characteristic of the collective memory of Yugoslavia. On the one hand, they suggested that the state was powerful, perhaps too much so, even terrorizing people with arbitrary punishment. On the other hand, they sighed wistfully for an era that they associated with the rule of law— in contrast with the present day, when, they felt, anyone could bribe the authorities, and urban planners no longer had any power.27
When confronted by the authorities, rogue builders would typically stand their ground. An urban planner from Novi Sad discussed the stubborn re-sistance of rogue builders in his town: “the resistance of rogue builders to all recommendations and measures based on the ‘spirit of the law’ are renowned. Each meeting—which as a rule are massive gatherings—between representa-tives of the government and these builders turns into a ‘dialogue of the deaf.’ ”28 They could also count on the support of their neighbors. A sociologist com-mented that, “as a rule, when it comes to destroying such buildings, citizens show solidarity and united resistance to inspectors.”29 She added that inspec-tors, too, “being of flesh and blood,” were reluctant to proceed with demolition.