Tbilisi City Hall and Mayor Kakha Kaladze came under fire on December 15 for demolishing 12 “illegal” home constructions on state-owned lands in the Africa neighborhood of the Georgian capital.
Persons claiming the ownership of buildings, backed by activists and opposition politicians, have resisted the demolition process. Several people, including a pregnant woman, have sustained injuries. Reports also say at least 8 protesters were detained following a physical confrontation with the police.
Civil society organizations, activists, and opposition politicians on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum criticized city authorities for what they called an “inhuman” move to deprive low-income people of their residence amidst cold winter temperatures, pandemic-induced harsh conditions, and lack of appropriate housing policies.
One of the protesters whose home was reportedly also bulldozed vowed to take his own life. “I am ill … I cannot watch the misery of my four children, I have nowhere to spend the night,” he said.
Other protesters spoke of a significant part of homes in the area being non-legalized, with one of them noting that her ownership application has been pending in a City Hall committee.
Locals said Sozar Subari, ruling Georgian Dream party’s majoritarian MP for the Samgori constituency, which includes the Africa neighborhood, had promised to help them with ownership legalization procedures during his election campaign, pledging to “live with them until the problems are resolved.”
Speaking of the alleged promises, MP Subari claimed today that he only pledged to help with ownership legalization “wherever possible,” saying that he could not give promises where it is “not within the law.”
Mayor Kaladze responded to criticism in a press briefing later during the day, saying that municipal inspection moved to demolish 12 “illegal” constructions after issuing multiple warnings. Kaladze said he was aware of “grave social conditions, in particular amid pandemic,” but “seizing, stealing state-owned lands cannot be encouraged,” he added.
The Tbilisi Mayor remarked that the citizens having claims over demolished buildings actually own properties in the countryside, and further alleged that there was a “fraud scheme” involving persons who were luring others into offenses for their own economic gains.
According to Kaladze, contrary to the opposition claims, none of the demolished constructions were finished or inhabited, and the City Hall has an ongoing program to aid homeless families with rents.
Public Defender Nino Lomjaria also reacted to the events, highlighting that although the housing constructions were built without permits, the demolition cannot take place in violation of human rights. Lomjaria underscored that the demolition in winter creates further risks of inhuman and degrading treatment, added by pandemic-related dangers. She said the local authorities need to assess the risks and, if need be, offer support measures.
The Ombudsperson also spoke of challenges in regards to the lack of legal definition of homelessness and the absence of precise statistics of homeless persons. Another challenge, she said, had been providing shelters to the homeless.
A separate demonstration protesting against the demolition measures was held outside the Tbilisi City Hall in the evening, with the activists vowing to continue rallies in the coming days in support of those facing losing homes.
The destruction of homes in the low-income neighborhood comes as strict lockdown measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic crisis. The Georgian Government imposed a temporary moratorium on evictions amid the pandemic, but the decree does not envisage saving unpermitted buildings and their tenants from becoming homeless.
Mayor Kaladze announced the demolition of “illegally” built homes at the city government meeting of November 25, ordering the city authorities to act immediately. Kaladze then said they had backing from the Interior Ministry to put an end to “loathsomeness.”