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February 2010


12 social economy


Chairmen of their destiny

A homeless shelter in Brussels uses smart housing and employment schemes to emancipate individuals who have fallen through the cracks but fight to crawl back out. Nina Lamparski reports


here is bitter irony in that it takes sub-zero temperatures to thaw our hearts. When Belgian weather conditions turned disastrously icy just before Christmas, King Albert II opened his royal quarters in Namur province to accommodate two homeless families. Concurrently, Prime Minister Yves Leterme, “deeply moved” by televised images of shivering children out in the cold, called upon the general population to show their support by offering money, clothes, or possibly a bed to people living on the streets. Exceptionally, those in need made the front page of national papers. One of the Bulletin’s own journalists even went undercover and begged outside the European Parliament in minus six degrees Celsius to test citizens’ sense of charity. Only a misanthropist would suggest that the human tragedy merely provided fodder for media coverage and political stunts,

or that the public did not truly care. The problem is that while our intentions seem good, they also seldom outlive the next news bulletin. With the melting snow, beggars and asylum seekers slowly vanished from the headlines. But “although the winter makes the situation worse, being homeless isn’t much better during warmer days”, said spokeswoman Frédérique Demeuse from Les Petits Riens, Belgium’s largest shelter house for homeless men. Plus “giving someone a blanket or shower for the night” might provide a short-term fix yet fails to address the social problem in the long run. Like elsewhere across Europe, the mass of people without a fixed address is growing in Belgium. In the absence of an official government census, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless estimates national figures to hover around 17,000, if not higher. “The concept of

homeless is a very shady one because it’s hard to differentiate between people who properly live on the streets and those using social services like ours,” Demeuse explained. She also warned that the country’s socio-economic demographics were changing in the light of a shrinking middle class. “Being homeless no longer necessarily means being jobless,” she said. “In fact we’re clearly seeing a steady rise of the working poor in Belgium. These are people who have a job but who sadly through debt, the inability to manage their money, mental problems or drug dependency cannot find a steady place to live.” On top of that, cheap accommodation becomes a rarity even in Brussels, a city once renowned for its reasonably priced living quarters. By regularly scanning the local real estate market, social workers at the Petits Riens noted that the number of properties advertised for a monthly average of €400 – the maximum rent most homeless can afford to pay – has dwindled to three digits. In 2008, there were only 581 classifieds corresponding to this criterion, compared to 2,781 in 2006 and 7,310 in 2005. Given the tough recession, the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. That is where Les Petits Riens’ latest venture could help provide a real long-term solution to the complex socio-economic issue. Launched as a pilot project in 2007, the association bought two run-down maisons de maître in Ixelles and Etterbeek, and recently completed their transformation from single family homes into so-called habitations solidaires, or solidarity residences. Since January, the buildings house eight previously homeless people aged 23 to 60, some employed, some on benefit, who all have their own room but share communal living areas. Financed through donations and proceeds from their thrift stores, Les Petits Riens have managed to keep rental costs exceptionally low, with tenants paying between €250 and €320 a month. Crucially, the project provides an important sense of community. Everyone in the residence has experienced unbearable horrors in their past. One man developed serious depression when his child died, while another, a former museum director, went bankrupt after being backstabbed by an associate. The stories’ common denominator is that they have led to “solitude and exclusion”, underlined Demeuse. “The reason why they end up on the street is because they feel that they have no family or friends to fall back on. They grow extremely introverted and incapable of creating social bonds. Unlike in classical social housing schemes, you have group support in solidarity residences, and social workers drop by on a regular basis to ensure everything is going well.” The lease differs from traditional rental agreements in one particular point. When someone chooses to leave the residence (which they can do at any given moment), Les Petits Riens will

take charge of finding a new tenant whose profile matches the group’s dynamics, to avoid disturbing the balance. Given the project’s important psychological component, not just anybody qualifies as a potential candidate for the project. “The applicants are already firmly integrated in our social centre and have shown commitment to bring stability into their life,” said Demeuse. “They have worked with social assistants and taken steps toward sorting out their paperwork, managing a budget or addressing psychological problems. They want to exist more autonomously from our structure but not in complete isolation. Many have lost control over their finances so one of the first things we do is to teach them how to budget and pay back debts, whether they live off welfare or have a steady income.” Once a person has expressed their wish to join a solidarity residence and chosen the people they would like to live with, common rules must be established among the future flatmates before they move in together. Household tasks like cooking, cleaning and shopping become important projects in this context as they create vital routines and responsibilities. A steady roof also evokes physical safety, a precious commodity which does not exist on park benches or in temporary shelters. It means people can focus on themselves and redirect their energies to finding some form of work and eventually, hopefully, serenity. “Getting active fosters self-valorisation and independence,” argued Demeuse. “The core philosophy driving Les Petits Riens is social reintegration through employment. If we can’t find external jobs for the homeless because of addiction or mental problems, we get them to collect, sort or sell furniture at our thrift stores for example.” Overall the association provides work for 500 people, including 120 people on the payroll, volunteers, vendors, social workers, students and trainees. Its administrative headquarters and largest thrift store are located at 101 Rue Américaine in Ixelles. The shop, along with 16 others dotted around Belgium, finances around 80 percent of the social projects. Last but not least there are the sorting centres for clothes, furniture and toys donated by the public. “Our social economy has three advantages,” said Demeuse. “Every penny we make from our stores goes straight toward our social projects. Secondly it gives 300 marginalised people with little or no qualifications an opportunity to work. Finally our stores allow low-income earners to buy everything they need to furnish their home.” In a not too distant future, Les Petits Riens plan to open further solidarity residences and a youth shelter. Considering what they have achieved so far mostly by themselves, imagine what they could do with additional governmental subsidies. Here’s looking at you, Mister Picqué. z

We’re clearly seeing a steady rise of the working poor in Belgium


My car, my saviour We examine EU policies in the making, strip them of officialese and offer readers a closer insight into what goes on in the public arena. This week, Nina Lamparski looks at an EU directive SHUTTERSTOCK

which places its faith in smart vehicles rather than smart drivers


ot long ago this writer totalled her Citroën. Luckily she was not behind the wheel. Nor was anyone else for that matter. The C1 stood parked on a quiet street when a female driver in her 60s crashed into the car on a Sunday morning. The police report revealed that there were no drugs or alcohol involved: the woman had merely been “distracted” as she came around the corner at reasonable speed, suddenly swayed and lost control. The accident could possibly have been avoided, had the lady’s car been equipped with an intelligence system c a lled Elect ron ic Stabilit y Cont rol (ESC). The smart technology, first introduced in 1995, identifies potential crash situations and stabilises the vehicle by braking individual wheels. This in turn reduces the risk of skidding during sudden manoeuvres. So instead of being a passive safety system (i.e. the seat belt), ESC focuses on accident prevention. A study by the Institute for Transport Economics in Cologne revealed that 4,000 lives could be saved on European roads and 100,000 injuries avoided if all vehicles possessed ESC. This also means multi-billion euro savings in health care and insurance costs. As a result of ESC’s proven efficiency, the technology will become mandatory in Europe for all new passenger cars and commercial vehicles as of November 2014. The EU thus joins America, Canada and Australia where similar regulations are being put into place. The European Commission hopes that ESC will help the Road Safety Action Programme 2003-2010 achieve its goal of halving the number of people killed on European roads. The only thing ‘safe’ about the programme at this stage is the assumption that the target will not meet its 2010 deadline: preliminary data, presented by the Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding, revealed that so far the decrease achieved hovers around two percent. Even worse, many member states have actually experienced considerable escalation of fatalities. Indeed, Commissioner, “we are not doing very well”. But for once politicians cannot be held to blame for the despondent figures. Nor should we point the finger at the automobile industry for building increasingly faster cars (without which, one might argue, none

“Even worse, many member states have experienced considerable escalation of fatalities”

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of these safety technologies would be needed). The responsibility for responsible driving lies primarily with the individual who also has the power to make wise purchasing decisions. And women, it turns out, value safety more than men when they buy a vehicle. However, they are also 30 percent less likely to know about the existence of so-called e-safety technologies, according to a recent European survey released by the e-SafetyAware association in Brussels. Wonder why? Partly it comes down to lingering chauvinism. Enter a car store as a couple in 2009 and you will find that the sales person still tends to speak to the male and ignore the female. To change this, and in light of the impending ESC policy, e-SafetyAware is campaigning hard in partnership with the Commission to raise public awareness amidst both genders regarding clever warning systems. The organisation is headed by none other than the new president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) – former Ferrari boss Jean Todt who evidently manages to pull a lot of star power to support e-SafetyAware initiatives. During a recent two-day media event in Rome, racing drivers including Heikki Kovalainen, Luca Badoer and Susie Stoddart demonstrated the efficiency of ESC and other e-safety systems (blind spot monitoring, speed alert, etc) in a series of test-drives. Even Michael Schumacher made a brief appearance, declaring his strong support for e-Safety technologies (and indirectly for Todt ahead of the FIA elections which had not yet taken place at that point...). There is no doubt about the life-saving potential of these systems. But some pertinent questions were raised at the Rome conference which had attracted senior representatives of car brands and numerous independent associations from around Europe. E-technologies currently represent an expensive extra for car manufacturers who have to buy the systems from specialised companies. Hence not many brands in the ailing car industry can afford to install them, especially when many drivers remain unaware of the systems or see them as unnecessary gimmicks. It is therefore understandable that smaller companies are reluctant to add more costs to their production. So those creating e-technologies need to lower their sales rate or else we as consumers will pay dearly to save our lives under the new ESC policy. Finally, while eSafetyAware’s agenda is laudable, having F1 heavy-weight Todt now also at the head of the FIA sends a rather unethical message to every-day motorists: the future belongs to faster cars, not smarter drivers.


Fare for all Until now drivers got a free ride on Belgian roads, but expect that to change within the next few years, writes Nina Lamparski


eople’s resistance to fork out money suddenly for something that has traditionally been free of charge is understandable, especially during a tough recession in a country boasting one of the world’s highest income taxes. “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?” asked one disgruntled cybernaute when I invited people via Twitter to share their thoughts on introducing a congestion charge into Brussels. “I don’t want to pay even more taxes,” grumbled my partner after I mentioned the subject to him. “They should tax the construction sites around Brussels in that case because they’re the ones causing all the congestion,” said a friend, adding that “it will never happen anyway”. But with more than five million cars on Belgian roads in 2009, the country and its capital are stuck in traffic. And if you look beyond national borders you will notice that the days of free-for-all road access are counted. Over the past decade a range of cities, including London, Oslo, Stockholm and Rome, have successfully implemented an inner-city congestion charge. In each of these capitals, a significant reduction in traffic volumes has been noted (on average around 20 or more percent), as well as an increase in the use of public transport. Meanwhile Australia launched its first congestion pricing scheme at Sydney Harbour Bridge in January 2009, and San Francisco is likely to apply a similar strategy to the Golden Gate Bridge in the coming years. Even Vietnam recently announced a congestion charge trial for Ho Chi Minh, involving radio beacons and a camera control network covering the city’s densest arteries. “Cities implement a pricing scheme for different reasons. In London it was clearly targeting congestion. In Stockholm and Rome, on the other hand, it was more the environment that was at stake,” explained transport economist David Blackledge who coordinated the EU-funded CURACAO research project. Based on extensive case study analyses, the programme helps cities interested in “urban road user charging” to identify potential issues and overcome barriers. “Bussels is an interesting case which would need to be studied in depth. Designing a scheme could be quite tricky because the city and surrounding region have a different congestion structure to London and Stockholm. Plus it’s not just about implementing the scheme. You also need to take into account the public transport capability and evaluate the impact of changing the road system. The research and development cost millions of euros and take at least five years,” said Blackledge. However inner-city tolls are not the only option to make our road system more environmentally friendly and less

congested. In a European first, the Dutch government announced last month that it will scrap all road and vehicle tax by 2012 and replace it with a ‘green’ charge based on the distance driven. After more than ten years of weighing the pros and cons, the transport ministry concluded that a national kilometre charge (NKC) would significantly cut CO2 emissions, reduce accidents and halve traffic jams in one of the continent’s most congested road networks.

I drive, therefore I pay So how will the Dutch scheme work? Except for taxis, buses and motorcycles, every vehicle, from family cars to trucks, will be equipped with a GPS tracking system. The device will record each journey and send the information to a central billing agency. By the same token the government is set to abolish the purchase tax, which currently makes up roughly a quarter of the cost of a new vehicle. “At the moment, when you buy a mid-range car, you have to pay a registration tax of more than €10,000,” said Dutch Transport Minister Camiel Eurlings. Initially the NKC will start off at three euro cents per kilometre, rising to 6.7 cents by 2018. In addition, the rate will be higher during rush hour and for more polluting vehicles. There is also a clause (and one that is bound to worry some observers) allowing for the tax to be adjusted if the revenues generated are not in line with expectations. Still, the Dutch government argues that at the end of the day most drivers will pay less once the changes get implemented because the charge will not exceed current taxes. Alongside its environmental component, the NKC indicates a vital shift in governance because it emancipates motorists both as consumers and citizens. In the future motorists will pay for using their car rather than owning it. Furthermore, the NKC represents an effective way for governments to raise additional rev-

W here wou

o? ld the toll g

Over the past decade experts like Belgian road consultancy Stratec have developed various scenarios about where to implement a toll charge in Brussels. The most likely case suggests establishing roughly 45 control points at various ring entries (compared to 18 in Stockholm and 173 in London). In a 2007 editorial, Le Soir journalist Frédéric Sourmois cautions that several regional border roads would have to be shut down to avoid their turning into free detour routes. December 3 2009 www. t h eb u l l e 21

ECO SPECIAL enues and pour them directly into upgrading and expanding the transport and road infrastructure.

Penality for Brussels

“If we charged people who don’t live in Brussels for using our roads, the Region could raise €700 million”

The Dutch decision is likely to hasten the implementation of NKC legislation in Belgium, where most political parties – regardless of what region they represent – seem to be supporters of the scheme. It “hands the responsibility back to consumers by changing the system from a fixed-rate tax to a tax linked to the number of kilometres travelled”, wrote Brussels Region’s Economy and Employment Minister, Benoît Cerexhe, in the national broadsheet Le Soir last year. But although the Christian Democrat (cdH) backs the NKC, he is a vocal opponent of the inner-city congestion tax, which in his opinion would ultimately “penalise” Brussels from an economic point of view. “The question of mobility in and around Brussels can only be considered from a broader viewpoint [and] the thought process needs to occur not only within a Brussels but also a Belgian context, in perfect dialogue with the two other regions, ” said Cerexhe. This is where the political debate goes wrong, according to Dudley Curtis from the non-profit organisation Transport and Environment. “It is not a matter of choosing either the national kilometre charge or a congestion tax because they both target separate issues,” said Curtis. “One is directed at heavy freight traffic on highways and national roads to limit CO2 and other polluting emissions. An inner-city toll is targeted at a local issue. It focuses on easing urban traffic, inviting people to avoid driving at peak hours, go to work at an earlier or later time, and opting for public transport. I think Belgium needs both.”

Capital gains So does the federal State Secretary for Finance and Environmental Tax, Bernard Clerfayt, a member of the liberal party (MR). “After the Dutch decision to introduce a national kilometre charge, Belgium evidently needs to follow,” he said during a phone interview. “It is more effective, more targeted than, say, the carbon tax on petrol which cannot be adapted to the moments when we choose to drive. But I am also clearly in favour of an urban toll system. While the kilometre charge needs Wallonia and Flanders to implement the same electronic system before the plan can go ahead, Brussels Region can address its local traffic problems without having to wait for anyone else.” In response to the economic argument against the congestion charge, Clerfayt countered that traffic jams are the bigger money waster because we waste precious minutes stranded on Brussels roads. In addition, he emphasised the financial damage arising from 22 w w w. t hebulletin. be December 3 2009

indirect costs such as pollution and stress. Following Clerfayt’s own calculations, “if we charged people who don’t live in Brussels a reasonable sum of say €7 a day, five days per week, for using our roads, the Region could raise around €700 million net in revenue. This would pay off the congestion system and help upgrade public transport.” His theory certainly addresses a major pitfall in the Belgian tax revenue system: you pay your income tax where you live, not where you work. So although hundreds of thousands of people enter the capital on a daily basis, they choose to live outside the Region to avoid Brussels’ high taxes. As a result, not much of the money made here actually flows back into the city to help local authorities address serious socio-economic and environmental issues. With a congestion tax this flawed system could possibly be overhauled. However, at the same time critics point out that a congestion tax also inevitably puts increased financial pressure on the poor and lower middle class – a fact, which Clerfayt acknowledged but brushed aside. “Calling the toll system an anti-social measure is totally wrong,” he argued. “Statistics show that many poor people don’t have cars so they will not be affected by the tax one way or another. Less congestion will help them financially because we will be able to spend more money on public transport and thus offer better access. I already told [Brussels Region’s Minister President] Charles Piqué about my plan but surprisingly there is no interest.”

A champion’s cause However, while the Piqué government does not consider introducing a congestion charge, it is worth putting the debate on the table. According to Blackledge, public opinion always tends to be negative at first and cities have taken different approaches to implement the congestion tax. “Stockholm did something very risky by implementing a full-scale congestion charge experiment for six months and then holding a referendum,” said Blackledge. “If the public had voted no, it would’ve been a very expensive experiment. But the city believed that the public needed to get an idea directly of what the scheme meant for them. The effects of a congestion charge are very difficult to judge in isolation.” Many cities will most likely not get away with this kind of guerrilla technique. A safer option is to “have a strong political champion or figurehead who believes that a congestion charge is urgently needed”. “The best example is London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone whose election campaign was centred on introducing a congestion charge into the city,” said Blackledge. “You need someone with courage and strong beliefs, someone who people trust to make the right decision for them.” Not an easy feat for Brussels, then.

Kill the myth

If Schaerbeek was on trial, chances are the jury would find it guilty without listening to anyone’s testimony. Nina Lamparski speaks up for a neighbourhood that is trying to clear its name


chaerbeek is majestic: look at its town hall on Place Collignon, more palace than administrative headquarters; at its wide, elegant avenues off Boulevard Lambermont; or at Park Josaphat with its glorious statues. Schaerbeek is sordid: look at the run-down homes around the Gare du Nord; the cans and plastic bags strewn along pavements; or the groups of dark-haired men sitting on benches, yelling comments at female passers-by. Schaerbeek is creative: look at the Maison Autrique, the first house Victor Horta ever designed; the Art Nouveau school of Henri Jacobs; or the sgraffiti on many facades. Schaerbeek is the home of Jacques Brel, René Magritte and Maurane. It is also the home of thousands of expats and refugees, of wealthy diplomats and the unemployed, of Eastern Europeans and North Africans, of young families who move here for the cheap rent and cantankerous old ladies who wish no one with an unpronounceable name would ever move here at all. Flanked by the European Commission, the RTBF broadcasting tower and mosques, Schaerbeek is one person’s Ankara and another’s Notting Hill. Communications strategist Dominique Poncin has been living on the 33rd floor of the vertiginous Brusilia tower at the end of Avenue Louis Bertrand for five years. He likes that “there is a lot of green space. I have 16 w w w. t hebulletin. be October 8 2009

a three-year-old son and I noticed that the playgrounds are now buzzing with other parents and their children. Much effort and money seems to have gone into slowing down the traffic and making Schaerbeek safer and more family friendly.” For local resident Juliette Claire, however, “the playgrounds are seedy and not really clean, [there’s] not much community activity, or if there is, it’s not well advertised”. How can one area reflect so many different realities at once? Because Schaerbeek is a complex microcosm where global, national, local and foreign politics collide on a daily basis. That in itself is not the problem. In fact, some would argue that the life force generated by these clashes is healthy, even necessary in the context of a rapidly changing world order. The major issue at stake is that we deny Schaerbeek its many facets and reduce it to a common denominator: the Other as the Enemy. It’s the moment when urban dreaming turns into a suburban nightmare and the municipality becomes a place “packed with Moroccans and Turkish” where “the only Belgian is the mayor”, as Walloon comedian François Pirette crooned on television two decades ago. In recent weeks the sketch has suddenly resurfaced on the internet unleashing a wave of criticism, with regional papers calling Pirette a racist. Indignant, the humorist has defended himself by pointing out that his



lyrics were being used outside their historical context. The song, he insisted, was actually aimed at making fun of former rightwing mayor Roger Nols who ran Schaerbeek (into the ground) between 1970 and 1989. Placed in this light, the lyrics do indeed gain a different perspective – their bad taste notwithstanding. Nols was notoriously xenophobic and not subtle about it either. He once arrived at Schaerbeek town hall on the back of a camel to demonstrate what would happen to local politics if foreigners were given the right to vote. Migrants proved not to be the only target. Nols also intensely disliked Dutch speakers who made up roughly twelve percent of Schaerbeek’s population. He tried to push through discriminatory legislation that would see French become the main municipal language. Although the federal government quickly put an end to his illegal efforts, officials couldn’t prevent the mayor from abandoning Flemish public schools which, tragically underfunded, had no other option but to shut down. It seems Nols was so busy trying to get or keep people out of his electorate that he failed to focus on and protect the needs of the community. By the time his mandate finished, many of the neighbourhood’s beautiful Art Nouveau houses and maisons de maître were falling apart. “It’s true that under Nols, there was a strong neglect of the most populated areas here, the ones people associate with lower Schaerbeek, although I really don’t like using this upper-lower divide terminology,” says acting mayor Cécile Jodogne, while she sips fruit tea from a grey Ikea cup in her town hall office twenty years after Nols must have sat in pretty much the same spot. The vivacious woman has held office since March 2008, when she was asked to fill in for the actual mayor of Schaerbeek, Bernard Clerfayt, after he was voted State Secretary for Finance. Under Belgian law you are not allowed to carry out both functions at the same time so he chose his long-term head of cabinet to represent him in Schaerbeek for the duration of his federal engagement. Thus Jodogne went from being the alderwoman for urbanism and heritage to running Belgium’s sixth-largest municipality. With the new role came 120,000 inhabitants, countless nationalities and a 30 percent unemployment rate among young people. “Sometimes I feel a bit discouraged when I come home in the evening because I think ‘God, it’s such a big job’. But we have a well-functioning administration, we get external funding – even if it’s not always enough – and we’ve been trying hard in the last ten years to improve Schaerbeek’s negative image,” explains the economist and geographer who grew up in well-to-do Uccle of all places. The Schaerbeek Jodogne inherited in 2001 when Clerfayt became mayor was battling a very negative public image. “People’s reaction used to be, ‘Oh crap, you live in Schaerbeek!’ but their perceptions weren’t based on facts. We realised we had to stop the reputation of this beautiful municipality going downhill because it kept others from moving here or even visiting. So we focused on urban renovation, revalorisation of the architectural legacy and communal activities that would show Schaerbeek in a positive light.”

As a result of government initiatives, there are upgraded squares, more street lights and speed bumps, widened pavements, gloriously restored Art Nouveau buildings, new sport complexes like the ultra-modern Kinetix gym, additional libraries, the modernised Balsamine theatre, environmentally friendly building projects, basketball hoops on the Lehon square, the Parcours des Artistes and “fifty street parties and flea markets a year”. Essentially the Clerfayt team has focused on improving public space to send the message that the “local council has regained self-confidence”, thereby regenerating pride and a sense of belonging amongst locals. There’s been a positive domino effect as a number of residents on the Rue Royale Sainte-Marie have begun to renovate their own facades to match the efforts of council upgrades. This is the pretty, gentrified, ‘upper’ Schaerbeek. The uneasy question that remains is whether and how these physical initiatives can help break down the boundaries between private spaces of, say, the Turkish or Moroccan residents on Chaussée de Haecht, the Belgian families in the Cité des Jardins close to Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and the expat bubble floating around the European quarter. Jodogne concedes that one of the greatest challenges faced by her rapidly growing municipality is “education which takes place in extremely multicultural classrooms. Sometimes there isn’t a single child of Belgian origin in them. Often these kids require that we teach them French because they don’t speak it at home. We should have smaller classes and offer more remedial lessons. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.” So shouldn’t we invest more in education; for example, to teach children that diversity is a positive thing (and one that’s here to stay as long as globalisation is the politique du jour) and that we do not all need to live in Art Nouveau homes? Another point is that different cultures define public space in different ways. For some it is secular, for others religious. For some it means the freedom to wear headscarves, for others it means banning them. Or, like AnneCécile Maréchal of the Maison des Arts in Schaerbeek points out, in northern African countries “private, interior spaces are more important than public ones. The outside of homes can be rundown but the interior of homes will be spotless because it is where you receive your friends and visitors.” For a crash course on Schaerbeek, head to its most famous public space, the town hall. On Thursday evenings the queues are long because the population registry desk stays open later. Amidst heavy marble columns and sombre statues of dead statesmen, the entire planet seems to congregate on a few square metres. Jodogne mentioned during our interview that the peace in Schaerbeek remains “fragile: all you need is a tiny spark and we could have a riot like in Molenbeek”. No doubt she is right. But as I watch an elderly woman gingerly make her way through a crowd of Arab teenage boys, it’s apparent that the era of Nols is dead – and that can only be a good thing.

“We reduce Schaerbeek to a common denominator: the Other as the Enemy”

October 8 2009 www. th eb u l l eti n . b e 17



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Whose house is it anyway? A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry has confirmed that so far still no solution has been found to solve a diplomatic row turned legal battle involving Belgium, Israel, a posh abode and late rent. At the centre of the drama stands the Salameh Villa in Jerusalem, a luxurious Art Deco estate and current home of the Belgian consulate in the elegant Talbiya (or Talbiyeh) neighbourhood. Built in 1930 by French architect Marcel Favier, the prestigious house at 21 Balfour Street is considered one of the city’s most stunning buildings. It was constructed for the wealthy real estate entrepreneur Constantin Salameh who fled to Lebanon during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Around the same time, Salameh made an arrangement to lease his property to the Belgian government as the latter’s consulate quarters. At this point the story gets complicated. Following its creation, the newly formed state of Israel devised a set of rules aimed at dealing with land and property issues. Amongst them was the Absentee Property law, which allowed officials to seize the abandoned homes of private owners gone for more than six months without contacting the authorities – people evidently living in exile, in most cases. The Salameh Villa was declared an ‘absentee property’ and came under the control of the Israeli Custodian General. For the next few decades, and seemingly untroubled, the Belgian consulate continued to pay rent to the Salameh family. This all changed in 1983, when Israel offered to buy the property (valued at around €10.5 million) for roughly €500,000. According to the regime, the family accepted. According to the family, it turned the offer down. More years passed and the consulate still payed rent to the original owners because the Belgian government does not recognise the Absentee law. But at last the tangled situation came to a head in 2008 when the Jewish state sold the villa to Israeli businessman David Sofer. He promptly sued Belgium for rent arrears and won the case in December last year after an Israeli court ordered the consulate to pay €2.5 million. However the Belgian Foreign Ministry has clearly stated in the past that it would only be willing to discuss the entire matter once a political accord had been reached regarding Israel. In the meantime, “we are actively pursuing a diplomatic solution to the problem,” assured spokesman Bart Ouvry. Nina Lamparski

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