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Housing Shortage Reveals Dark Side of City of Light

June 27, 1990

PARIS (AP) _ Not far from Satan’s Alley and a dead-end street called God, 48 families live in a public square. They are victims of a war on squatters waged by a city of plenty with little room for its poor.

Since March 15, when a winter moratorium on evictions ended, riot police arriving before dawn have cleared dozens of buildings.

The evictions inspire denunciations, demonstrations and charges that the city of Paris, where housing prices are soaring, is trying to push the poor out of town.

″We’re miserable here because we have nothing,″ said Assa Kan, a 30-year- old woman from Mali with six children. They are among 150 people who have lived under tents since May 2 in the Place de la Reunion.

″At night, it’s really cold,″ she said, caressing the chapped cheeks of her 4-month-old daughter. ″All the children are sick.″

Hers is the largest of three camps set up by squatters or renters turned out of condemned buildings. Nine families camp at the foot of Sacre Coeur, the Montmartre basilica, and six live outside a city government office.

In announcing the spring offensive, Paris officials said squatting had reached ″inadmissible″ proportions.

″The city is duty-bound to solve this problem″ and evictions are ″the only way to stop the multiplication of squatters,″ said Jean Tiberi, deputy to Mayor Jacques Chirac.

Within days, 300 people were homeless, nearly half of them children.

″These people had a right to squat,″ said Abbe Pierre, a bearded Roman Catholic cleric who is France’s premier champion of the needy. ″When a man is hungry, he has the right to take bread from the baker.″

Abbe Pierre’s humanitarian organization, the Emmaus Community, provided tents for those evicted.

A siege mentality prevails in the Place de la Reunion, which is ringed with rosebushes and dotted with orange and blue tents.

Amenities consist of one water spigot, three portable toilets like those used at construction sites, and intermittent lighting at night via an extension cord from a nearby cafe. One tent serves as a kitchen.

Mrs. Kan and others said they would remain until the city provided a suitable alternative.

″We are confronted with the unacceptable,″ Bertrand Main, deputy chief of the League of Human Rights, told reporters. ″Demands for rehousing are met with a wall of silence, incomprehension and, sometimes, contempt.″

Paris proposed temporary housing for the evicted in buildings scheduled for demolition in St. Denis, a poor northern suburb. Officials there objected.

″We don’t have a money problem in Paris; we have a problem of land,″ Tiberi, the deputy mayor, said in explaining the housing shortage on French radio.

″For moral reasons ... we cannot accept the principle of rehousing squatters,″ who rob legal occupants of apartment space, he said.

At a news conference, Abbe Pierre said: ″It is a crime to refuse lodging in a city like Paris, where several thousand apartments are vacant.″

The Committee Against Poor Housing, a protest group that finds vacant buildings for squatters, claims there are 3,000 to 4,000 vacant, government- subs idized Moderate Rent Housing units around Paris. The city denies it.

Officials say the number of buildings occupied by squatters, most of them Africans, has grown from 36 to 187 in three years and 41 of the buildings are subsidized units, which have a waiting list of 50,000.

Mayor Chirac said in a letter to Abbe Pierre, made public June 20, that rehousing evicted squatters would be a ″profound injustice″ to people on the waiting list. ″Paris is a city with heart,″ he said, ″but ... neither the capital nor the Paris region can take in all the misery of the world.″

Critics claim the city is being transformed into a ghetto for the elite.

President Francois Mitterrand denounced those ″who enrich themselves while sleeping″ because they own ″a good piece of land or a nice apartment.″

Prices have risen so quickly, he said, ″that they are starting to exclude the possibility of suitable lodging for senior executives with salaries that can reach 50,000 francs per month,″ about $8,700.

Frederica Koch and Amina Amara are among those keeping a vigil with the homeless at the Place de la Reunion.

Ms. Koch was evicted last year from the rent-controlled apartment she occupied for 25 years and, at 58, is a squatter. She lost her job as a clothes cutter during a 10-year battle to keep her home.

Ms. Amara, a single woman with five children, has been on a waiting list for a low-rent apartment for 15 years. After eviction from one building, she and her two youngest children spent a year in a shabby hotel and two months in a restaurant basement before squatting anew in December.

″This problem is too big for us,″ said Berhima Tembely, an immigrant from Senegal who paid a sympathy visit to the square. ″The rich people are treating us like dogs. You have to fight to live in this world.″

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