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France

The forgotten souls of the Chêne Pointu estate

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2010-11-04

Chêne Pointu, a run-down housing estate in the notorious Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, has yet to see any benefits from a promised urban renovation programme.

Despite government promises, the misery of the Chêne Pointu housing estate north-east of Paris grinds on without end.

It is here that two teenagers died in 2005, electrocuted in a power relay station as they fled from police.

Their deaths sparked weeks of nationwide riots. There followed a period of intense media glare and government introspection over the appalling social and economic decline of France’s blighted suburban ghettos.

The government vowed to act and earmarked billions of euros for redevelopment projects.

But five years on, life in Chêne Pointu, home to a predominantly immigrant community with soaring unemployment, is as grim as ever before.

As far as Clichy-sous-Bois mayor Claude Dillain is concerned, Chêne Pointu is a “high-rise slum”.

A high-rise slum

The estate, two ten-storey tower blocks built in the 1960s, has 1,500 individual apartments. It is home to 6,000 people, more than half of whom live below the official poverty line (950 euros a month).

The blocks’ lifts are so antiquated that spare parts are no longer available. None of them has worked properly in years.

The stairways are damp and there is mould everywhere. Bare wires hang down, none of the post boxes are functional and graffiti tags, in their hundreds, are ubiquitous.

When looking at the estate, it is hard to believe that the elegant buildings and ornate facades of Paris are just a few kilometres away.

The state of dilapidation is such that any idea of a complete and satisfactory renovation is totally unrealistic.

Nevertheless, a small group of residents, under the banner “Together we can straighten out Chêne Pointu”, is trying to force improvements.

Chaos and degradation

“The more the place falls apart physically, the more it encourages anti-social behaviour,” says Hanane Lakhal, the only member of the group who has a full-time job.

She organises clean-up operations with a local youth group. They periodically go around the estate armed with bin bags picking up litter.

“We have to be careful,” she says. “Some people just throw their rubbish out of the windows.” The day before, a bin bag full of dirty nappies fell on her head.

In the apartments themselves, conditions mirror the chaos and degradation outside.

Residents have long stopped counting the number of leaks or broken windows, which are often held together with sticky tape or replaced with rags.

As the weather gets colder, many of these dwellings are left without hot water and central heating – the pipes have corroded and broken.

The absent head of the owners’ association

Six years ago, a court appointed a lawyer, Florence Tulier, to take charge of the Chêne Pointu estate’s property-owners’ association, which is responsible for the building and ground maintenance.

Such associations are a legal requirement in France wherever there is more than one dwelling in a property.

“She has failed in her mission 100%,” says Hanane Lakhal. “She never answers her phone, she never comes here. In six years she has done precisely nothing. The buildings are crumbling and the debts are increasing.”

Florence Tulier did not respond to FRANCE 24's repeated requests for an interview.

The slum landlords

The estate’s administrative problems are compounded by the presence of slum landlords who own a huge number of the apartments and use their property to exploit vulnerable immigrants.

One such landlord owns 54 properties at Chêne Pointu. His tenants are overwhelmingly immigrant families, often in France illegally. They have no choice but to accept the conditions offered.

On the ninth floor of one of the two blocks, two immigrant African families share a small two-room flat – nine people in a property of barely 30 square metres.

In one of the rooms a couple struggle over their administrative paperwork while their daughters watch cartoons on the television.

The room, while crowded, is at least clean. It is also warm – they are lucky to have some heating. They are especially lucky as one of the daughters recently had heart surgery. She nevertheless has to climb nine flights of stairs every day.

Between them, the two families pay 1,200 euros a month in rent, for a small apartment whose location is hardly desirable.

“There is worse,” says Hanane. “In the other block there are four families, 17 people, living in 65 square metres…”

Lengthy procedures

These slum landlords are in the local authorities’ sights, although there is little that can be done.

“We are working with the police, the courts and the tax offices,” says Clichy-sous-Bois deputy mayor Olivier Klein. “Landlords can be fined if their properties are in a bad state or over-occupied.”

“Tenants are legally not obliged to pay rent for a property deemed unfit for habitation. We can also target property owners for exploiting the vulnerability of their tenants, which is a criminal offence.”

But these procedures take a long time to play out. And slum landlords are adept at playing the legal game. As soon as they receive a summons, they sell the properties, often to other slum landlords, and escape prosecution.

“One solution would be to buy the apartments one by one as they come on the market,” says Olivier Klein. “But it’s the same old story – we don’t have the budget.”
 

Date created : 2010-11-04

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