PARIS // For thousands of Parisians, a hard day’s work ends with a bad night’s sleep in a tiny, stuffy attic room with little or no ventilation and zero storage space.
In a city where it is notoriously difficult to find a flat — especially on a low budget and without the right paperwork — many rooms that once served as sleeping quarters for domestic servants have been turned into apartments for rent.
It is borderline illegal to rent out these micro-apartments, which are typically wedged in the eaves under a rooftop, as they measure less than nine square metres (100 square feet) and often lack proper ventilation.
But many people simply cannot afford any better, and some, like receptionist Ivan Lopez, face other barriers.
“I don’t have a guarantor, no relatives in Paris, and I have a foreign accent,” says Mr Lopez, a 35-year-old of Mexican origin who rents a room measuring just 6.8 square metres for 370 euros ($415) a month.
Repeatedly turned away by rental agencies, he has been unable to find better lodgings for eight years. His bed, which doubles as a sofa and a storage space, is squeezed up against an old fridge and a tiny shower stall.
“I work the night shift, and in the morning it’s really hot when I get back. I can’t sleep in here,” he says.
Flats that were once sleeping quarters for domestic workers are a relic of bourgeois life in the 19th and early 20th centuries when they were referred to as “chambres de bonne” -- maids’ rooms.
Astonishingly, they still fetch sky-high prices of up to 11,000 euros per square metre in the well-to-do neighbourhoods of Paris.
Victoire Ratrimoson, 67, was a modern-day version of the traditional “bonne” when she moved into her sixth-floor perch in the chic north-west of the city in 2011. Originally from Madagascar, she got as a domestic helper for a family living in the building. But when the family moved out soon afterwards, they tried to force her to leave.
“They told me, ‘We don’t require your services anymore. We’ve found someone who charges 400 euros a month,” Ratrimoson says as her eyes well up with tears.
For lack of anything better, Ms Ratrimoson is clinging to the tiny space she calls home. It has no heating or ventilation and measures a mere 7.5 square metres. Her possessions are piled on shelves right up to the ceiling.
“I don’t really live here, I just sleep here,” she says.
Like Mr Lopez, Ms Ratrimoson is hoping the authorities will officially declare her home to be unfit for habitation. That would it illegal to evict them and in turn force the owners — or the state — to find proper housing for them.
According to the Abbe Pierre Foundation, a French NGO that fights for the rights of people living in substandard housing, the authorities are dragging their feet on the issue.
“Today, there are some 7,000 domestic helpers’ rooms that serve as people’s main place of residence, and which measure less than nine square metres. Still, in most cases, the state has not declared them uninhabitable,” says Sarah Coupechoux, from the foundation.
The government’s health agency for the Paris region says that around 50 of these rooms are declared unfit for habitation each year, and the number is on the rise.
Agency official Emmanuelle Beaugrand says an administrative court decided in 2013 that insufficient size is not the only criterion. “For a room measuring seven to nine (square) metres, we no longer issue such orders systematically. Other criteria need to be met too, such as inadequate ventilation or layout,” she says.
Housing deputy at Paris city hall Ian Brossat pledges to put in reforms in place “very soon.”
It took Albert Verdier 15 years to find a better home than the 6.5 square metres he occupied for 350 euros a month. The 56-year-old works two days a week at the canteen in the parliament building and the rest of the week as a security guard.
Now he can actually cook his own meals in his 19 square metres of living space — a palace in his eyes.
“When I first moved in here, I thought, ‘This can’t be. I must be dreaming’,” he smiled.
* Agence France-Presse