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Fighting Gentrification

Opublikowane 25/07/15 o godz.21:12 w kategorii English.
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Government forced to change draft bill on revitalization, but many problems ahead for tenants

kol1The Polish government plans are called „revitalization” and, officially, they claim that they have nothing to do with gentrification. In reality, the gentrification process has been underway in a number of urban areas for years, with thousands of families already displaced, made homeless or forced into overcrowded living conditions with friends or relatives.

The unpopular Civic Platform government, whose neo-liberal policies have affected many spheres of social life, is set to be unseated in fall elections and has been busy pushing through as many pieces of legislation as possible at record pace. One of them was the Act on Revitalization, passed this week.

Various liberal elements, caught up in the idea of „revitalization” as a positive thing, have been involved in pushing the program and trying to socialize it. But more often than not, this „social” element does not have as much to do with protecting the interests of the urban poor with lofty civic ideas such as „participation” or „social consultation”. Thus the neo-liberal gentrifiers have also their assistance from the „municipal movements” - an umbrella term put on a wide range of local social movements, which in reality can differ dramatically in aims.

The government is very quick to pander to those who want to „participate” and „consult” - but in reality they are just promoting an illusion. They are eager to accept ideas which do not upset the neo-liberal world order: artistic and community projects, things to make the areas under gentrification more attractive to certain people. But ideas which guarantee the rights of the poor – which is a huge segment of Polish society – are just „not feasible” or bad for business.

The draft bill of the Act on Revitalization thus starts with a lot of bull about „consultations” and even civic oversight. But seeing how the bill itself was „consulted” says a lot about reality. The law in Poland already says that such bills should be sent to organizations for „consultation”. And the government did send it to 68 organizations. Not one of them however was a tenants’ organization.

The government sent their draft bill to employers’ organizations, business lobbies, a few „muncipal organizations” and even to the Tri-Partite trade unions. With no reaction. Had tenant organizations been consulted, they would have immediately reacted to the horror beyond the bullshit. The government was proposing that when buildings have to be repaired and tenants cannot inhabit them at that time, they would have the right to terminate public housing contracts. Maybe they could get new ones later, if conditions were right. The bill also foresaw giving the right to mayors or city presidents to evict people without a court decision.

The fact that the government did not contact any tenants organizations, although the revitalization plans will have a serious impact on them, shows what all their declarations about „social consultations” are worth.

The bill went through the first reading in Parliament without any opposition. Even the opposition claimed to support it. This is when it was brought to our attention and we read the bill. It was sent for further work to a subcommission and we had only a few days to try and block it.

Another tenants’ organization turned out to be better informed and we saw that they objected to this, but the government refused to remove or ammend these points. Fortunately, we were able to find a number of irrefutable legal arguments to show how these points were inconsistent with the Act on Tenants Rights, the Civil Code and the Constitution. We also showed where their plans would cost them big money they’d have to pay to tenants. We carried out a blitzkreig postering and SMS campaign and around 2000 protests were sent in 2 days. We mailed our analysis to everybody in the government and even insisted on speaking at the Subcommission meeting in the Parliament. They gave us a rough time but we got in. They locked out a representative of another tenants’ organization.

We know that our arguments were rock solid but we were still surprised when the government representative announced that they would drop the idea of termination of contract from the bill. We were expecting to have to fight, but no doubt they knew we were right and that the whole thing could be torpedoed and delayed. As it happened, the Act was rushed past in a few days.

While we were happy about this and think it was the most we could accomplish on that day, in no way do we share the optimism of the „revitalizers”, who only think that the Act has gotten better.

The first thing is that a certain part of the „revitalizers” are in denial that gentrification is underway and that they themselves are part of the act. Statements in the press such as „we have to make sure there is revitalization but no gentrification” show just how far they are removed from the problem.

Some Characteristics of the Gentrification in Praga Neighbourhood in Warsaw

kol2The area is attractive because it lies on the river, just across from the Old Town. It is one area of Warsaw not totally destroyed in the war, with many pre-war buildings. Although these buildings were mostly left to deteriorate, many are landmarks and have potential for real estate speculation.

In 2009 the city raised rents on public housing 200-300%. The government and courts also started „reprivatizing” buildings at a much faster pace than before and divesting itself of public housing units.

Since there are very low wages, high hidden unemployment and insufficient social help, many tenants fell into debt. The city’s way of dealing with debt has lead to an epic problem. When any tenant falls behind the rent, the city terminates their rental agreement but usually allows them to continue living there, charging them double rent as a penalty. So, for example, somebody who had trouble paying 150 euros a month is suddenly charged 300 euros. Thus the debt grows twice as fast and is compounded by interest. Every week we meet people who have enormous debts. The city also puts the debt on other members of the family. We often meet teenagers who start their first job (earning 300 euros a month) only to find that the bailiff has sequestered part of the salary and the city plans to get 10,000 euros or even more from them. (We even saw last week a young woman who is being charged for her mother’s debt of 25,000 euros.)

If a debtor manages to get a better job, which would help him or her pay off the debt, they risk losing the right to any public housing. The debtors are in a no-win situation. If they continue earning little money, the will never pay off the debt. If they go out at manage to find a job at 500-600 euros a month, they might be able to start paying off but may be evicted without the right to any public housing. Rents on the private market start at about 300-400 euros per month.

6 years after the infamous rent hikes, 50% of all public housing tenants in Warsaw and 60% of all tenants in the Praga neighbourhood are in debt.

The majority of public housing debt, as we were able to show a few years ago, is caused by penalties imposed by the city.

If somebody does not pay their rent for 3 months, the city can terminate their rental agreement. Without a valid rental agreement, the city can bring a case to court to evict you.
But there are a lot of other reasons why the city can terminate your agreement. And we noticed that the city has been speeding up the terminations in the last few years. And seeing this, we know that the city will be able to throw a few hundred or maybe even a few thousand more people out of the public housing system. What the government wanted to do is to be able to terminate with even greater ease.

One of the common reasons to terminate an agreement in Praga is „repairing the apartment without the permission of the owner”. Now let’s see what this means in reality. Praga is a neighbourhood were public housing is concentrated in old buildings. 70% don’t have heat, 40% were without bathrooms. Toilet in the corridor. But in the last decades, hundreds of people have managed to build toilets or small showers in their kitchens at their own cost. Several people we know have had their rental agreement terminated because of building a toilet.

It is completely scandalous that the city has let thousands of families live without a toilet and has not bothered to deal with this situation. It is even more scandalous that people are being punished for taking matters into their own hand in face of this negligence.

Another common reason to terminate an agreement is that somebody lives in the flat without the agreement of the owner. For example, a person invites a girlfriend or boyfriend to live with them without thinking they need permission and they can lose their flat. It should be mentioned that we know situations where people have asked permission but have been turned down because the housing would be overcrowded. For example, we met a couple with a child who have been living together and decided to „legalize” the partner and child. When they did, the city claimed the house would be overcrowded. Since they revealed themselves to the city, they lost their rental agreement.

What has happened to all these flats from which people have been evicted? Hundreds of them (about 1500 in north and south Praga) are empty. For different reasons. First is that there may be reprivatization claims to them. If there are claims, the policy is not to give flats there. Second is that the city plans to renovate some of them and some of them will be made into more expensive housing. The rent will be about 250% higher than at present. These flats will be made by a public-private partnership and will go to people who earn more than public housing tenants.

Already before the „revitalization” money has been found for the repairs, we know two buildings whose tenants have been removed – one will eventually be for more expensive flats, the other for office buildings.

But of course one of the biggest problems that tenants have had to face is „reprivatization” of public housing. In theory, the reprivatization is to return housing which was taken over by the Bierut Decree after the war, when most of Warsaw was destroyed and there was a severe housing shortage. But in fact, the process has been fraught with corruption and mafia-like dealings, with many buildings ending up in the hands of a few well-placed people.

The city, courts and other institutions are involved in the scheme. For example, Warsaw has returned buildings and land which it has already paid compensation for decades ago. We have encouraged tenants of buildings undergoing reprivatization to request information from the Ministry of Finance asking whether they paid compensation for their building. The answer has always been that they don’t know because they „don’t have a list” of which building were paid for. But when this situation concerned the American Embassy, all of a sudden they were able to assert that the compensation was already paid. Shortly after this, a list was leaked and published. Dozens of buildings were „returned” when they had already been paid for.

But „returned” is the wrong word. There are some buildings which are actually returned to the children of some pre-war owner. But mostly a small group of speculators connected to people in power buy up claims.

One of the most notorious „collector of claims” is Marek Mossakowski, who once convinced an old woman that her claim was worthless and bought the „piece of paper” from her for 50 zloties (12 euros), eventually getting his hands on a building worth millions. Mossakowski bought the building of our friends and fellow activists, Jola and Ewa. Jola, who was a fighter and the last one last in her building was murdered – burnt alive in the woods. Ewa went to live in the woods and was sued by Mossakowski for her „debts”.

Despite the drastic stories of tenants unlucky enough to fall into the paws of Mossakowski, we can say that the city is even selling public housing units to him – units together with tenants. A group of tenants have decided to fight back. Mossakowski bought the claims for the land. (It’s complicated to explain how the Decree worked but there are some people who own the land, but not the buildings on them. In this case, the building was put up after the war and, like many, was built by the tenants themselves.) Since there is a building on it which the city is part-owner of (having sold some of the units to tenants), the logical thing to do, if there was a claim, would be to pay compensation for the land. But instead, they offered to sell the public housing units to the notorious landlord.

Such deals have happened all over Warsaw. In this way, the city has been depleting its public housing stock to the benefit of private owners. The city has even sold entire buildings which have no claims at all.

It has to be noted that they privatize housing together with tenants. In theory, part of the tenants, are entitled to get a new flat – but not all. It takes a long time. The last time we had any statistics from the city, only 2.5% of such tenants managed to get replacement housing. We think there has been an increase from that time, but only a fraction of affected tenants return to public housing units.

The result of all of this is that lower-income people in public housing have been losing their flats in the Praga district at an alarming rate. A large number of them refuse to go anywhere and fight their evictions or are waiting for more affordable options. They are currently in their flats „without permission” and without a valid contract.

When the government gets their first flow of co-financing from the European Union, the games will begin. Several buildings which currently stand alone among new investments for yuppies will probably be the first in line for total repair. The tenants will be moved.

As the press reports, a recent program like this in the city of Lodz has resulted in only 30% of the original tenants returning to their old homes. Lodz is seem by the government, liberal press and some municipal activists as the „model” program for revitalization.

Fighting Back

In the past years, a once vibrant tenant movement was weakened by politics. Several people were bought off and some people bought into the political system, insisting on talking endlessly with politicians instead of building a combative grassroots movement. Of the various groups that formed at this movement’s peak, only we have stayed on the grassroots strategy. Realizing that all this nonsense the government is offering is just a distraction and a way to fool people, we have a long road ahead of community self-organizing.

Ultimately, the „consultations” we are offered are useless. We need to speak from a position of community power and demand the right to make decisions ourselves – not to „consult” the decisions already made between the government and the private sector.

The fight must include the right to stay for all those who want it. The bourgeois want to divide us into „good tenants” and „bad tenants”. The „bad tenants” are the ones too poor to pay, with huge debts, some of them created out of the bad will of bureaucrats. The strategy of the bourgeois is to get tenants against each other so that they will not fight for each other and will be easily conquered.

Fighting back will be a difficult process. There is some local base after years of work and, despite the best efforts of the neoliberals and the distracting options of „municipal activists”, advocates of running in elections, etc. etc., most people see through the bullshit. But years of being harrassed by housing bureaucrats has worn down people’s confidence.

Prominent municipal activists are telling stories of the great revitalization efforts in Berlin or Leipzig and building dreams in the hipsters minds. In the meanwhile, local residents lose sleep over their precarious future.

The Tenants Defense Committee invites support from organizations around the world which have fought or are fighting against gentrification.

Contact: obronalokatorow@gmail.com

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