Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Tenants' Protest Against Rent Increases

On April 20, tenants from all over Warsaw protested in front of City Hall against dramatic rent increases. The increases, which come into effect as of May 1, will raise rents in municipal housing, often as high as 200-300%. The increases will effect over 100,000 families in Warsaw which live in public housing.

Tenant protests have been going on frequently over the last two months in this city. Some tenants are protesting against the reprivatization of public housing. In many cases, heirs of pre-war owners of property or other claimants have be awarded ownership of buildings with tenants, many who have live their all their lives. Many of these new owners begin to engage in typical slumlord behaviour, raising rents to extreme levels, cutting off heat and water to the tenants and trying to evict them. In the Prague district alone there are over 200 claims to such buildings and 40 buildings have been privatized. In a response to protests in Praga, the city proudly announced it is "doing something" by building new public housing - 39 new flats in Praga North. In the meanwhile, over 700 families are already waiting for housing and, as reprivatization is increasing, this number is growing rapidly.
A couple of street meetings in front of houses in Praga and two demos at City Hall have been organized by the Tenant's Defense Committee. The Warsaw Tenant's Association joined in organizing yesterday's protest, which was also supported by members of the Office of Social Justice, Union of Syndicalists and Left Alternative. Another protest will be held next Monday and on May Day, when the rent increase is set to take place. The Union of Syndicalists are calling for a Rent Strike but realizes that the level of organization of tenants is not high enough yet. Many tenants obviously will not be paying these news rents because they simply cannot afford them, but unless people make more efforts to organize themselves, people will be fighting isolated, individual battles against the city which will eventually move to evict many of them. The Tenant's Defense Committee is hoping that people will begin to take a more organized approach to the problem.

In the meanwhile, tenants, especially from the Praga district, are outraged by the rent hike. People in Praga point out that most public housing is in tragic condition. Most buildings do not have central heating and many even to do have hot water, bathrooms or toilets in the flats. In addition, there are many health and safety violations in the building and the dangerous incidents, including fires are on the increase.

The tenants complain that, despite the fact that they pay rent to their slumlords in the city, nothing is done to improve the condition of the buildings or even to maintain them. A recent order from the offices in charge of housing in Praga shows the attitude the city slumlords take towards the tenants. After two fires broke out in Warsaw and a tragic fire killed many people in another Polish city, the government ordered that the city control the situation in public housing and make sure there were no fire hazards in the buildings. In many old buildings in Praga, the attics and basements - even the buildings - are filled with old garbage of unknown origin. Notes were posted on buildings ordering tenants to clean the buildings - which not only is difficult without special equipment, but requires the renting of garbage containers. The city threatened that if they do not do so, they will hire a company to do it - and charge the tenants.

A resident of one building told us about the city's companies. Once the tenants in his building offered to make some repairs but petitioned the city to deduct the costs from their rent. They were quickly told that they couldn't do this and were offered the services of "the firm the city deals with" - whose prices turned out to be 300% above those of other firms on the market.

Members of the Warsaw Infoshop collective, who also are tenants of the city, also point out that City Hall has adopted outrageous rules for tenants of non-residential space which require them to pay the property tax on all space, despite the fact that they are the not the owners. The city has also decreed that the decision on this matter cannot be appealed to court, meaning that the local courts, acting in collusion with the municipal government, will not hear such cases.

Members of the Union of Syndicalists believe that since the city slumlords have no regard whatsoever for the state of public housing, they should be abolished immediately and all housing matters should be placed in the hands of the tenants. They point out that had the money wasted on the bureaucratic apparatus been invested in the maintainance and repair of the buildings, the houses would be in much better state. ZSP calls on people to spend the rent money on collective repair of the houses and to organize against the slumlords and against possible repression and eviction.

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