Tuesday 14 September 2010

ZSP Starts Rent Strike Action

ZSP Warsaw is calling for a rent strike starting on Oct. 1. The strike is meant as a protest against the housing policy of the city and against serious problems with the reprivatization process in Poland. It is meant as a means of radicalizing tenants' protest, which the local politicians try to ignore. It aims to bring together tenants who face eviction or live in dangerous and substandard housing to organize for their own mutual self-defense. The strike will be accompanied by public meetings, assemblies and hopefully the creation of neighbourhood committees.

A brief description of some of the most pressing problems of Warsaw tenants:
- In April 2009, rents were raised up to 300% in some Warsaw neighbourhoods. Local politicians, at the time, claimed that this was necessary in order to repair houses which are in a tragic state. Unfortunately, when it was time to submit the city budget for 2010, it turned out that this money was earmarked, among other things, for bonuses for politicians. Only consistent protest led to part of this money being returned, and then only in the Praga district.

- The income criteria for receiving public housing is far too low and is not based on reality. In some countries, criteria are based on indicators such as the average cost of housing in the city. As the Tenants' Defense Committee pointed out in inquiries and statements to the President of the City of Warsaw, rental of one-room flats in Warsaw on the commerical market start at about 450 euros per month and the only housing which could be cheaper is the illegal subletting of municipal flats. Yet people with incomes over 300 euros per month are not eligible for public housing.

- The city of Warsaw, in its housing policy until 2012, plans on reducing the number of municipally owned and run flats.

- Since the city does not repair its public housing, thousands are forced to live in substandard conditions, including: lack of heat; lack of private toilets / bathrooms; fungus problems; living in buildings which may collapse; severe overcrowding; living in buildings where there are fire hazards and threat of explosion (faulty gas installations and homemade heat installations). When the city does react, it is usually to resettle people from these houses. People are forced out of their communities and people who had some problems with paying rent in the past are moved into worse "social housing", which might even be a container.

- When repairs are done, tender contracts are usually awarded to the same companies connected in some way to the public housing mafia. The Tenants Defense Committee has documented many cases of repairs done at artificially inflated costs or not done at all, but charged to the city.

- Tens of thousands have been affected by the reprivatization process. The city does not consider tenants to have the right to be informed about claims on their buildings, does not provide them information on the process or even the names of the new owners of the building. (The Tenants' Defense Committee helps people obtain this data.) Many claims turn out to be fraudulent but the law considers that once a property is resold, it cannot overturn the sale based on fraudulent acquisition of the property to begin with. Tenants in reprivatized houses often become the victims of slumlords who illegally raise their rents many times above the permitted level and who use tactics such as cutting off heat or water to get people out. The legal system does not protect people against these things in practice. Many tenants cannot afford the new rents and become debtors, subject to eviction. The city does not automatically supply replacement municipal housing.

There are many other problems. A shortened version of the Tenants' Defense
Committee's report to the City of Warsaw can be found here in Polish.

It is clear that the city has, for years, been collecting rent from tenants but refuses to invest this money in either the maintainance of buildings or the construction of new public housing. Local politicians have been diverting money from public housing and allocating less and less for this purpose. Tenants do not have any influence in this matter - unless they protest and hold these politicians accountable.

ZSP thinks that even this is not enough. Public housing belongs under popular control, which will prove more efficient and beneficial than spending countless hours trying to track down, expose and correct the fraud committed by the local housing authorities, real estate speculators and reprivatizers and local politicians on a daily basis.

Thousands of people in Warsaw currently face eviction because they are not able to pay their rent. Some are unable, but some are simply protesting against things like illegal rent hikes or fraudulent reprivatizations. The rent strike is a way for people to articulate their protest and stop being nameless individuals lumped into the category of "debtor". It is also a way for people to see this problem in a political context.

Until now, debtors or potential debtors have faced their problems in isolation. We would like people to see that their problem is common and understand their position as an affected class, with a view towards organizing for mutual self-defense against eviction, slumlords and fraudulent privatization.

Banners are appearing on buildings and public places around Warsaw and posters and propaganda material on the streets and in the houses. (On the photo, banner reading: "Evict the public officials before they evict you".) Some protests and neighbourhood meetings will kick off this action at the beginning of October.
Updated information will appear on the page of the campaign (in Polish)